Why the haters won’t win
I was hurrying to get to the bus stop on my way to work recently and as I started to cross a side street I was surprised at something I saw on the other side. It looked like someone had planted a bunch of new bushes along a construction fence. This new line of freshly planted greenery was on the exact spot that only a month or so before a hedge had been removed. Clearly the bushes were going to be in the way when workers needed to start demolition work. I had been sad to see them go, as I’ve been walking past that line of bushes for many years. It made no sense to plant new ones now, because they haven’t even begun to tear down the old buildings yet, let alone start the new construction. Why would anyone start planting new landscaping now?
I crossed the street and only when I got closer did I realize what I was actually looking at. They had cut down the old line of bushes, yes. But the roots were still there in the soil. And it was spring time and there was ample sun and rain, so new growth was vigorously re-asserting itself.
I was nearly past the bushes before I decided to stop and take a couple of pictures. Looking down at all that bright green new growth bushing out around the stumps, I couldn’t help think about how tenacious life is. Cut something down, and it will grow back.
It’s hardly an original metaphor, I know. But it’s a process I’ve lived through and witnessed more times than I can count. I was a teen-ager in 1977 when Anita Bryant led her first campaign to repeal an ordinance that would protect people from being fired or denied housing because of their sexual orientation. And when he supporters passed a law banning gays and lesbians from adopting or being foster parents. We weren’t even a decade past Stonewall, and getting a few anti-discrimination ordinances passed in some of the most liberal cities hadn’t been great progress, but it had seemed people were starting to come around. Then this happened.
As Bryant led successful campaigns in city after city to repeal those ordinances, it looked pretty grim. But queers and their supporters didn’t give up. People laughed when they found out that gay bars were boycotting orange juice (Anita Bryant’s primary source of income at the time came from making commercials for the Florida Orange Grower’s Assocation). Gay bars and restaurants removes screwdrivers from their menus and added a new drink called an Anita Bryant: vodka and apple juice. Reporters chuckled on air as they explained the boycott on local evening TV shows. Newspapers ran cartoons mocking the sissies for thinking that some cocktails would change anything.
But all the mocking put the information in front of people. And a surprising thing happened. Orange juice sales were hurt. People wrote to the Florida Orange Growers Association to protest their support of these anti-gay campaigns. The Association hadn’t been supporting Bryant’s campaign, but all that mocking coverage of the silly faggots and their boycott made people think they were. Not just silly faggots who brunched together and gossiped over cocktails.
And it put the issue of gay rights in the news in a different way than anyone had seen it before. Certainly I, as a seventeen-year-old living in a small town, had never been to a brunch with a bunch of queers, and I wouldn’t have known that there were actually places where the law might protect a queer person from some kinds of persecution. And the rhetoric of the anti-gay forces made a lot of people that you would never expect stand up for gay rights.
The result was that all over the country, queers and their allies formed new organizations to fight the anti-gay initiatives and referendums, and those organizations kept fighting. And people like me realized that they weren’t alone. There were people out there like us. There were people out there who wouldn’t hate us if we came out.
Unfortunately, we were then hit by the AIDS epidemic. It’s really hard to explain just how horrific that was to folks who didn’t live through it. As I pointed out in response to an online conversation a few months back, it was not simply that most gay people knew one or two people who died. It felt like everyone was dying. There were weeks when my (now late) partner Ray and I had to decide which of several funerals or memorial services happening on the same day we would be able to attend.
But even as we were dying, we fought back. We banded together into new groups like Act Up and Queer Nation and Q Patrol and many others. We banded together to take care of each other while White House press secretaries and reporters openly laughed and made jokes about our deaths. We buried our dead and we mourned and we got right back out on the streets and marched and demanded to be seen.
And the haters ran their anti-gay campaigns again. Initiatives to forbid gay and lesbian people to work in certain fields. Laws to criminalize our terminal illness (sadly still on the books in many states). Proposals to quarantine us in “medical camps.” Laws to ban us from adopting. Laws to ban us from putting partners on our insurance policies.
For every fight we lost, it just made us more determined. Like that hedge, you can cut us down, but our roots go deep. We come back, stronger, brighter, more determined to win the next battle. And every fight we won, when the opposition said, “Okay, fine, you can have those crumbs. Now be quiet!” we refused to go away.
Joe Jervis, who runs the Joe.My.God web site, every year explains why he thinks the Pride Parade is important, which he sums up by quoting the old Jewish joke about the true meaning of every Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” Joe then gives his Gay version of the meaning of Gay Pride: “They wish we were invisible. We aren’t. Let’s dance!”
Care to join me?