Statistics are seldom simple — or, a queer survivor unpacks survival, visibility, and feeling safe to be out
Last week I posted this story in the Friday Five: 5.6% of American adults say they are LGBTQ. Over half identify as bisexual – The number of LGBTQ Americans coming out and claiming their identity just keeps growing. Digging beyond the headline, a lot of people focused on the generational chart (pictured above): Millennials (folks born between 1981 and 1996) are about four-and-a-half times more likely to identify as queer than Boomers (folks born between 1946-1964), while Gen-Z (folks born after 1996) are nearly eight times more likely than Boomers to identify as something other than heterosexual.
The story was published early in the week and I kept seeing various hot takes on the results. I was a little surprised at just how many people were willing to leap to the conclusion that younger people are only saying that they are queer to be cool.This ignores several facts that would disproportionately reduce the number of queer people in those less-young generations responding to this survey. Not the least of which is that many of them are literally not alive to respond. Twitter user @mike_i_guess sums up much of what I’d like to say on the matter, though I would use the term “contemporaries” rather than peers:
“The lack of boomer LGBTQ+ people isn’t because it’s ‘more popular now.’ Many were murdered by they peers, died from government inaction during the AIDS crisis, committed suicide due to lack of social supports, or have had to live in the closet due to their peers’ cruelty.”
I want to unpack that a bit. We don’t really have statistics on hate crimes before the passage of the federal Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990, and even then crimes against trans people (or those perceived to be trans) weren’t counted until the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2010 was signed into law. But queer people have been subject to bashings and murder for decades. The longer one lives, the more opportunities there are to fall victim to such crime.
It’s been known for a long time that queer people, particularly queer children and teens, are far more likely to attempt suicide than their straight contemporaries, and the statistical analysis is that the disparity is entirely due to the stress of homophobic abuse and related issues. Preliminary studies show a slight decrease in those numbers for teens and children since about 2012, as growing acceptance of queer adults in society has given more of them hope of a happy future.
Then there are health care issues. Numerous studies show that queer people are more likely to experience interruptions in health care coverage, are less likely to be forthcoming with their health care providers, and less likely to receive the same quality of health care as their straight contemporaries. It’s a complicated result of both systemic and direct homophobia. Lots of people operate under the mistaken notions that bigotry only exists in a small number of people who actively hate others because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, et cetera, but it’s a lot more subtle than that.
For instance, let’s talk about the bit about interruptions in health care coverage. For years in the U.S. one’s health insurance (if you have it) is provided by your employer. Most people don’t get to choose their coverage, they have to take what’s offered by their employer. Which means if you get laid off or otherwise lose your job, your health coverage goes away. Queer people are disproportionately likely to be let go when a Reduction In Force hits a workplace. They are also less likely to get promotions and more likely to earn less than their straight co-workers who received similar job performance reviews and have similar experience. This is not because most managers are actively homophobic. It is a combination of a lot of unconscious processes.
For example, if a queer person doesn’t feel safe being out in the workplace, they will police themselves constantly to make sure they don’t let telling details of their personal life slip. While straight co-workers will be sharing stories about things they did with the children over the weekend, or a project they worked on with their spouse, or even issues with an ex-spouse or in-laws they don’t get along with, the closeted co-worker remains mum. The closeted working can’t talk about their partner freely or in detail. So they limit themselves to very vague generalities are just politely comment on the other person’s remarks. This is perceived as being unfriendly. Not sharing personal details after another person shares some of theirs is considered anti-social. So the closeted queer employee is perceived as being less of a team player, aloof, and so forth. This has a deleterious effect on every aspect of employment, including as mentioned above an increased likelihood of being one of the people let go if there are lay-offs.
Even more dangerous is the tendency of some health care professionals not to take as seriously symptoms reported by a queer person. I have a very personal example of this. In the very early 1990s I had a series of weird health events. It took over a year for my doctor and two specialists to figure out what the underlying problem was. Before that diagnosis, I had a number of incidents that required me going to an emergency room.
One time, I had been unable to keep any food down. Soon I was running a fever and it reach the point that even trying to sip plain wanter sent me running to the bathroom and left me curled up with horrible pain in my stomach after I threw up the water. Eventually, Ray (my now late-husband) convinced me to let him take me to the hospital.
We had one bit of good luck. As we were checking in, a nurse who just happened to be coming to the front to give the admin person some information related to another patient, noticed how bad I looked. She asked a couple of questions, then pinched my forearm, before telling the admin person, “He’s extremely dehydrated and need to be put on an IV right away.”
I was whisked off, put on an IV, had my vitals taken. Not long after another nurse came in and drew a bunch of blood, asked questions, and finished filling out the admission form. Some time later the initial nurse dropped by to say her shift was ending, but before she left she wanted to see for herself if the fluids they were pumping into me were helping. My fever was down, I felt a lot better, and apparently I looked a lot better.
Then we just waited. I don’t know how long I laid there. Ray got very impatient and went to ask when someone was going to check on us. I think I was on my third unit of fluid at that point. A doctor showed up, asked a bunch of questions, checked a few things, and told us they were still waiting for a couple of the blood tests to come in. Some time after that the doctor reappeared, alone with a nurse who changed out the fluid bag again. The doctor explained that the blood tests were inconclusive, but he suspected I had a rare form of ulcer that his caused by a particular kind of infection of the stomach lining, so he was prescribing some pills that would help with that. He said that as soon as I was rehydrated enough that I had to go to the bathroom, I’d been discharged. I should keep taking the pills for the rest of the weekend (it was a Saturday night), and see my regular doctor on Monday.
I fell asleep on the drive home. And pretty much slept through all of Sunday. I was able to keep broth, plain water, and tea down, so I thought the pills were helping.
The next morning, I left a message with my boss saying I was sick and hoping to see my doctor that day. I had just hung up and was going to look up my doctor’s phone number when the doctor’s office called us. They’d gotten the information from the hospital and my regular doctor was not happy. They wanted me to come right away, bring all of the paperwork the hospital had given me, “And if you haven’t taken any of those pills today, don’t take any more!”
My doctor wasn’t just unhappy, he was royally pissed. The pills I had been given had nothing to do with ulcers or infections of any kind. They were tranquilizers. Among the notes from the ER doctor was the phrase, “Gay male patient claims he doesn’t have AIDS.” His diagnosis was that I was probably just overreacting to “unremarkable symptoms.”
My doctor wanted to know why I had gone to that hospital instead of one that was much closer to my home (where he happened to be a resident, and would have been called as soon as I was admitted, instead of him finding it out when they pulled faxes off the machine Monday morning). I explained that my employer had recently changed our insurance plan and there was exactly one ER in the city that was considered in network. He explained that the particular hospital I had gone to had a number of doctors like this one guy who 1) assumed every gay male patient was infected with the virus that causes AIDS, and 2) there isn’t anything you can do for AIDS patients, anyway, so don’t waste a lot of time on them.
The blood tests that came back before they admitted me clearly indicated that in addition to the fever and other symptoms I did have some kind of serious infection. But the medicine prescribed wouldn’t treat any infections. Tests results that had come back after they let me go gave my doctor a good guess as to what kind of infection I did have, and he prescribed something that actually would work against. Then my doctor walked me through the process of filing a formal complaint. Which he was also doing.
The upshot was that I received a partial refund from the hospital of my out-of-pocket for the ER visit. My doctor pried a letter out of my insurance company saying that the hospital close to my house would be covered as in-network. But just to be sure, my doctor also got a letter from that hospital saying that if my insurance billed me as out-of-network they would cover the cost of the difference in out-of-pocket.
The initial incident happened in the city of Seattle, which most people think of as an extremely liberal city where virtually no one is homophobic. I was lucky that I had as my primary physician a guy who was ready to fight for his patients. Who know what would have happened if I hadn’t had him in my corner? And the doctor who sent me home with tranquilizers was simply appalled that anyone would think that he had allowed any sort of prejudice guide his decision to lie to me about his diagnosis and send me home with medicine that would just make sure I was too sleepy to do anything for a few days.
I bet to this day he would swear that he doesn’t have a homophobic bone in his body. Homophobia isn’t limited to people scream slurs while they beat you.The takeaway: for many reasons queers are less likely to get consistent, quality health care. They are disproportionately less likely to experience good health care outcomes. Therefore, more likely to die younger than their straight contemporaries. And that doesn’t even include the hundreds of thousands of queer men in the U.S. who died starting in 1979 due to the AIDS epidemic (which is still ongoing, but the availability of multi-drug anti-viral cocktails beginning in the mid-1990s have met it is no long a death sentence, even though there is still no cure).
Then there is the phenomenon of people so deeply afraid of being outed that even on an anonymous survey they will not identify as anything other than straight. Any reasonably friendly out gay man who has ever logged into a hookup app, a gay chat site, or similar forum will have many stories of getting hit up on by men who are married to women (usually with kids), and desperately want to have sex with other men, but only if you can be discreet and guarantee that no one will ever know. If you can get them to talk about it, they will admit that they have wanted to have sex with other men since they were teens (or even earlier), but have always been afraid to be out, and they are convinced that their lives will end if their wife and family ever found out they were anything but 100 percent straight.
I remember one particularly heart-wrenching conversation with a guy who felt he was super lucky precisely because his first (and only) child was a son, so that his super conservative and religious parents and in-laws were all happy, and he was able to just stop having sex with his wife at all after the arrival of the first baby. And significantly, his wife was perfectly happy that he supposedly hadn’t been interested in sex at all for the next about 30 years (at the time I talked to him). He had been having lots and lots and lots of sex for all those years—it was just furtive, downlow sex with other men. And I have little doubt that if he happened to be surveyed by Gallup, that without hesitation he would describe himself as straight
Now while I have met a few younger men like him, the vast majority of these downlow closet cases I run into online now are middle aged or older.
It’s more accurate to conclude from Gallup’s generational information that younger people currently feel less fear to admit their orientation. We hope that, going forward, they will also experience fewer of the issues that have caused earlier generations of queers to die before their time.
I’ve written more than once before about how who owe a huge debt to the people who stood up and fought back that night, 51 years ago, at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Most of the legal rights that LGBTQ+ people have in the U.S. today is thanks to those Black and Puerto Rican queens who fought back, threw bricks, and so forth when the cops raided that bar.
Miss Marsha P. Johnson (which is how she identified herself whenever asked), was impossible to ignore—always appearing in public wearing a flowered hat and flamboyant dresses. Once when appearing in court on a disorderly conduct charge, after the judge asked her what the middle initial P stood for replied airily, “Pay it no mind!” Some early accounts of the Stonewall Riots said she was the one who threw the first brick or the first shot glass at a cop. In interviews she would admit that she threw several things at cops that night, but wasn’t certain she was the first person to throw anything. After the riots, she was one of the founding members of the Gay Liberation Front, and also co-founded the gay and transvestite advocacy organization S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), alongside close friend Sylvia Rivera. A note here about terminology: at the time several terms that would he considered slurs by transgender and gender nonconforming people today were commonly used within those self same communities. At different times Marsha identified herself as a street queen, a drag queen, and a transvestite. But she also always insisted on female pronouns and consistently introduced herself as Miss Marsha. Which is why most of us refer to her as trans.
Silvia Rivera was only 17 and living as a self-described drag queen at the time of the Stonewall Riots. Most historians (and her friend Miss Marsha P. Johnson) agree that she wasn’t at the Stonewall Inn the night of the raid, being at a party at another location that night. Her whole life she asserted that she had been there. And there were others who agreed and said she was the person who threw the first brick at a cop car. She certainly joined the protests and rioting that continued the following nights, and later founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.) along with Johnson. She was also a member of the Gay Activists Alliance. In a speech she gave at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally (what they called the annual event commemorating the riots for the first several years), she espoused a definition a belief that people such as herself belonged to a third gender.
Stormé DeLarverie was often described as a butch lesbian. Before Stonewall, she had been part of a touring theatre troupe which, among other things, performed a number called, “Who is the one girl?” and audience members seldom guessed correctly that the tall latino “guy” in a tailored suit wearing a false mustache was the one woman in the dance number. She was one of several who resisted arrest the night of the Stonewall police raid. Many witnesses claimed she was the woman who broke loose from the cops before being loaded into one of the waiting paddy wagons several times, to run, get caught, and dragged back through the crowd, each time making the crowd more angry at the cops. Of the events at Stonewall that night, DeLarverie always argued that it should not have been called a riot: “It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience – it wasn’t no damn riot.” She remained active in many gay rights groups and activities in the years after Stonewall, but was most often remembered as the self-appointed guardian of lesbians who patrolled the neighborhood at night with her baseball bat to drive off bashers.
Raymond Castro was another Veteran of Stonewall. Because we was not dressed in gender nonconforming clothes, he was not arrested, and was told he could leave. When he realized a friend was being arrested, he went back inside to try to help the friend. This got him arrested and put in handcuffs. He struggled with the cops, managing to knock a couple of them down. This seemed to encourage several other people nearby to start struggling. One of the officers that eventually wrestled him into the truck commented that he was “some kind of animal.” Castro was active in several gay rights organizations in the years after Stonewall.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy was at the Stonewall Inn with her girlfriend the night of the police raid. She was one of several to fight back. Unfortunately she was struck unconscious during the fight and was taken into custody. Miss Major has been active in a lot of transgender right organizations, civil rights organizations, and in the 80s became active in multiple HIV/AIDS organizations. She was the original Executive Director of the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, which advocates for the rights of incarcerated trans and nonbinary people. And Miss Major is still alive today, still fighting! Her Instragram account shows her at a Black Lives Matter protest earlier this week. She suffered a stroke last year and has a lot of medical expenses, which you can help with by donating here Miss Major’s Monthly Fundraising Circle.
Last weekend we watched part of the Parade before slipping into the Pride Festival. I took a lot of pictures, but most of them aren’t that interesting in retrospect. I was usually trying to get a picture or a cool costume or a neat t-shirt, et cetera. Because I’m vertically challenged and we were trying to keep me in the shade, while I could see the parade, I was doing a lot of looking between people’s heads, which makes it difficult to get good pictures.Because we walked to the Parade route from the Locus Awards Hotel, where ever we wind up watching the Parade will be close to the end of the route. We’ve previously found spots that were far enough from the end that we only had to see and hear the God Hates Fags people for a short time, as they usually walk down the length of the route before the official start of the parade, with a police escort. I’ve written before about why I think this is wrong, so won’t go into it here.
This year, we were much closer to the end, and it turns out that when the haters get to that point, they leave the route and assemble near the places where police have set up to maintain roadblocks and such. And they keep spouting their hate over megaphones for a long, long time. And have all their hateful signs.
Here’s where I repeat that I believe in free speech and the right of people to protest. But I believe in treating each other with respect, believe that science and demonstrable fact trump groundless claims and disprovable convictions (no matter how sincere). I also despise hypocrisy and misattribution. So, while I think they have a right to counter-protest the parade, I also believe that shouting hate and disinformation into a megaphone in a public space is barbaric and unproductive behavior.And it is misinformation. They had multiple megaphones but took turns (I’m presuming because of battery issues and to give vocal cords a rest?). two of the guys kept claiming that Jesus said that all “you homos and lesbos and trannies and other faggots” were going to burn in the lake of fire. “You will spend eternity in Hell, you workers of iniquity!” And that is fundamentally a lie. It’s multiple lies. First, Jesus never once said a single word about homosexuality. Comb through the gospels as much as you like, and you will find not a single mention. Second, the only time he talked about people going to eternal punishment, he was talking about people who claimed to be Christian but didn’t follow his teaching (Matthew 25:42-46). And the phrase “workers of iniquity” is from a passage where Jesus was talking about people who preach falsely in his name (Matthew 7:21-23). Fortunately, someone showed up dressed as Jesus with a counter-sign. I have to really zoom in to one of the pictures I took trying to catch him.
The Satanic Church showed up with pro-gay signs, to surround the main group of anti-gay folks and block their signs. That seemed to drive most of them off, leaving one guy with a sign and megaphone. I will say that he tried to talk more calmly and didn’t just hurl slurs at people. But at one point the last anti-gay protestor was surrounded by the Satanic Church people and a bunch of folks wearing the trans flag as a cape, and they had parasols they were holding up so no one could see his sign. Even he eventually gave up and walked away.The festival was fun. I like seeing all the different kinds of us that are there. Between us, we each found a t-shirt at one of the booths we wanted to buy, but they didn’t have the one Michael wanted in his size. Michael found two variants of Pride flags that I didn’t have, so we grabbed those. It was wonderful seeing a bunch of women wearing “Free Mom Hugs” t-shirts. Then at one point I was sitting somewhere resting (and taking pictures) while he went looking for some lemonade. He came back and asked me if I knew there was a queer gamers/comics fan mini con in the pavilion. There, inside an air conditioned space were two publishers that specialize in queer comics and related books, plus gaming companies, some artists, and a bunch of arcade style games. One of the publishers, Northwest Press, is a company I frequently buy stuff from at Geek Girl Con, so I was on the mailing list, and only after we went in did I remember that I had seen an email from them with a subject line about looking for them at Pride.
It was a good day. I got to see and applaud some cool Parade entries. I got to smile and say “Happy Pride” to a huge number of complete strangers. And contrary to what the guys with the megaphones were shouting at us, the main reason we’re at Pride isn’t to revel in our supposed sins, it is to celebrate the fact that we’re alive and thriving despite the efforts of the haters. To paraphrase the meme I shared earlier: it isn’t about who we have sex with, it’s about the fact that we have survived the taunting and gaslighting and yelling and bashing and shaming. We’re celebrating the fact that we’re tough enough to walk out in public with our true selves fully on display. And that’s why the most of the crowd kept laughing at the haters and the nonsense they spewed on their portable sound systems. We’ve spent years surviving far worse than what they can dish out in a single afternoon, and we’re realized that we are strong enough to stand on our own feet, while all they have is hot air.
And here’s something to think about the next time you see those haters. A blogger who goes by Riot Grrl Dyke was once a child of those haters who was taken to Pride by her parents to try to confront the sinners. RiotGrrlDyke has this to say about Pride:
I’ll never forget my first pride.
I can’t remember my actual age, but it was in the range of 10 to 13 I think. my parents had dragged me to a Pride festival, and walked across the street from the main event, across where the lines were drawn, to where a sea of people in red shirts that read “god has a better way” tried to drown out the celebration with speakers blasting christian music, and shouting and loud praying.
the leaders pulled all us kids to the side and gave us the spiel. they told us how the rainbow had been stolen from us, and that these people were tricked by the devil and just needed prayer, but that if we didn’t save them, they were going to hell.
I rolled my eyes because I already didn’t believe in god, and although I barely knew what being gay was, I knew my parents were usually on the Wrong side of things, and I shouldn’t be siding with them.
“We aren’t allowed over there if we’re wearing the red shirts,” the leaders told us, “so we’re sending people over in secret without them so you can pass out tracts and pray for people. they won’t talk to us, but they’ll talk to the kids. does anyone want to volunteer?”
the people in red shirts disgusted me. the people on the other side of the line were cheering and having fun. I raised my hand.
we were supposed to go in groups with young adults, to make sure we were doing what we were supposed to be. I wandered off the minute I could and stood nervously at the edge of a crowd, watching on as people went by, happy and unbothered by the protests across the street. I felt a little pride myself in tricking the protestors into giving up a witness spot to me, when I was going to smile on and think profanities at god instead.
there was an older woman standing outside the crowd too. she asked if I was here with anyone, a girlfriend maybe? I said no, my parents were across the street. she nodded, and said she was here with her kid. a daughter, that she came to support, but couldn’t keep up with in the crowd.
I almost cried. I told her how amazing that was, because I couldn’t imagine my mother showing support like that to me over anything, much less something as serious as Being Gay. I imagined if I was gay, and at a pride event just like now, but this time because I Belong.
I knew automatically that my mother, without a doubt, would still be in the same place, across the street.
I got hungry after a bit, and tried to find a good food truck. I had a little money and I was unused to being on my own like this, but I didn’t want to go back to the Other Side. I knew now without a shadow of a doubt, this was the Good side and that was the Bad side.
as I was eating the gyro I got, there was a stream of red shirted protestors trickling through; I had reached the end of the boundaries, and the protestors were allowed in here. I backed up a little, spotting my dad among them. I didn’t want him to tell me to go back.
there was a line of women closing ranks around the Pride attendees, separating them from the protesters as they walked through. they spread their arms out and told every person the protesters spoke to that they were not obligated to respond, they could walk away and not engage.
my dad spotted me back, and made a beeline over. he couldn’t cross over because a butch lesbian stood between us. I didn’t know what those words meant, but I never forgot the buttons she was wearing.
he tried to tell me that it was time to go. “you’re not obligated to speak to him,” the butch said, cutting him off and edging further between us. I smiled at her, a little in wonderment. no one had ever told me that I didn’t have to speak to my parents, or do anything other than blindly obey them. I watched my dad get held behind a line by a woman half his height, with no intention on letting him get to me, and I smiled and walked away.
I didn’t have a clue who I was then, and I wouldn’t for a good few years to come. but I never forgot the supportive mother, who symbolized to me everything a mother should be, that mine, for all her religious self righteousness, would never hold a candle to. I never forgot that she was the person I wanted to be, and my mother was the person I did not want to be.
I never forgot the butch who stood between me and my dad, and for the first time ever, put the idea in my head that I was ALLOWED to make my own choices in my beliefs, and made me feel protected in a way I hadn’t known I needed.
the image of her standing between me and my dad, being a physical barrier to protect me against any potential threat, that inspired the image of who I admired and wanted to become. it inspired the version of me who could stand up to my dad – to the point that I could hold my ground and educate him enough that over a decade later, he walked side by side with me at a pride festival, with no intent of witnessing to or condemning anybody.
pride month may be over, but the impact this month and these events can have is so damn important. I became who I am because of two people I met at a pride festival. I’ll never forget.
By “we” I don’t mean to imply that I was actually at the Stonewall Inn on that fateful night, or for several nights after where the street queens and homeless gay teens and butch lesbians and angry sissies kept coming back out on the streets and demanded their right to exist. I was 8 years old living in a small town in Colorado (and if I recall correctly crushing hard on Robert Conrad as Secret Service agent James West). I wouldn’t even hear about the events of the summer until more than ten years later. But that summer the people who were standing up to the police and demanding the simple right to be out in public without being harassed, weren’t the quiet ones. That wasn’t entirely their choosing. Heroes of the time such as Marsha P Johnson or Silvia Rivera were exactly the sort of gender non-conforming queer who had spent their entire lives being literally unable to hide. When the police raided that night, they took their usual tack of grabbing the people who looked least “normal” to single out for a beating and arrest.Their only crime was being at a bar and being obviously queer-looking and/or queer-acting. Just for some context: it wouldn’t be until 1973 that a court would rule as unconstitutional laws banning people from wearing clothing “typical of the opposite sex” (which included women wearing pants). The police had a lot of leeway in deciding what constituted not dressing in clothes appropriate to one’s gender. And that’s how these raids would go. Cops would surround the bar, then come in, turn on the lights, order everyone to line up and produce their identification. Anyone who was “cross dressing” would be arrested (and usually get roughed up on the way). It was not uncommon for male cops to grope the butchest lesbians while making lewd remarks to try to get them to react, so they could be arrested for resisting.
Ultimately, the cops and other authorities were targeting people who were different.
There had been raids before, but almost never before had the crowd turned on the police. Normally everyone who could run away did, and those who couldn’t tried not to be the few who would get beaten. But that night, the patrons decided not to cooperate, and things went downhill rather fast.
Again, no one, including many of the people who actually were there, knows why the crowd reacted differently that night. Just as no one knows for certain why the police were raiding the Stonewall Inn that night. The leading theory is that the mafia-connected owners of the Inn were suspected of making more money than they admitted to from blackmailing well-to-do customers, and were therefore not bribing the cops and liquor inspectors as much as they should have been. But because all of that was highly illegal, we’ll never know. The riots went on for several nights. Then, in the weeks afterward, several of the people that had been there formed politcal groups to fight for queer rights: The Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaires and the Gay Liberation Front.
Let’s pause here to talk a bit about terminology. Transgender, transvestite, and cross-dressing were terms that at that time were used inter-changeably by people within the community, even though today it’s considered offensive to act as if those terms refer to the same thing. There is still some controversy about which of the street queens should be considered transgender, for instance. It’s an argument I don’t want to get into right now.
And it’s really beside the point. The people who were at the forefront of the Stonewall Riots, and who organized the first new gay rights afterwards were mostly trans (or otherwise genderfluid/non-conforming) people of color. It was the most marginalized who led the way.I’m not trans, myself, but from a very early age I was called “sissy,” “pussy,” “faggot” and worse (by members of my own family and teachers, no less). I was four years old the first time that my dad angrily beat me while calling me, among other words that I didn’t know the meaning of, “cocksucker.” And at four I didn’t know what a drag queen was, let alone a gay or lesbian person. I wasn’t intentionally acting whatever way it was that made that the go-to insult to throw at me. I didn’t mean to be the kind of boy that caused teachers to tell my parents later, after one of the most severe bullying incidents at school, “As long as he walks like that and talks like that, how else do you expect the other boys to react?”
Whichever of my mannerisms trigger people’s gaydar, they’re not under my control. I tried so hard to act like the other boys and not get noticed. Yet, again and again I failed. So it’s both ignorant and unfair to say that the people who got targeted by cops in those raids could have prevented it if they just stopped flaunting things. Long before Marsha P Johnson wore her first outrageous flowered hat out in public, as a little boy growing up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, she had been beaten and bullied. There came a point when she decided to stop hiding who and what she was and embrace it.
Similarly, it’s both ignorant and unfair to say that people shouldn’t dress outrageously or otherwise let their freak flag fly at Pride. The only reason that so-called “straight-acting” gays have found it safe to come out at all (whether it be former NFL players or rugby players or button-down executives) is because the “queens and trannies and freaks” of previous generations decided to stand up and fight back. I’m not saying it is easy for anyone to come out, but many of the community didn’t have a choice about whether people knew—the only choice they had was whether to let themselves be beat down, or to fight back and be proud of who they were.So embrace the fairies, the leather daddies, the cycle mamas, the butches, the fems, the sissies, the nellies, the drag kings, the street queens, the gym bunnies, the queer nerds, the bis, the pans, the aces—every gender, every race, every freaky and fabulous corner of the big wild Queer Community. The old Isaac Newton quote is that he could only see further than others because he stood on the shoulders of giants. We’re only able to be here and see a bright future because we’re standing on the shoulders of those fabulous freaks. And as someone else once observed, if you think someone is normal, you just don’t know them well enough.
We’re all queer! We all belong here! Let’s march into a brighter future together!
Growing up in Southern Baptist churches in mostly redneck communities, I knew from a very early age that I didn’t belong. I was constantly breaking unspoken rules I didn’t understand. Nearly everyone–not just my physically abusive father, but other relatives, church leaders, many of my teachers, and a lot of the kids at school–made it abundantly clear that I didn’t act like a normal boy, and that if I didn’t figure out how to man up, there would be even more severe consequences than the beatings, teasing, and humiliations I was already enduring. I was taught–not just at church, but also at public school in health and science classes–that homosexuality was a severe mental disease that turned the people who had it into pedophiles, rapists, and worse. Homosexuals, they said, were evil creatures who deserved to die gruesomely.
When puberty hit, I finally realized that those two messages were one and the same. Puberty hit like a Tomahawk missle, blasting away my hopes of growing up to have what I had been taught was a normal, successful life. Because suddenly I realized that those odd fascinations I had had with certain men and boys wasn’t just friendship, they had been crushes. And now my hormones and body were reacting to the guys my emotions had been before. All of that added up to the horrifying conclusion that I could never man up enough not to deserve the scorn, ridicule, physical assaults, and even worse. It was no longer a matter of trying to figure out what I was doing wrong–it became a matter of life and death that I hide the truth about what I was from everyone I knew.
After fighting my feelings and having a couple of furtive relationships with other guys my age who were just as scared, I came to know with all my being that three things were absolutely true: If the wrong people found proof about what I was, I would be rejected and certainly come to an untimely and probably gruesome death alone and unloved. If I couldn’t stop having these feelings and acting on any of those urges, I would spend eternity in hell. And absolutely nothing I did–no amount of tearfully pleading with god, reading the Bible cover to cover three times, stealing my dad’s porn magazines and trying to make myself feel attraction to the women in them, et cetera–would make those feelings go away.
I was doomed. It wasn’t a matter of if, merely when.
Despite knowing I was doomed, my basic temperament just doesn’t accept no-win situations. So part of me kept trying to convince the rest of me that we could fake it as long as it took. I also had certain glimmers of encouragement I’ve written about before in science fiction. One thing I didn’t have was any role model or even a hint that there might be another kind of life possible.
There were no openly gay people in any of the communities we’d lived in until I was in my 20s. There were no openly gay characters in TV or movies or the like until at least my mid-teens. Oh, there were characters that seemed to be gay, but they were always either the comic relief or someone you were supposed to despise. When a few openly gay characters started showing up, they were never regular characters or even heroic. They were still either comedic characters, or victims. Very occasionally one would appear on a single episode to make a message about tolerance. But they were always alone and there was no sense they had a life or friends, let alone a love life!
And then I saw a news story about a gay pride event that changed my life. I had seen some news stories before about the gay protest marches, but they had been brief, and were always accompanied by images of either very angry people with protest signs, or outrageous images selected to portray all the queers as freaks. This story did include some of those images, but there was more of an attempt to give the queer people a chance to speak. They showed brief clips from interviews with several people, but the moment that stuck in my head was when a pair of middle-aged men who were interviewed mentioned that they had been together for nearly 20 years. They were boyfriends, and they had been together for years.
That single bit of data changed everything. I was 19 or 20 years old. I had had a few secret relationships and flings with guys. They had all been steeped in anxiety and fear of what would happen if we were caught. These other closeted gay guys were the only queer people I had met, and they were all, so far as I knew, just as certain that we were going to burn in hell for eternity because of what we were. Though some of the fiction I’d read by then mentioned gay or bisexual people in relationships, it had all be in various sci fi settings where things were very different than the real world.
But there. on the TV in a news program two men who weren’t sci fi characters were comfortable saying on camera that they were boyfriends and had been for years.
It was several more years before I would even utter aloud to anyone the words, “I think I might be gay,” but knowing that there were actual, flesh and blood queer people out there who were in love and having relationships is what let me hold on to hope for a few more years and gave me the strength to finally come out.And that is another reason I support Pride Parades and all sorts of other out gay events. Because there are tens of thousands of frightened queer children out there scared to death to be who they are. Worried that their own parents will reject them or worse. And because we know that every year hundreds of those kids commit suicide because they have no hope. As long as we have our crazy, flashy, glittery, contentious but fabulous pride parades and festivals and so on, then news sites will run stories about them. It doesn’t matter that the coverage may be slanted. Some of those frightened kids will see those stories. Some of them will click on those images. They will know that they aren’t alone. If we can give some of them hope, then our mission has been a success.
All of us who are living our lives out and proud got here because of the hard, brave work of the drag queens, trans activists, marching gays and lesbians and so forth who came before us. We owe them a debt we can’t repay directly. So we have a duty to not just pay it forward, but gay it forward.
Edited to Add:
If you can, give a donation to help queer kids who have been rejected by their families and kicked out on the street : True Colors Fund or The Ali Forney Center are good places to start. Many communities have local programs focusing on teen homelessness and particularly queer teen homelessness; a quick Google search with the name of your city or town, and the words “queer teen homeless” should point you in the right way. And if you want to hlp support transgender kids, please donate to: National Center for Transgender Equality.
After serving one term, Kozachenko stepped out of the public eye, though not out of the activist life entirely. After meeting her life partner, Mary Ann Geiger, and having a son, Kozachenko retreated more fully into private life and her place in queer history went virtually ignored for decades.
In “The First Openly Gay Person to Win an Election in America Was Not Harvey Milk,” a 2015 piece for Bloomberg politics, Steve Friess explored the factors that contributed to Kozachenko’s diminished place in the history of gay liberation: geography, misogyny, timing, messaging. When asked why the groundbreaking gay journalist Randy Shilts referred to Harvey Milk as “the first openly gay elected official in the nation,” for example, Kozachenko “figures there was little fuss at the time because it was just liberal, small-city Ann Arbor.”
“I don’t think I was brave,” Kozachenko told Friess, “because I was in a college town where it was cool to be who I was. On the other hand, I stepped up and did what I felt needed to be done at the time. Maybe that’s the whole story, that ordinary people can do something that then other people later can look back on and feel really good that they did this.” #HavePrideInHistory #KathyKozachenko (at Ann Arbor, Michigan)
(Reposted from LGBT HISTORY ARCHIVES IG: @lgbt_history.)
Is it weird for me to think this is a cool coincidence one day after I write about a much more recent openly gay person at the University of Michigan?