One of the stories of the week in the most recent Friday Five was a link to a series of tweets where Alexander Leon, a writer and human right activist, talked about an aspect of coming out that lots of people don’t understand, and many queer people seldom talk about. The tweets were an attempt to sum out an essay he had written but had never gotten published. Towleroad has subsequently published the entire essay (along with some cute yet informative pictures from Leon’s childhood): Out of the Closet and Into the Fire — How I Stopped Performing and Fought to Become Myself.
Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimise humiliation & prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us & which parts we’ve created to protect us.
This is a topic I’ve touched on a few times before, but usually buried in a discussion about people who were part of our lives when we were closeted and how they react when we come out. Specifically, the idea that some of our loved ones didn’t actually love our true self, but rather they loved the mask or facade (or as Leon calls it, armor) that we had adopted in an attempt to protect ourselves from the bullying as well as the much more subtle forms of homophobia.
That particular bit manifests in many ways. Some of them talk about how we’ve changed so much they don’t recognize us any more. Some of them get annoyed (or worse) any time we mention anything that reminds them we’re queer. And I do mean anything. “Why do you have to keep calling him your husband?” “Because that’s who he is? Would you be happy if I started referring to your spouse as ‘your friend’?”
Our family, our friends, are often not aware that life after the closet isn’t the simple relinquishing of our previous self and the effortless taking up of a new-and-improved queer persona, but rather a complex and arduous process of unlearning the often toxic ways in which we have dealt with negative feelings about ourselves and our place in the world. They see the closet door wide open and don’t understand how we could still be hurting.
When, in the past, I’ve called it a mask, that implies that unlearning those coping/hiding behaviors is as simple as taking the mask off. Even the analogy of armor is somewhat misleading—unless you think of it as a kind of cyberpunk armor, which computer chips are surgically embedded in our bodies and wires go through us to connect to and control portions of the armor. It isn’t as simple as just taking off a set of armor and putting on a new ensemble of clothes. I don’t think it’s an accident that a disproportionate number of gay men claim the Star Trek: Voyager character Seven of Nine as one of their favorite characters.
It isn’t a simple process. One reason it is so difficult is because the false self we were constructing wasn’t just meant to fool potential bullies—we were also desperately trying to fool ourselves. That leaves us living in a super-charged imposter syndrome.
It’s not fun. I am deliriously happy with most aspects of my life. I’ve been successful in my career. I have somehow managed to get married to the most capable man in the world (who also happens to be incredibly funny, sweet, kind, smart—as more than one friend has said, he’s awesome and gives great hugs). I have amazing, talented friends.
I’ve been completely out of the closet for just a bit over 28 years, now, and I still occasionally catch myself deflecting and dissembling in certain circumstances. There are still times when I find myself asking why I said something that I know I don’t really agree with or care about, and then realizing it’s on one of those topics—things someone once told me I’m supposed to like because that’s what men are interested in, or something I’m not supposed to like because it’s “girly.”
Which is really wild coming from a guy who was feeling proud of the big sparkly purble rhinestone earrings I’d picked to go with the dangly purple-wires-twisted-into-the-shape-of-steaming-coffee-mug earrings a friend gave me for Christmas; proud because more than one stranger I ran into that day told me that they liked my earrings.
Feelings are, by definition, irrational. One’s identity is a complex combination of feelings, thoughts, memories, and a whole bunch of subconscious supplements. Becoming who we are is an ongoing process of discovery and re-invention. It isn’t easy, but things that are worthwhile seldom are.
Three cheers for the Red, White & Blue — or why I’m more patriotic than any MAGA-hat wearer you will ever meet…
On the first day of July I took down the Pride flags that were mounted on the rail of our deck and put up my Independence Day banners. Our deck, which I usually refer to as The Veranda is a 38-foot long, 5-foot wide lanai or balcony on the back side of our apartment building, where it is three stories up from the ground (even though our apartment is only a second floor unit from the front of the building).
The picture above is only half of my current display. The Fireworks banner I’ve owned for years, the Red-White-Blue bunting is new, the new variant on the Rainbow Stars and Stripes my hubby found at the Pride Festival, and I bought a replacement of my old very faded Seahawks Nation flag this spring.
Just before Independence Day I saw a lot of posts on twitter and tumblr (from people who think they are patriots) very angry that rainbow Stars and Stripes flags exist, and insisting that any of us flying them are disrespecting our country (and veterans and so forth). For the last several years I have been careful to make sure that my rainbow Stars and Stripes flag always appeared next to my Seahawks Nation flag precisely because I have never seen anyone claim that a football-team-logo-themeed-variant of the U.S. flag was disrespectful.
And the Seattle Seahawks are not the only professional sports team, by any means, to license such a flag:The NFL team known as the Raiders has licensed and sold this flag while they were the Oakland, California francise, and while they were one of several Los Angeles, California teams, during the season they were in Berkeley, when they returned to Oakland, and even now while they are transferring to Las Vegas. And at no time in all those years has anyone suggested they are disrespecting the U.S. flag by selling this variant. Similarly the Denver Broncos franchise within the Nation Football League has been selling (for profit!) this flag similarly inspired by the U.S. flag, yet none of the people who get angry about the Pride flag or the Rainbow Stars and Stripes flag have ever said a word about this blatant instance of sport team enthusiasts making a travesty of the flag of the United States of America. Not even the Miami Dolphins are immune, because once again we see the blatant disrespect and abuse heaped upon Old Glory and every soldier and sailor and marine and airman who has ever served under the legitimate flag of this nation. Yet, once again, despite the National Football League committing this heinous act of debasement, not one single person has ever objected.
Many, many, many times over the last 28 years, I have run into people who get very angry about any variant of the U.S. flag that incorporates the rainbow; with much wailing and gnashing of the teeth about people who have died in wars for that flag. Yet I have never seen anyone get similarly exorcised about various sports teams (and the four I have included above are hardly the only ones) who similarly riff on the U.S. flag. Also, almost every single person who has ever confronted me about the rainbow stars and stripes, or the regular pride flag, or has passively-aggressively commented on the same, has felt absolutely no shame for posting images of the Confederate Flag, even though that was blatantly the flag of the traitors trying to overthrow the Union AND the flag of pro-slavery and white-supremacist movements.
Yet, somehow, we are the ones disrespecting the flag???
When I posted the pictures of all four of the banners on my balcony: a red, white & blue fireworks banner; a traditional red, white & blue bunting; a rainbow stars & stripes flag; and a Seahawks nations flag—a few people asked why I didn’t also fly an actual U.S. flag? The answer is simple. Because I am a former Boy Scout, and I still adhere to the traditional Flag Code: do not leave a U.S. flag out in the rain unless it is an All Weather flag, and NEVER leave a U.S. flag out after sunset unless it is illuminated with spotlights.
During the last two decades, I have met nearly zero people who think of themselves as patriots who also understand that under old U.S. laws the way many people treat the flag would be considered the same as burning a flag in anger. Specifically: if you have a flag displayed say on the antenae of your car 24-hours a day but it isn’t an all-weather flag nor do you have spotlights illuminating it at night? Well, guess what, you have desecrated that flag! Good on you, MAGA-hat wearing hypocrit! You are the exact opposite of a patriot. But then, most of us knew that already.
I have owned a couple of actual U.S. flags, but because I actually understand the flag code, I have only flown them at times when I was sure I would be at home to take them back in before sundown.
I’m the kind of patriot who gets teary-eyeed when I listen to recordings of people singing the Star-Spangled Banner, so yes, I would love to fly my regular flag on at the very least Flag Day and Independence Day, but I have refrained on those years when I wasn’t sure I would be home before sundown.
Because I was talking about this earlier this year, the other day I heard my husband drop a hint or two that he is plotting a way for me to put out the flag at a spot against the wall and with spotlights next year. So next year may be slightly different. Though the rainbow flag and the Seahawks flag will ALSO be on display.
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.
There are less extreme reasons why it isn’t safe for everyone to come out, I get that. So not everyone is ready. But…
Being in the closet isn’t just an inconvenience. Studies show that being closeted adversely affects your physical health. You live in a constant state of high anxiety about people finding out and what they might do when it happens. This affects us the same as extended trauma, inducing the same sorts of stress changes to the central nervous system as PTSD.Coming out is scary. Some of your family and friends will react badly. There may be drama. You may have the unpleasant surprise to find that some of the people you were sure would be fine with it are not at all. On the other hand (and I speak from personal experience), you may be pleasantly surprised at some of the people who support you—one of my aunts that I was certain wouldn’t react well was the first person to say to a bunch of my relatives, “If you have a problem with Gene being gay, then you’re going to have a much bigger problem with me!”
And coming out isn’t a one and done thing. People will continue to assume you’re straight. You’ll find yourself coming out again and again. But the thing is, being out is so much better than being in that closet. You will be amazed, as you process the aftermath, at how much energy you were expending worrying about people finding out. You will be surprised at the sheer weight of the stress you were dealing with being closeted. Like me, you may discover that a lot of health issues were fueled by that stress, and they get a lot better once you’re no longer hiding, deflecting, thinking of plausible lies, and constantly dreading someone finding out.
I wish we lived in a world where fear of being who we are wasn’t so real.
But one of the small ways we can make the world a little less scary for queer people is to come out. As a teenager, the one time I saw a gay couple on a news program being interviewed about the gay rights struggle probably saved my life. There were two men admitting they were gay—two men who had been in a committed relationship for years and seemed happy. It was a ray of hope I desperately needed.
And that’s one of the reasons I am out. It’s why I mention my queerness as often as I do. So that some frightened queer kid might see that, look, there’s a gay man who is happy, has a good life, has people who love him, has friends—gay, straight and otherwise—who have his back. So, maybe, we can be a glimmer of hope for them.
No one deserves the closet. No one deserves that fear and self-loathing. When you’re ready, come out. It really is a wonderful world outside of that closet.
We’ve got a super full schedule this weekend and I’m already running behind, so please have a Happy Pride Weekend!
Anyway, my confusion lasted only milliseconds, because I hadn’t even finished reading the headline before I understood that for this flag, the new stripes represented Queer People of Color. Which made perfect sense. But, as an article that I included in the most recent Friday Links noted, the new flag wasn’t greeted enthusiastically by everyone: The Surprising Controversy Surrounding A More Inclusive Pride Flag.
I’ve seen some of the negative reactions on my own social media, and one thing I couldn’t help noticing was that every person I saw objecting, if you checked out their profile, they were white and male (Full Disclosure: I’m white and male, myself). And their objections are, to a one, ludicrous. I especially liked the guy who said something along the lines of “if you don’t see yourself included in the universal symbol of the rainbow, you need to do some soul searching.” Because first of all, it isn’t a universal symbol, is it? As just one example, we have all the whacko Christian fundamentalists who get all angry and in our face claiming that we’ve stolen the rainbow from god. When the flag was first created (and hand sewn) under the direction of artist Gilbert Baker in 1978, some people in the queer community didn’t like it for a variety of reasons.And it isn’t as if the flag has remained completely unchanged since its original creation. In the fall over 1978, after the assassination of Harvey Milk, there was a sudden demand in the San Francisco area for more of the rainbow flags. To meet the sudden demand, Baker and a flag company decided to use existing stock rainbow fabric (red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue, and violet), so they lost the hot pink and changed the indigo to a lighter blue. And a year later the official banners for the San Francisco Pride events switched to a six-color version ( red, orange, yellow, green, royal blue, and violet). There are two different explanations given for that change: some say it was because when the seven-color versions were hung vertically from street lamp poles the middle stripe wasn’t always visible, others say that there was difficulty getting both the turquoise and indigo fabric. The point is, the rainbow flag changed several times, with the original artist’s blessing, in the first few years of its existence. I mentioned above that not everyone was happy with it. Some weren’t happy because they thought the rainbow was two generic. Others because there were already symbols being used by lots of queer people (for example: a pink triangle or a labrys on a black triangle), and they thought we should stick to those symbols for various reasons. Other folks have made other variations. And a lot of people in the community didn’t think that the rainbow (or the Pride marches themselves) should include anyone other than exclusively gay men and lesbian women. I remember public arguments about whether the words bisexual or transgender should be added to the official name of the Pride Parade in Seattle during the 90s, for instance. There many other arguments still raging about who should be included. I wasn’t around the community for the arguments about the rainbow flag when it was first introduced, but in the late 80s and early 90s, when I was just coming out, the arguments about why the rainbow wasn’t a good symbol for LGBTQ+ people were still raging. I knew more than one person who was adamant that the Pink Triangle was a better symbol because it represented a time gay men were targeted for extermination in Nazi Germany, and we had taken the symbol back. Of course, there were plenty of people who didn’t like the Pink Triangle, either (some because it was considered to represent only men; others because of its origin as a symbol of our oppression). Or only liked it if it were used along with other symbols commonly associated with lesbians.
So claiming the current six-color rainbow flag is universally recognized as including everyone even within the community simply isn’t true.
There’s another big hint that something like the More Colors Flag is needed: white queers wouldn’t be offended (and the folks objecting are definitely offended) at the flag if the problems it addresses weren’t real. Not only that, all of the arguments I’ve seen used to explain why the More Colors Flag is unnecessary sound exactly like the homophobic arguments given for why queers don’t need representation in movies, books, TV and such or why laws against queer discrimination aren’t needed. And they also are exact parallels to racist arguments used to argue we don’t need laws about racial discrimination (among other things). As they say, if it looks like a racist argument and sounds like a racist objection…
None of this will sound unfamiliar to anyone familiar with discussions about intersectionality. In case you don’t know what intersectionality is, let’s start with the definition (I warned you in the title we would get to dictionary topics in this post!):
intersectionality noun the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.
So another reason that you can’t claim that the rainbow is a universal symbol that applies to all queer people is because the experience of being queer isn’t the same for all categories of queer people. It’s kind of like the people who make that argument that you shouldn’t let a black actor portray James Bond or a woman portray Doctor Who because that would make the shows political. Insisting that the hero must be a white male is just as much a political statement as asking why the hero can’t be something else. Similarly, suggesting we should do something to make people of color feel more welcome is not racializing the Pride flag any more than resisting that inclusion is.
I’m a cisgender white man. I also happen to be queer. I have faced discrimination (and worse) because I’m a gay man. But I also know that I have been shielded from certain types of discrimination because I’m a guy and because I’m white. I don’t know all of the times that this happened, but I understand how systemically racism and sexism are baked into our culture, and therefore there are times when I experience no obstacles, where a person of color or a woman would find things less welcoming. The types of discrimination I experience and the ways I encounter discrimination as a gay man are often very different from the types and ways experienced by queers of color. The same kind of discrimination that I might be able to somewhat sidestep because of a bit of white male privilege I don’t even notice at the time can be a much more devastating experience to someone who does not have those two advantages.Recognizing this isn’t about trying to decide who is more oppressed. This isn’t the Oppression Olympics. The truth is, that a lot of white queer people are unaware of their own racism. Most insist that they aren’t at all, which is literally impossible. You can’t grow up in a racist society without being conditioned to the assumptions of racism. Asserting that the rainbow already includes everyone ignores the fact that there is a lot of racism within the queer community, some of it really subtle because it is just a manifestation of the systemic racism of the whole society, and others of it quite blatant. It’s blatant while also being rationalized away. The photo here of the sign that was seen at the Equality March earlier this month talks about one of those examples. Please note that this sign was at an Equality March, not a Pride March. But it underscores a real truth: a lot of queers, particularly certain white gay men, have these racist attitudes. And yes, it absolutely is racist to say in your dating profile “no blacks” or “no asians” or “no latinos.” The usual counter argument is that they’re just talking about a preference.
I have a preference for redheads. Yet I have never refused to date a non-redhead. And a good thing, too, since neither my late partner, Ray, nor my husband Michael are redheads. I lusted after and occasionally dated redheads, but I wound up falling in love with two different men for reasons other than their hair color. That’s because while I have an attraction toward redheads, I recognize that’s all it is, and that there are other reasons to like or dislike a person than their hair color. The same holds true for race. If you completely exclude someone from consideration because of their race, there is no word other than racism to describe it. And while we’re on the subject: fat-shaming and fem-rejection aren’t any better, and if you’re doing that you’re just being a different kind of bigot, but no less of a bigot than the racist, so don’t do it.Nobody’s free until everyone is. And one of the steps to setting everyone free is recognizing that not everyone is as free as everyone else. We have to find a way to actually be inclusive, not to simply say that being inclusive is a good thing. And being inclusive requires us to recognize intersectionality. To understand that there are different degrees of discrimination. Society imposes different types of disadvantage on people based on categories of race, gender, sexuality, economic class, and other things. Those differences are real. The pain and suffering they cause is real. And the benefits that other categories of people receive at the expense of that pain and suffering is also real. Fighting for equality means not just giving lip service to inclusivity and intersectionality, it means taking steps to do something about those problems. You have to look for the people who are having trouble getting into the freedom tent and work to help them inside and to feel welcome. That requires first listening, really listening to try to understand–not pretending to listen while we’re really just waiting for our turn to talk.
If my queer kindred of color tell me that they don’t feel welcome in many queer spaces, then I have to take that seriously and ask what I can do to help. And then I have to actually help. Which is why I say that intersectionality isn’t just a noun. Because those of us who have some privilege, however little it may be, have to stick our necks out and use that privilege to help those who don’t.
Pride should be for all of us.
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.
I’ve mentioned before that I collect images and memes and such as potential illustrations for Friday Links posts or political commentary, and I’m always collecting more than I wind up using. So every now and then I’m going to do a post like this where I just publish a bunch.