I need to do a bit of a follow up to my previous post about the issues at Worldcon. I didn’t touch on everything that happened, and since the issue blew up, Mary Robinette Kowal, whose tweet from years ago on a related subject I quoted in that post, has agreed to help redo the programming. Kowal has been running the programming tracks at the annual Nebula conferences for a while, and she had posted a nice summary of their process for trying to put together a program that appeals to many parts of the community. So many of us are provisionally hopeful that the situation will be a bit better at the actual convention than they appeared just days ago.
I have also been reminded that sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between ignorance and actual malice. Now, I was thinking that most of the bigotry that seemed to be motivating the issues were likely unconscious—all of us are often unaware of just how many prejudices we have absorbed from society. Alis Franklin, in particular, has pointed out another explanation for much of the problem:
“This all feels very much like people used to running a small-town parochial con with an established member-base suddenly getting in a twist because they have to accommodate (gasp) outsiders.”
And she’s likely on to something. A lot of this does sound like the people in programming are speaking from their past experience running their local convention, where they believe they know their audience and what those attendees expect. But even if that is the case, I still suspect that their local crowd includes a lot more queers, people of color, and other folks who are interested in topics that their local con doesn’t recognize in programming—because as I said, we’re everywhere, and we’re all used to being excluded and dismissed; so much so that when we raise an issue and are shut down, we often just hold our tongues thereafter.
On the issue of the one pro whose submitted bio was edited to change all of eir pronouns to “he” and “him”, and the insistence for a few days that this was a bio taken from the web (when no one can find such a bio and they can’t provide a link), that gets into the conscious versus unconscious bias. Either the person who copied the bio was simple too ill-informed about non binary people and nontraditional pronouns, and simply assumed it was some kind of extremely consistent typo (which I think is a stretch), or they’re one of those people who balk at pronouns to the point of refusing to use any they don’t agree with and decided to change the bio and then claim it was a mistake if they were called on it.
I don’t know if the same staffer is the one who decided not to use another pro’s usual publication bio and photograph, and instead write a different bio using information that usually was not released publicly and use a photo taken from the pro’s private Facebook. In any case, it is difficult to construct an “honest mistake” excuse for that one. And if it is the same staffer, I think that is more than adequate proof that the changed pronouns on the other bio was an intentional aggression.
In several of the discussions online I’ve seen a lot of people not understanding what the problem was with requesting semi-formal wear for the Hugo ceremony. Foz Meadows summed it up better than I did:
”…the fashion at the Hugo Awards ceremonies tends to be a welcoming, eclectic mixture of the sublime, the weird and the comfortable. Some people wear ballgowns and tuxedos; some wear cosplay; others wear jeans and t-shirts. George R. R. Martin famously tends to show up in a trademark peaked cap and suspenders. Those who do dress up for the Hugos do so out of a love of fashion and pageantry, but while their efforts are always admired and appreciated, sharing that enthusiasm has never been a requisite of attending. At an event whose aesthetics are fundamentally opposed to the phrase ‘business casual’ and whose members are often uncomfortable in formalwear for reasons such as expense, gender-nonconformity, sizeism in the fashion industry and just plain old physical comfort, this change to tradition was not only seen as unexpected and unwelcome, but actively hostile.”
I also note that a few days ago Mike Glyer posted a link to a letter from decades back from E.E. “Doc” Smith (the author of the Lensmen books, among others) when the 1962 WorldCon asked for all the ladies attending the award ceremony to wear long formal gowns. Smith commented that his wife had not owned formal wear since entering retirement and thought it was unreasonable to expect people to go to such an expense.
Which is a nice segue to this: until the 34th WorldCon (MidAmericaCon I, 1976 in Kansas City, Missouri) the Hugo Awards were given out at the end of the convention banquet. The banquet consisted of eating (obviously) while the guests of honor gave speeches. Fans who couldn’t afford the extra expense of the banquet were allowed in (usually in a separate area such as a balcony) for the awards portion. The awards ceremony was separated from the banquet in 1976 for a couple of reasons, but one was to make it easier for everyone who wanted to attend to do so. The conventions had gotten so large that the fraction who wanted to see the award ceremony was too much for the banquet halls of typical convention hotels to accommodate, and there had always been the problem of people who couldn’t afford the banquet ticket. I wanted to close with that because I have seen a number of people arguing that the people who are feeling unwelcome because of this con’s actions are making unreasonable demands to change traditions of the conventions.
The traditions change over time for many reasons. It isn’t about change for the sake of change, it is change of the sake of practicality and realism. People have, in the past, believed that science fiction and fantasy was only created by straight white guys, and was only loved by other straight white guys. That has never been true, but the illusion was maintained through a variety of societal forces and some willful ignorance. It has become increasingly difficult to maintain that willful ignorance, and besides, ignorance is never a good look on anyone. It’s not about whether fandom is diverse, it is about to what lengths some people are willing to go to ignore, silence, or push out that diversity.
So how things came to a head: a professional writer who has been nominated for a Hugo this year was told they weren’t going to be on programming because “there is a kind of creator who appeals to Hugo nominators, but are totally unknown to convention attendees.” The email also managed to misgender the pro and… well things went downhill, after the pro and their spouse posted some of this information online. The programming people contacted the spouse, asked the spouse to convey their apology and expressed disappointment that they went public instead of handling this privately.
And that prompted many many other writers and creators to come out of the woodwork, posting their own many attempts to deal with similar issues (such as, “why did you discard the bio my publisher sent you, and pull information from my private Facebook account instead?” “What do you mean that people like me aren’t of interest to convention attendees?”)—indicating that a whole bunch of people had been trying to address this privately to no avail.
Only when it became public and dozens of authors who were on the programs wrote in to either withdraw, or at least suggest that other, newer, less well known writers could take their place on some panels, did the con chair issue a real apology (there had been a “we’re sorry if anyone’s offended” style non-apology the night before).
Because the thing is, the people who were being excluded weren’t just new writers to the field, it was overwhelmingly the queer creators, the non-white creators, and the women creators. And at one point, the programming person explicitly said, “Do you expect a WorldCon to be like WisCon?” WisCon being famously more feminist-friendly and queer-friendly than most other conventions.
Other people have written about this situation, and probably better than I, but there’s a part of this whole thing that just really presses my buttons, and it aligns with a theme I’ve written about many times on this blog: to wit, queer people, trans people, people of color, women, and people of many religions and cultures have been fans of sci-fi/fantasy (and created sci-fi/fantasy) for as long as it has existed. We aren’t new. We aren’t exotic. We aren’t fringe or band-wagoners. We’ve always been here, we just have seldom been allowed to be visible. As Mary Robinette Kowal observed at least four years ago:
“It’s not about adding diversity for the sake of diversity, it’s about subtracting homogeneity for the sake of realism.”
—Mary Robinette Kowal
Let’s go back to the explanation that was being given before the backlash forced them to scrap their programming plans and start over: “There is a kind of creator that appeals to the Hugo nominators who is not known by the convention attendees.”
I have at least three responses to that:
First, nominators are attendees. In order to nominate for the Hugo Awards and in order to vote for the winners, one must purchase a membership to the convention. And you know who else are attendees? The pros who are coming to the con that the con com doesn’t want to let on the program. Sure, not every attendee participated in the nomination process, and not every one of them nominated ever finalist, but some fraction of the attendees did. And the number of people who nominate is more than large enough to be a statistically significant sample of fans. So it is an entirely misleading and useless distinction to try to draw between attendees and nominators.
Second, this argument is a form of gaslighting. I’ve seen some people compare it to the old TrueFan arguments (and the more recent Real Fan claims from melancholy canines), and those are good comparisons, but I think a better model is the Moral Majority. I know I hark back to that particular group a lot, and I admit I know so much about them because they originated in the denomination in which I had been raised and they came to national prominence literally as I reached legal voting age, so my earliest election experiences included being told again and again that, because I disagreed with them, I was a member of the implied immoral minority.
This is the same kind of argument: “attendees” are implied as being the vast majority of fans, and these majority of fans don’t find “that certain kind of creator” interesting, unlike the “nominators.” The nominators are, by inference, supposed to be viewed as a fringe, extremist minority whose interests can’t possibly overlap with the implied majority. And just as the Moral Majority’s very name contained two lies (they were neither moral nor a majority), this notion that type of fans who are not interested in a “certain kind of creator” must consititute such an overwhelming majority that virtually no programming to appeals to anyone else is worth having.
Third, the majority/minority part isn’t the only form a gaslighting being attempted. Because here’s the thing: in most of the Hugo categories, it is not people who are nominated, but works of sci-fi/fantasy. The authors are referred to as nominees, but technically it is a specific novel, novella, novelette, short story, et cetera that is nominated. But that phrase, “a certain kind of creator who appeals to the nominators” puts the emphasis on the creator and the creator’s identity. In other words, they are arguing that the nominators really didn’t like the specific story, but have chosen the story to fulfill a quota or something.
In other words, the person who made this statement believes that the story nominated doesn’t really deserve to be nominated, and believes that the nominators don’t believe that either. It’s the same racist/homophobic/transphobic/misogynist arguments that the melancholy canines were making. A “certain kind of creator” is a dogwhistle. The nominators may want queer/trans/women/people of color, but “normal” people don’t. That’s what that statement says. And this is why I still fervently believe the person who said that should be fired from the con com.
Fourth, finally, they are arguing that attendees are only interested in seeing creators they already know and love. Completely ignoring the fact that most fans want to both see old favorites and to find new writers/stories/shows/what-have-you that might become favorites. One of my favorite parts of attending conventions are when I am exposed to new authors I’d never heard of before, and new works that I’d never seen. I’m always writing down names of authors and stories and ‘zines and so forth, and then going to look them up after the con.
Many of the authors who are currently in my personal list of favorites, are people who I learned about at a convention panel. Yes, once they become a favorite, I will look for their names in the programming grid and try to see some of their events, but I’m not just there to see the folks I already know.
The conventions where I ran programming were all smaller than WorldCon, but I have run programming at conventions. I know it is hard work. I know it can feel like thankless work. But one of my goals with that programming was to provide convention attendees opportunities to learn new things, to find new artists or writers and so forth that they didn’t previously know about; to introduce the work of many people to new audiences, while also giving fans a chance to see the people whose work they already liked.
If you don’t see that both of those goals should equally drive the programming of a sci fi or fantasy con, then you absolutely should not be working on programming. Go work for a commercial convention where the only point is to sell autographs. Do not volunteer for a World Science Fiction Con.
The reason for the parade, ultimately, is to declare our existence–our survival in a society that is less than welcoming. We’re here. We’re your daughters, your neighbors, your sons, your co-workers, your friends, your siblings, or your parents. We’re not mysterious creatures lurking in seedy clubs–we’re the guy sitting across from you on the bus reading a book, or the two gals sitting in that next pew at church, or the pair of guys in the grocery store discussing how many hot dogs to buy for the cookout, or the grey-haired guy trying to read a label on a bottle of cold tablets in the pharmacy, or that kid on the skateboard going past your bus stop, or that guy sipping a coffee at Starbucks, or that gal a couple table over at the same coffee shop laughing at something on her computer.
We’re real, we’re everywhere, and we have hopes and dreams and worries just like you. We’re not asking for special rights, we’re asking for the same rights you take for granted. We’re asking to live our lives as openly as you live yours.
I enjoy watching the parade to acknowledge that survival. I cheer while watching the parade to express my admiration, support, and love for all of these survivors.
I cheer for people who are being brave and marching in their first parade; we see you and welcome you to the tribe.
I cheer and applaud so that those whose families rejected them and told them never to come back will know they have another family, and we’re clapping for them right now.
I cheer so that group of teen-agers (half of them straight and there to support their bi, gay, lesbian, and trans friends) will get the recognition they deserve.
I cheer the older couples walking together holding hands; we see your love and we celebrate how long you and your love had endured.
I cheer the younger couples walking hand in hand; I wish I had felt free to do that at their age, but I hope they have a bright future.I applaud and cheer so that the trans* gals and trans* men know they are seen for who they are and we think they’re beautiful, wonderful, and I am proud to call them brothers and sisters.
I cry when I see those who are carrying a photo or wearing the name of a deceased loved one; we see your loved one and share your grief.
I cheer for PFLAG so that straight parents who have spent countless hours explaining to friends and relatives that their queer kids have nothing to be ashamed of, and yes they are very happy, and no those things you’ve heard or read about their health and lifespan are all myths will know their efforts are appreciated by the whole community.
I clap and cheer and laugh and cry as the parade goes on and on showing how big and wonderful and diverse and amazing our community is.The very first Liberation Day Parade in New York City, was a protest march on the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots (the first Pride was a riot). People were afraid of what would happen at the first march. Only a couple dozen people showed up at the starting point, with their protest signs. But they marched. And all along the announced route of the march, the sidewalks were lined with people. Street queens, and trans people, and gay men and lesbians and queers of many other stripes. And then completely unplanned thing happened. As the small group of marchers went be, queer people and supporters started stepping off the curb and joining. By the time the marchers reached the Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park, the crowd numbered in the thousands.
It has been a tradition of Pride Parades ever since, that spectators step off the curb and join the march.
So when I march, there comes a point where I do that. I have cheered and applauded and made sure that others were seen. I have witnessed their love and courage and unique style. Until it is my turn to join the march. To be visible. To declare by my presence in that throng that I am queer. I’m here. And I will never go back into the closet.
There were a lot of pink triangles. There were also rainbows, some lambdas, and some labryses. A lot of people had pink or purple hair. Most of the groups had at least some members who had their children marching along beside them.
There were people dressed very scantily. There were banners and floats that had some sort of sexual innuendo as part of the theme. There wasn’t any actual nudity, but there were a few costumes that were very close to it. But the thing is, not quite a year before my first Pride Parade, I had attend my first Seattle Torchlight Family Seafair Parade with a bunch of co-workers. And at that parade—an official city parade with the word “family” in its title—I had seen a whole lot more near nudity, many more sexual innuendos as themes for floats, and a whole lot of drunken participants in the parade.
I should mention that there didn’t seem to be many queers in the pride parade who were under the influence. Certainly nowhere near as many as I saw at the Seafair Parade.
The difference was, that all of the sexual content and near nudity in the Seafair Parade was clearly aimed at the heterosexual male gaze. Just as I see a lot more sex in the typical set of Super Bowl commercials that I have ever seen at a Pride Parade. And that’s the thing: straight people are so used to straight male sexual desire used to sell everything from cupcakes to beer to automobiles, that they don’t even notice it any more.
Heck, in Seattle we have another annual parade called the Fremont Solstice Parade, and it is famous for have scores of nude bicyclists in it every year. Under Washington state law, if you have body paint on, it counts as not being nude. And it was a community parade put on by mostly straight people who was doing it for years before the queers in Seattle started doing it in our Pride Parade.So if you’re one of those people who objects to Pride Parades because you think they’re too wild or sexy or whatever, I am just going to laugh at your cluelessness. I’ve written a few times about the people from within the community who hate it, and I have yet to meet one whose arguments didn’t boil down to being equivalent of the bigots. So if you’re one of those people you don’t get my laughter, you get my pity and a hope that someday you will stop being a self-loathing hater.
If you’re one of those people who think Pride isn’t needed because bigotry is somehow far behind us, please take this does of reality:
- Religious leaders want to devalue and outlaw our families
- The attorney general thinks it’s fine that queers are being murdered in other countries
- 40% of homeless teens are on the streets because their parents threw them out for being gay or they suspected they might be gay
- People want to ban trans young people for school activities
- People still insist, despite overwhelming medical evidence to the contrary, that we’re sick and dangerous
- A small mob can beat and taser gay men on a train and witnesses will stand by in silence
- Gay men are assaulted on the streets of the so-called capitol of the free world
- Police routinely treat missing persons and violent crimes cases where the victims are queer as low priority
- Trans people continue to be murdered just because of who they are
- Queer children continue to be bullied and driven to suicide in shameful numbers
- Government officials and private citizens are actively fighting to take away what rights we have
Finally, if you’re one of those people who asks, “If you’re born this way, what’s to be proud of?” First, look up at that list. Remember that that is barely scratching the surface of the hate, bullying, and oppression that every queer person has survived. So, what do we have to be proud of? Some people want us dead, but we’ve survived. Some people wish we were invisible, and we have stepped out into the light and shared our beautiful glittery freaky selves. We have been told we aren’t worthy of love, but we have found loving friends and chosen families and yes, even someone to call husband or wife. People have tried to bury us in hate, and we have shown the world our love. They have knocked us down again and again, and we have gotten back up, fiercer than ever. They have tried to force us into the shadows, and we have shown the world our light.
I’ve quoted before the old Jewish joke that the meaning of all Jewish holidays is, “They tried to kill us. We’re still alive. Let’s eat.” In the spirit of that sentiment:
They wish we were dead or invisible. We refuse to hide.
So it wasn’t just anxiety. It wasn’t all in my head. The danger was real.And because I’d been raised Southern Baptist, and I was the kind of nerdy kid who read the Bible all the way through on my own at least twice, I spent many, many hours begging god to take these feelings away from me. I spent a lot of time studying the guys that never got called out like I did, trying to figure out how to act more like them.
And while for many queer kids the world is a more tolerant place than it was for me in the 60s and 70s, thousands of teens in the U.S. are still thrown out on the streets every year by parents whose religion teaches it is better to drive the kid out than to “encourage their lifestyle.” Hundreds of children and teens still commit suicide every year because of bullying by people who suspect they are queer.
All the bullying, anxiety about being rejected, and so forth affects us. Studies show that most adult queers bear at least some of the neurological markers of PTSD—just like domestic abuse survivors. Coming out and finding communities that accept us doesn’t make that go away. We are always on the lookout for the next potential threat.There were always moments when I would get angry because of the way I was treated. But particularly when I was a young kid, anger was never useful. I was physically unable to stand up to the bullies (for instance, the middle school bully who was enough bigger than me that he held me upside down for many minutes while his buddies kicked and spit on me).
Over the course of several years anger began replacing fear. There are many moments I can point to, but one that sticks out came in my early 20s. I was sitting in a church pew in a church where the musical ensemble I was directed had performed several songs for to support a revival meeting. The visiting preacher had delivered an unusual message for a revival: he had talked about unity and finding common ground among fellow Christians who didn’t always agree with us on every detail. It was conciliatory, rather than a fiery call to fight evil, which was a much more typical revival tone.And then one of the pastors from the local church gave the closing prayer. That how I found myself with head bowed and eyes closed and suddenly shaking in fear as the pastor thank god for sending the scourge of AIDS to wipe out the evil homosexuals from the face of the earth. Oh, he went on and on about it. And because as far as I knew I was the only homo (very closeted) in that room, I half expected people to pull me aside for an intervention afterward. Or maybe that I would be jumped and beaten to within an inch of my life somewhere.
I realized some time later that the pastor wasn’t targeting he was arguing with the visiting pastor, using the passive-aggressive platform of a public prayer. But over the following days and weeks, as I realized that no one was targetting me, I began to get angry. And the more I thought about how that pastor had used a prayer to spew such hate, the more angry I became at the entire system.
That may have been the final nail in the coffin of my membership in the Baptist denomination—if not all of Christianity together.There are many people who will tell you not to become an angry, militant advocate for anything. They will urge you to try to find middle ground, to compromise, to make peace with those you disagree with you. The problem is that there isn’t an acceptable middle ground between the propositions: “I want to live” and “you deserve death.” And the people who thank god for AIDS, who tell parents to kick their queer children out on the street, who argue that transitioning treatments are not medically necessary, and who argue we shouldn’t have marriage rights (which legally include the right to make medical decisions for one another and so forth)—they are all implying, if not outright saying, that queers deserve death.
Seriously, the only middle ground is that some queers deserve death. How is that a morally acceptable position for anyone?So, yes, I am frequently an angry, militant queer. But all of the people on the other side are arguing in favor of murdering at least some queer people (or, I suppose you could argue that they are simply willing to allow some or most of us to die). That means that what I feel is righteous indignation. And if you don’t feel it at least a little bit on behalf of those kids bullied to death, the murdered trans people, and so on, well, I’m sorry to say, that means you’re on the side of the hateful murderers. I’m sure you have some rationalizations for why your position isn’t that, but you’re wrong. If you don’t believe our outrage is justified, then you’re not one of the good guys.
If that realization makes you unhappy, well, you have the power to fix it. Come over to the Light Side. Join the fight for justice, love, and life.
I received a lot of interesting replies. One person was particularly upset with me for sharing a meme similar to the one at the top of the post that talked about Jesus and his two dads. “Can’t you disagree without the blasphemy of saying god had a sexual relationship with Joseph?”
I responded by pointing out that the meme doesn’t mention sex, it simply affirms the Biblical texts which referred to Jesus as both the son of Joseph and the son of God. Then I said that the only blasphemy I saw were people trying to force some of their religious views into law, penalizing people who weren’t part of their flock. There were a couple of back and forths, but I had already promised myself that any bigots who chimed in would get two replies of me trying to clarify or whatever, and then after that my only reply to any further comments would be “Bless your heart.” So the discussion petered out.
blasphemy noun, Profane talk about something supposed to be sacred; impious irreverence.
I’m sorry, but I really was merely taking the Bible literally: the text calls Jesus the son of Joseph in some places, and the son of god in others. In fact, it refers to him as the son of Joseph more often than it calls him the son of god. The oldest surviving copies of the gospels never call him the son of god. And then there’s the whole genealogy in one of the gospels, showing how Jesus is descended from King David–through his father, Joseph!
So if it is profane to talk about Jesus having two dads, the profanity starts in the Bible.
If we’re going to get upset about any sex involving god, what about the nonconsensual impregnation of Mary? I mean, looking at the text, it’s pretty clear that god roofied Mary, then sent “the Holy Spirit to overshadow” her and conceive the child. I say nonconsensual because while an angel appears to Mary before it happens to tell her it is going to happen, at no point does the angel ask if she agrees to this thing. And really, Mary was almost certainly a teen-ager, confronted by a powerful otherworldly being who tells her that an even more powerful being is about the knock her up. With such a power differential, is the concept of consent even possible?
I’ve seen the arguments made, sometimes by people who claim to take the Bible literally, that this is just a standard divine intervention trope: Eqyptian and Greek mythology, for instance, are full of stories of gods having sons from mortal women. As if “everyone else is doing it” is a moral precept?
Among the many problems with people of various conservative types of Christianity imposing their beliefs on others through the force of law, is that even their own holy book isn’t very clear on these points. The person they have named their religion after, Jesus Christ, never once said anything about gay people, one way or the other. And believe me, there were gay people there in Galilee and Judea. If being gay was such a big sin, you would think he would mention it.
There are only six verses in modern English translations of the Bible that appear to refer to homosexuality directly. However, the four in the New Testament have only been that way since a re-translation in the 1920s. In the oldest versions of the text we have in the original languages (Arameic and Greek), the words were gendered references to temple prostitutes in two passages, the third is a reference to two separate sins (cheating on one’s spouse after making a monogamous committment, and having sex with someone before you have married). The fourth, meanwhile, no one knows. The Apostle Paul made up a greek word that occurs nowhere else in any ancient greek document my combining two existing words meaning bed and lewdness.
Honesty, given how opposed to marriage of any kind Paul was (he thought it was a waste of time and energy that would be better spent evangelizing), this might have been a word he coined to refer to those men who “so burned with lust” that they couldn’t concentrate on god’s work unless they married and had an outlet for the aforementioned lust. If so, then Paul was calling heterosexual marriage an abomination, not gay sex.
As to the old testament passages: modern Christians have no problem ignoring the other parts of Leviticus they don’t like (the prohibitions on bacon and shrimp, for instance), so it is difficult to take them seriously on this. Further, I’ve read more than one argument written by Jewish Rabbis that those texts should never be discussed out of context of the rest of the books (including a lot of commentaries and documents that were not absorbed into the Christian Bible), and are probably referencing some specific issues at the time of writing with men visiting temples of other gods and partaking of temple prostitutes. So it is more likely those verses are admonitions against idolotry and sex with someone other than one’s spouse after making a monogamous committment.
Please note I am paraphrasing. Wrestling with the Torah is a lifetime commitment of its own, and the fact that the church I was raised in has co-opted a not-terribly-well-done translation of the Torah doesn’t make me an expert.
Holy books, no matter whose holy books we are talking about, were written by humans. You can believe that they are divinely inspired if you wish, but the words were written by imperfect humans, using imperfect language, which is being read centuries later by other imperfect humans with imperfect understandings of languages that have changed during those centuries. Just to narrow it back down to the bible, that book itself contains many stories of people who were absolutely convinced that they knew what god wanted them to do, who turned out to be wrong. It also contains stories (go read an annotated version of the Saga of Sampson for one of the most entertaining) of people who were believed to be immoral or otherwise unsuitable for god’s work by all the godly people around them, who were actually the ones doing god’s work.
As my Bible professor in my university days was fond of saying, “The text keeps telling us that we can’t find all of the answers in the text. We have to think and develop compassion and a sense of justice on our own. And that’s a lot of work.”
If your argument that people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, pansexual, trans, nonbinary et cetera don’t deserve equal rights is to quote your holy book without applying compassion, testing the situation against the notion of justice, and just thinking about whether you are even holding yourself to a similar standard, then you aren’t doing the work. You are failing your fellow humans. You are failing at your own religion.
And you are failing to regard the life and well-being of some of your neighbors with reverence. And that is true blasphemy.
Gilbert Baker was born in Kansas in 1951. From an early age he was fascinated with fabrics and color. He attributed this early interest to the women’s clothing store which was owned by his grandmother. Even with that family connection, though, in small town Kansas in the 1950s no one thought a boy should learn to sew. In 1970 the 19-year-old Gilbert was drafted into the army, where he was trained as a medic and stationed in San Francisco, where he treated soldiers who had been wounded in Vietnam.
“In 1978, when I thought of creating a flag for the gay movement, there ws no other international symbol for us than the pink triangle, which the Nazis had used to identify homosexuals in concentration camps. Even though the pink triangle was and still is a powerful symbol, it was very much forced upon us.
“I almost instantly thought of using the rainbow. To me, it was the only thing that could really express our diversity, beauty, and our joy. I was astounded nobody had thought of making a rainbow flag before because it seemed like such an obvious symbol for us.”
—Gilbert Baker, 1951-2017
In 1970 there was a thriving queer community in San Francisco. Gilbert found other people like himself, and managed to serve out his tour as a medic without getting caught (being gay was a court martial offense), so he was honorably discharged. But having found a community, he chose to stay. He bought a sewing machine and taught himself to sew. He hung out with a lot of other artists. He designed fabulous drag costumes. And he also began designing pro-gay and anti-war protest banners for a variety of marches and rallies. Soon he was known as “the banner guy.”
When Harvey Milk was elected a city supervisor, becoming the first openly gay man elected to public office in the U.S., he had worked with Gilbert a few times in relationship to those rallies and protests. And so when Milk thought that the community needed a new symbol to unite around, he asked Gilbert to create it.
Note that Milk asked him to create a symbol, not necessarily a flag. But Gilbert said he settled on a flag very quickly, because a flag represents sovereignty. “A flag,” he said, “proclaims that gays are a people, a family, a tribe.” He chose the rainbow as the basis of the flag because it represented diversity—of race, gender, age. “Plus, it’s a natural flag — it’s from the sky!”The Gay Freedom Day Committee provided money, and the Gay Community Center provided working space. Gilbert Baker and approximately 30 friends gathered together with over a thousand yards of cotton fabric and a lot of bottles of dye, and carefully created fabric in eight colors: hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise and violet. Gilbert also worked with Fairy Argyle, who was known as the Queen of Tie-Day, to create a square of blue fabric that had tie-dyed stars on it, to evoke the field of stars on the U.S. flag. Gilbert sewed two different flag designs in 1978, the first was the 8-stripe rainbow, the second one looking like the American flag, but with the tie-dyed stars and rainbow stripes.
The two flags were first hoisted into the sky above San Francisco’s U.N. Plaza as part of the Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25th, 1978. Gilbert’s longtime friend, Cleve Jones, described the day as having the perfect amount of wind to make the flag furl, but not be unpleasant on the ground: “It was just stunning.”Five months later, Harvey Milk was assassinated, and the community was thrown into mourning. Thousands gathered that night in the Castro, that marched to city hall where they held a candlelight vigil. In the following days, people began asking for rainbow flags. To meet the sudden demand, Gilbert worked with the Paramount Flag company to mass produce flags. They used a then stand available rainbow fabric with only seven stripes: red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue, and violet. The Freedom Day committee wanted larger flags for the next Pride Parade, and Gilbert went to work, dropped the hot pink stripe from his larger hand-sewn flags in part because the dye was difficult to obtain, and no one was manufacturing stock hot pink fabric.
And the next year he dropped another stripe. Some say that the turquoise was dropped because when the flags were hung vertically from city light poles the middle stripe wasn’t visible from other angles. Gilbert said that turquoise and indigo fabric was difficult to obtain, so he switched to a navy blue stripe.
I’ve written before that the rainbow flag was not immediately embraced by everyone in the LGBT+ community. In fact, it was considered more a regional thing until a court case in 1989, when a West Hollywood man had to sue his landlord for the right to fly the rainbow flag from his apartment balcony.
In 1994 Gilbert supervised the creation of the first mile-long rainbow flag to commemorate the 25 anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The flag was cut up afterward to make smaller flags. Some sections were sold as a fundraiser, others were distributed to Pride Parade committees in other cities. In 2003, the 25th anniversary of the creation of the rainbow flag, Gilbert was commissioned to create another giant flag. This one was one and a quarter miles long and was carried in the Key West, Florida Pride event. It was eventually cut into 100 slightly less giant flags and again distributed to various cities around the world.
Gilbert often described himself as the Queer Betsy Ross and was sometimes asked to give his blessing to some variants designed by others (such as the Victory Over Aids Flag, which used a lighter violet and had a black stripe to symbolize our mourning for those who have died of complications of AIDS). It is worth noting that except when he was directly commissioned, Gilbert didn’t make money from his creation. In his later years he struggled financially. But the one interview I saw where someone asked him about it, he said it would have been wrong to try to trademark the design. How could it be a symbol of our tribe if it legally belonged to one person?
After 2003, Gilbert started lobbying for a return to the original 8-stripe version, so far to little avail. When Barack Obama was elected President, Gilbert hand sewed an 8-stripe version as a gift to Obama, and during the Obama administration that flag was displayed in the White House.Gilbert redesigned the flag one more time before he died. The election of Trump prompted him to add a 9th stripe, lavender for diversity or resistance. He sewed 39 by hand before his death, and they were used in the following San Francisco Pride Parade.
When I was first coming out of the closet in the late 80s, pink triangles were the symbol I saw around the Seattle queer community. You could find pink triangle buttons and key chains and bumper stickers and so forth in every store in the gayborhood. There were rainbows, as well, but the pink triangle outnumbered them. Then in the 90s, when suddenly there were rainbows everywhere, especially at pride, there was a bit of a backlash. I heard more than one person grumble about rainbows everywhere.
But I think Gilbert was on to something. The pink triangle was forced on us by oppressors; it was also most often used to identify gay men in the concentration camps—therefore many lesbians felt the reclaimed symbol didn’t include them. There is something joyful about the bright colors of the rainbow flag. The different colors side-by-side can signify that diversity Gilbert talked about: different races, different genders, different generations of queer people.
And I confess that as long as anti-gay religious wingnuts have conniption fits about us supposedly stealing the symbol from god, I’m going to take a bit of delight in raising my own rainbow flag. And it isn’t just about sticking it to the haters. Rainbows appear in the sky after a storm. They are beautiful and ephemeral and otherworldly. It’s difficult to look up at one in the sky after storm clouds have cleared and not feel at least a bit of wonder.
As queers we encounter a lot of storms in life. We may be bullied as kids. We may face discrimination and even physical assault as adults. We achieve a small victory, and then face a conservative backlash. In my lifetime there have been campaigns to pass laws to bar us from certain professions, even as courts and civil rights laws open some doors for us. The AIDS crisis killed tens of thousands, and it wasn’t just Republican politicians who laughed at our suffering during the 1980s. But every tempest and onslaught that we weather makes us a stronger. We have setbacks, but we fight on, moving ever forward.
Like the rainbow, we shine on after each storm.
A person crossed my social media this week (I presume because I reblogged a bunch of pride comments and memes on my tumblr) to admonish me for provoking normal people by celebrating the freaks of the queer community. They claim that they aren’t at all homophobic, yet they use the same tactics and the same language as the rabid bigots. Just like the bigots, they say that being visible is flaunting our sex lives. They say we are freaks. As a certain famous man from Galilee once warned us to beware of people who claimed to be our friends: “by their fruits shall you know them.”
Since I promised that this would be an adventure in dictionaries, let’s look at that word, freak. I call your attention to the following excerpt from the Shorter Oxford Dictionary’s definition:
4 Something fanciful or extravagant; (more fully freak of nature) an abnormal or irregular occurrence, an abnormally developed person or thing, a monstrosity.
b A person regarded as strange because of their unusual appearance or behaviour.
This so-called ally is hardly the first person to call me a freak. One of my uncles used to refer to me as an over-educated freak as early as age 9, for instance. It was one of the mildest insults my eighth grade Reading and Literature teacher called me. Other teachers and school administrators told my parents that the bullying I experienced was impossible to stop as long as I failed to act like a normal boy.
What was the behavior they were referring to? Was I showing up at school wearing bondage gear or dressed as a drag queen? No, of course not. The sorts of behavior that was called out were things like:
- I would rather read a book by myself than play sports
- In elementary school when most boys hated the girls in class, I got along great with them
- I knew more about cooking than I did about horsepower and gear ratios
- My favorite TV shows were things like The Carol Burnett Show or The Partridge Family or The Mary Tyler Moore Show instead of Gunsmoke or The Streets of San Francisco
- My favorite books were mostly science fiction
- In middle school I treated girls I talked with as friends, rather than as objects of desire (and didn’t understand for a long time what the difference was between the way I interacted with girls and the way most of the other boys did)
- I liked to draw and write fiction
- I laughed at the wrong things
- I liked to wear clothes that were interesting colors
Some of that list will not strike many people as gender nonconforming, particularly the science fiction bullet. But you need to understand that before 1977 and the advent of the original Star Wars movie (when I was a junior in High School), normal boys did not like sci fi.
The first Freedom Day Marches didn’t happen until I was in fourth grade, and they were not being covered on news stations and the like until several years later. All the bullying and teasing I got for being a sissy or a freak or “not a normal boy” was deeply rooted in homophobia that was hateful and destructive long, long before the first Pride. So don’t tell me that Pride causes homophobia. Anti-gay hatred was around for centuries before Pride.
And kids like me—kids who could never figure out why the way we talked or the way we walked or the things we found interesting were wrong—were subjected to that hatred and bigotry without appearing in public in fishnet stockings or elaborate make-up. We were bullied and mocked and scorned and ridiculed because our behavior wasn’t the usual expected of our gender. I was bullied because I didn’t understand why it was unusual for a boy to think that a pair of burgundy pants was cooler to wear than plain blue jeans. I was bullied because I thought a girl’s ideas were more interesting than what was hidden by her clothes. I was bullied because I would rather sing along (and dance or pretend to be a member of the band) to the radio than play cops and robbers.
Not all queer kids are gender nonconforming (but studies show that at least 75 percent of boys who were consistently identified as “sissies” during childhood will come out as gay as adults), just as not all queer male adults are into show tunes. But the scant number of queer athletes who have come out of the closet, as well as the large numbers of “straight acting” and “non-scene” gays, have been free to do so because the nonconforming or freakish queers decided not to take the hate and loathing lying down. The freaks decided to stop being ashamed of who they were and who they loved. The freaks decided to stop pretending to be non-freaks.
If those freaks hadn’t stood up, none of the assimilationist queers, none of the suit-and-tie or “masc for masc” gays would have the right to be out—they would all still be hiding in the closet and secretly having sex on the sly deeply steeped in self-loathing and guilt. And those folks who say that the freaks should stop flaunting who they are are no different and no less deplorable that the folks who fire gay bashing victims for talking about their assault or stab men for holding hands in public or murder trans people just for being who they are.
I’m not a drag queen and I don’t wear fetish gear to Pride. I wear my purple hats and various rainbow or unicorn-adorned t-shirts year round. I’m unashamed of my fabulous rainbow parasol and my purple earrings. But I cheer and clap for the people who do dress in drag or other outrageous clothes at Pride. I support their right to be there and be out and dress however they want without being harassed. Just as a woman wearing certain clothes in public doesn’t make it all right for someone to harass or sexually assault her, neither do queer and trans people wearing whatever they’re comfortable in make it right to exclude or denigrate them.
If my love of bright colors, glittery earrings, and silly t-shirts makes me a freak, I’m proud to join that fanciful and extravagant legion of the out and proud. If you’re going to call me a freak, fine, but that’s Doctor Freak to you, and don’t you forget it!
Bigot Bulletin: Principal and Police Officer who harassed students at Oregon high school are both fired
For some background: Gay teen says she went to school resource officer after getting bullied — and he told her she’s going to hell. The “resource officer” is a local police officer assigned to the school supposedly for the purpose of protecting the students. But he wasn’t the only problem. The principal of the school punished gay kids who reported incidents of being harassed (including at least one incident where the principal’s son nearly ran two of the other kids down with his car while yelling anti-gay slurs). Teachers who tried to help the kids in varying ways were retaliated against by the Principal and the district Superintendent, and so on.
So the Oregon Department of Education sent in an investigator. The local officials admitted to several issues, including that they had forced the gay kids to read and recite passages from the Bible as part of their punishment. The ODE investigator issued a report finding that the actions of the officials probably constituted illegal discrimination under Oregon law as well as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s requirement of separation of church and state. A final finding was pending, but the state ordered to school district to come to a settlement with the kids and their parents by the end of April. They didn’t.
During that time, many more former and current students came forward, with more incidents of anti-LGBT and racial discrimination. Meanwhile, the ACLU was pursuing a lawsuit against the district.
Monday things came to a head: ACLU OF OREGON REACHES SWEEPING SETTLEMENT WITH NORTH BEND SCHOOL DISTRICT OVER LGBTQ DISCRIMINATION AND BIBLE READING.
- Principal fired
- District dismisses Resource Officer and requests local police assign a new officer
- District will create a diversity committee (keep in mind that teachers already tried to set up a Gay-Straight Alliance and were stopped by the principal) which will hold celebrations for Coming Out Day and Ally Week and will issue an annual report on how the school is doing on issues of diversity, inclusion, et cetera
- District will hire an anti-discrimination expert to help them craft policies to appropriately respond to harassment and discrimination
- District will donate $1000 to a local queer support group
Additionally, as a result of the state investigation, the district will be under supervision of the state ODE for at least five years while all of this is monitored. The remaining bit of less than awesome news from my point of view on this is that even though the state’s investigation and the discovery process of the lawsuit found that the district Superintendent knew about all of this and committed some of the retaliation from teachers who tried to help the queer kids, he isn’t being fired. Maybe everyone assumes with the state breathing down his neck he’ll behave?
I get such a bee in my bonnet on these stories because of my own experiences being bullied as a kid. More than one teacher and administrator told my parents that until I acted like “the other boys” or “normal” there was nothing they could do to prevent the bullying incidents. Never mind that some of the worst bullying came from teachers. In middle school I was called “faggot” and “sissy” by four specific teachers far more often than most of the other kids. And then there was the time I was the one threatened with expulsion for being bullied again and again, unless I attending regular counseling sessions where, apparently, the counselor was trying to teach me to act like a normal boy.
A lot of people think that those kinds of days are behind us, but these incidents happening for the last several years at this school are merely one of many such cases. Fortunately, the ACLU keeps coming in to represent the students, and again and again the districts wind up paying big penalties for their discrimination, bigotry, and bullying. As Dan Savage has asked (many times) when will public school administrators get it through their thick heads?
And I agree with Dan on another thing. This story is a good reminder to go make a donation to the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon!