I’ve written more than once before about how who owe a huge debt to the people who stood up and fought back that night, 51 years ago, at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Most of the legal rights that LGBTQ+ people have in the U.S. today is thanks to those Black and Puerto Rican queens who fought back, threw bricks, and so forth when the cops raided that bar.
Miss Marsha P. Johnson (which is how she identified herself whenever asked), was impossible to ignore—always appearing in public wearing a flowered hat and flamboyant dresses. Once when appearing in court on a disorderly conduct charge, after the judge asked her what the middle initial P stood for replied airily, “Pay it no mind!” Some early accounts of the Stonewall Riots said she was the one who threw the first brick or the first shot glass at a cop. In interviews she would admit that she threw several things at cops that night, but wasn’t certain she was the first person to throw anything. After the riots, she was one of the founding members of the Gay Liberation Front, and also co-founded the gay and transvestite advocacy organization S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), alongside close friend Sylvia Rivera. A note here about terminology: at the time several terms that would he considered slurs by transgender and gender nonconforming people today were commonly used within those self same communities. At different times Marsha identified herself as a street queen, a drag queen, and a transvestite. But she also always insisted on female pronouns and consistently introduced herself as Miss Marsha. Which is why most of us refer to her as trans.
Silvia Rivera was only 17 and living as a self-described drag queen at the time of the Stonewall Riots. Most historians (and her friend Miss Marsha P. Johnson) agree that she wasn’t at the Stonewall Inn the night of the raid, being at a party at another location that night. Her whole life she asserted that she had been there. And there were others who agreed and said she was the person who threw the first brick at a cop car. She certainly joined the protests and rioting that continued the following nights, and later founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.) along with Johnson. She was also a member of the Gay Activists Alliance. In a speech she gave at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally (what they called the annual event commemorating the riots for the first several years), she espoused a definition a belief that people such as herself belonged to a third gender.
Stormé DeLarverie was often described as a butch lesbian. Before Stonewall, she had been part of a touring theatre troupe which, among other things, performed a number called, “Who is the one girl?” and audience members seldom guessed correctly that the tall latino “guy” in a tailored suit wearing a false mustache was the one woman in the dance number. She was one of several who resisted arrest the night of the Stonewall police raid. Many witnesses claimed she was the woman who broke loose from the cops before being loaded into one of the waiting paddy wagons several times, to run, get caught, and dragged back through the crowd, each time making the crowd more angry at the cops. Of the events at Stonewall that night, DeLarverie always argued that it should not have been called a riot: “It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience – it wasn’t no damn riot.” She remained active in many gay rights groups and activities in the years after Stonewall, but was most often remembered as the self-appointed guardian of lesbians who patrolled the neighborhood at night with her baseball bat to drive off bashers.
Raymond Castro was another Veteran of Stonewall. Because we was not dressed in gender nonconforming clothes, he was not arrested, and was told he could leave. When he realized a friend was being arrested, he went back inside to try to help the friend. This got him arrested and put in handcuffs. He struggled with the cops, managing to knock a couple of them down. This seemed to encourage several other people nearby to start struggling. One of the officers that eventually wrestled him into the truck commented that he was “some kind of animal.” Castro was active in several gay rights organizations in the years after Stonewall.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy was at the Stonewall Inn with her girlfriend the night of the police raid. She was one of several to fight back. Unfortunately she was struck unconscious during the fight and was taken into custody. Miss Major has been active in a lot of transgender right organizations, civil rights organizations, and in the 80s became active in multiple HIV/AIDS organizations. She was the original Executive Director of the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, which advocates for the rights of incarcerated trans and nonbinary people. And Miss Major is still alive today, still fighting! Her Instragram account shows her at a Black Lives Matter protest earlier this week. She suffered a stroke last year and has a lot of medical expenses, which you can help with by donating here Miss Major’s Monthly Fundraising Circle.
Sometimes a headline sends you into a weird internal spiral remembering traumatic moments, such as: A babysitter was caught on video slapping a boy for being a “gay a** b**ch” & his family went to war – For once, there’s a happy ending.
When I first saw the headline, I didn’t see the subhead about the story having a happy ending. Instead, I found myself reliving the times as a kid that I was teased and/or punished for acting wrong—and usually not understanding what I had done that was so wrong. For instance, I loved singing along to music played on the radio, my parents’ records, or the TV… and sometimes the reaction from family and friends was encouraging. And other times I would get teased or yelled at or even spanked for my antics. And to me there wasn’t a clear difference between the times that my dancing and singing would make people happy and the times when I would get called a sissy or freak or pussy.
The first time I remember anyone calling me a faggot was when I was nine years old… and it was a teacher who did it. He wasn’t my regular teacher. The school district I had just transferred to had elementary students spend a few hours each week doing fairly simply physical education activities under the supervision of a secondary teacher. We were lined up in the gym waiting to be taken back to class one day, and music was playing from somewhere. I don’t remember why, nor do I remember what the song was that was playing, but I recognized it, and I was doing jazz hands and bouncing to the music while singing along when the teacher walked up, grabbed my arm, and (at least how I perceived it at the time) yelled in my face to ask whether I was a little girl or a little boy?
I stammered back that I was a boy. And he shook me and growled, “Then stop acting like a faggot!”
When our regular teacher arrived to collect us, the phys ed teacher explained that I was in trouble because I had been acting up and distracting the other students. So for the next several days I wasn’t allowed to go outside for recess. I had to stay in the classroom with my head down on my desk. I was told that I needed to spend the time thinking about how bad it was to distract other students from lessons.
None of which made sense. The lesson was over. We were standing in line. Absolutely no education was going on, we were just standing in line waiting for our regular teacher to come get us.
That’s not even the worst of it. Because the phys ed teacher had called me a faggot, and it wasn’t a word I was familiar with, I asked my regular teacher what it meant. And I got in trouble even more for saying “dirty words” in the classroom. But I was just quoting another teacher!
It was only a month or so later when a Sunday School teacher gave me my very first own dictionary, and one of the words I eventually looked up in it was faggot. And in that dictionary the word is defined as “a bundle of sticks, twigs, etc bound together used for fuel etc.” Which didn’t help at all. How was me singing along to music acting like a bundle of sticks?
To get back to the story linked above, when it says “The child was participating in a viral “Savage” dance challenge with his sister. He looks longingly at her as she continues to dance.” I really understand that part about looking on longingly as others were allowed to do what I couldn’t do. It wasn’t always gender-based, which is what made it so hard for me to figure out what I was doing wrong all the time.
The end result was that those of us who didn’t conform to gender stereotypes—whether due to sexual orientations, or gender dysphoria, or simple statistical variance—all found ourselves crashing and burning between various metaphorical Scylla and Charybdis with neither map nor compass nor guide to see us through.
Which means that many over us spent years waffling between extremes around our own identity. Which brings me to another headline: Queer Rock ‘n’ Roll Legend Little Richard Is Dead at 87. Some versions of the blog post that eventually became this one started after I saw the first story a few daya ago about the death of Rock star Little Richard.
Little Richard was an extremely flamboyant rockstar whose stage persona inspired a large number of performers ranging from James Brown to Prince. At different times in he career he flirted with being out; other times he blatantly admitted to his queerness—for example when he said that “if Elvis is the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll than I am the Queen” as well so the several times he described himself as “omnisexual.” Unfortunately, at many more parts of his career he denounced gay/lesbian people, and transgender people, and referred to parts of his own life as a struggle against sexual sin.
I went through several drafts this weekend of a post about him… and then I found the blog post that covered most of my points more succinctly than I had been able to:
Although rock ’n’ roll was an unabashedly macho music in its early days, Little Richard, who had performed in drag as a teenager, presented a very different picture onstage: gaudily dressed, his hair piled six inches high, his face aglow with cinematic makeup. He was fond of saying in later years that if Elvis was the king of rock ’n’ roll, he was the queen.
…Little Richard will always represent a sad existence to this once-closeted gay boy of the 1970s and ’80s. If it had just been my own self-loathing that made me feel embarrassed for him then I would only fault myself. But his clear struggle between his faith and his sexuality — at one point he became a preacher and more recently he denounced gay and transgender people as “unnatural” — represented everything that is wrong with organized religion, and I found his willingness to go along with it humiliating for everyone concerned. Still, you have to believe that the joy his music brought so many people is something that will be remembered far longer than the harm he caused so many LGBTQ people — himself included — during his 87 years on planet Earth.
When Little Richard appeared on various musical variety shows during the 60s and 70s, he represented a painful contrast. Part of me loved his stage persona and performance, but another part of me was deeply ashamed, because while I was still struggling with my own sexuality, he was clearly far outside of the acceptable boundaries of gender expression. Yet I still identified with part of what he was doing.
It wasn’t until many decades later that I learned that the original version of his first top forty hit, Tutti frutti referred to the kind of black gay man who wanted to be sexually dominated by other types of men. When he decided to record the song, he cleaned up the lyrics, but there were whiffs of the meaning that carried through, nonetheless.
I guess what I’m saying is that part of me understands why Litte Richard was never quite brave enough to come out and stay out. While another (much smaller) part of me understands why he had so much trouble negotiating his shame. But the greatest part of me remains deeply disappointed that he kept retreating back into self-loathing.
Little Richard, Tutti Frutti:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
This divide, or course, exists on a spectrum. The beliefs of most people within the community fall somewhere between the extremes, but, enough are on one side or other of the middle that arguments happen. For instance, I’ve been accused of being an assimilationist because Michael and I got legally married once we were able to do so, and I watch football. I’ve also been called out in the other direction because I wear earrings, the color purple, rainbows, and call myself ‘queer.’
The tension between these two ideas plays out in many (and sometimes weird) ways—and not just within the community. There are still plenty of people (straight and not), who insist that LGBT+ rights advocates should be civil, and politely make their case about why we deserve equality. They wrongly insist that the radical approach never works. They completely ignore the actual history of the movements: decades of work by so-called homophile organizations in the U.S. and Europe politely advocating for decriminalization—always careful for the men to dress in suits and ties, and the women to were skirts and blouses—and never making any progress. It was the riots by drag queens, transgender people of color, and the like that finally made any change happen at all.
Yes, the other approach works well for raising money and countering backlash to each step forward. So both approaches have their place in the long running battle for equality.
Which isn’t to say that only the non-conforming people matter, or that there is some sort of meaning to the question of whether one person is gayer than another (despite some people trying to drag that distinction into some political races this year), it’s mostly a recognition of the old proverb that the “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Both kinds of LGBT/queer person are valid and just as “gay” as the other.
In the last few years as a small number of mostly-gender-conforming male professional athletes have decided to come out of the closet, you see various media people calling them trailblazers whose bravery will somehow make it easier for non-heterosexual kids to be themselves. Ignoring that fact that the actual trailblazers were blazing those trails for many years. It’s not the macho professional male athlete coming out in the twenty-teens who is leading the way, they are trailing far, far in the dust behind the femmy boys and glittery street queens and butch dykes and trans people of all types who led the way at Stonewall and in the years immediately following. And as has been demonstrated many times, no matter how unthreatening, conventional, and mainstream non-heterosexual people are, as soon as they dare to come out of the closet someone is ready with the slurs and attacks.
The two philosophies I mentioned at the beginning (Assimilationist/Radical) roughly map to two distinctive kinds of experiences many queer people lived through growing up:
- Some of us never fit in. We were bullied by classmates (as well as adults) for the way we talked, or the way we walked, or the things we expressed interest in.
- Others blended in so well that when they eventually did come out, people who knew them when they were younger express genuine and emphatic shock.
Make no mistake: neither kind of kid had it easy. The ones who did blend in realized, at some point, that they were different, and they lived in just as much fear as those of us who couldn’t figure out why we were constantly being called all those homophobic slurs. Both kinds internalized homophobia leading to feelings of self-loathing.
Those of us who couldn’t blend in are somewhat more likely to focus on trying to make society more accepting of all differences, while those who did blend in seem to be more likely to think our goal should be to convince straight people that we are no different from them.
But it isn’t an exact correlation.
I’m saying all of this for context. Now, let’s move on to my point: any time in the last few months that I have criticized the policies and statements of presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg I get accused of saying he isn’t gay enough. As if that phrase even means anything. That’s not what’s happening. My beef with Buttigieg is very few of his statements about policies would sound amiss coming out of the mouth of 2016 Republican presidential candidate, Jeb Bush. Most wouldn’t sound amiss coming out of the mouth of 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.
Mayor Pete is not a progressive politician. He doesn’t advocate positions that I believe will move us forward. At best, his detailed policies look to undo most of the harm Trump has done, and otherwise only promise to not to let things get much worse.
We can do better than that.
Now, I have some theories about why he doesn’t see how harmful late stage capitalism is to most working class and middle class people of every gender, orientation, and race. And I have some theories on why many of his responses as mayor to issues related to marginalized communities were tone deaf or outright dismissive. The quickest summation is: he is unaware of how the privileges he has had (being a man in our society, being white, having university-educated parents, being from a family well-to-do enough to send him to private school, and then to Harvard, and yes, being the kind of gay who can pass for straight when he wants) has protected him from the problems those less fortunate have had to deal with.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t think he’s gay enough. That does means I don’t think he is either self-aware enough nor empathetic enough to be a good president.
And that 2012 date was for the state of Washington. For the majority of the U.S. marriage was still not available to same sex couples until the Supreme Court ruling in 2015.
I told you that story so I can tell you this one:
A couple of weeks ago I was busy at work updating documents. I had to type the day’s date several times, and one of those times it struck me, “Oh! Wow! Today’s the anniversary of our first date.” It was, specifically, the 22nd anniversary of our first date. As it happened, we already had plans to meet a bunch of friends a couple of days later, at which event I was already planning to hand out some Christmas presents that had not be collected at the party, and a birthday present, and other things, so during my lunch break that day, I ran out to a store and also purchased an anniversary card to give to Michael, along with a silly present to give him with the card (I also ordered a couple the more substantial gifts online).
As it happened, that same day, while typing the date into a database at his workplace, Michael also remembered that it was the anniversary of our first date. He went online later and ordered an anniversary present for me. And, yes, we do that kind of weird parallel thinking a lot, and every time it happens, I remember all the times that close friends said (that year that we finally got to marry for real) that it was a little strange to think of us as newlyweds, because we had seemed to be an old married couple for so very long before hand.
I understand that not many people who have been in long-term relationships remember the exact date of their first date, nor the date of when they first met, et cetera. One reason that we do is because for most of history, queer relationships have been excluded from the societally-approved institutions related to anniversaries. So, for a few years, we celebrated the anniversary of our first date as our anniversary as a couple.
Then, the company I was working for decided to allow same sex partner benefits but only if you registered with some sort of government agency, and it so happened that the City of Seattle was offering such a registry (though it conveyed no legal benefits), so we filed the appropriate paperwork so I could get Michael on my medical and dental… and then a few years after that the State of Washington offered a similar registry, though initially with virtually no legal rights, but we signed up for it anyway, and so on…
So, technically we have a bunch of anniversaries… but which one to celebrate? And that question isn’t trivial. Go back to the story I started with. Without really thinking about it, a person who had just met me had asked how long I’d been married. That is an extremely common question for people who are just getting to know each other to ask once they find out you are in a relationship. And humans are social animals, and social customs often have a much stronger impact on one’s success, health, and similar things than mere laws.
I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been together for 22 years—if for no other reason than that I know what a complete jerk I can be sometimes (I really don’t know why he puts up with me sometimes!). I’m also extremely happy that we were able to get legally married at last, and getting to spend that day with so many friends that we love was just incredible.
There are still people who think that long-term queer relationships don’t exist, or are so rare that they don’t matter. The fact that the people most likely to publicly declare that are pundits and politicians who have divorced and re-married many times (and often have been proven to have engaged in a lot of affairs along the way) for some reason almost never gets reported. Let alone the sociological and psychological damage we’re all operating under because of decades of bullying, discrimination, hatred, and simple erasure.
That graph I include above is informative, but also a bit misleading. That last bit of the graph shouldn’t be green, IMHO, because it is still legal in at least 28 states to fire someone (or refuse to rent a home to them, et cetera) just because they are gay. And don’t get me started on all the state and local officials in various places that are trying to undo the marriage ruling, or at least ignore it.
And for some perspective, just 35 years ago 60 percent of Americans thought it should be a crime for gay and lesbian people to date, and as of last year that number is still 23%! That’s just dating, not marriage!
Some people, like the co-worker in my opening anecdote, simply aren’t aware of how recent any legal or societal acceptance has been (and are also frequently clueless about how much still exists). In some cases, that lack of awareness are exacerbated by the histrionics that some bigots have gone into every single time we made any progress at all. It’s easy to think that because the bigots were screaming about us destroying marriage for two decades before we actually started getting that right to marry, that we’ve had the right longer. And a lot of people still don’t realize that in 28 states it is completely legal for an employer to fire someone simply because they suspect they might be gay.
We’ve come a long way, but there’s a long way to go. Fortunately, several of us have demonstrated that we’re in it for the long haul.
A few quickies to wind up this interesting Tuesday
The Iowa caucuses have always been bad. Now we know just how bad they are – With its error-prone process in a disproportionately white state, Iowa doesn’t deserve to be the state to have the first say in who the Democrats should nominate. Despite this, the problem isn’t about corruption, nor do the slow release of results prove any kind of conspiracy. Caucuses are in theory run by the state parties, who rely heavily on volunteers. These are not trained professionals. The volunteers seldom get much in the way of training beforehand. And volunteers at these things tend to skew older, exactly the demographic that you don’t want carrying out important tasks with a smart phone app. To be fair, primaries have a lot of the same problems—poll workers again are not paid professionals, they are volunteers who often are not well trained. And with either system, election night results are always, at best, estimates. The real results aren’t known until all the paperwork from the precincts are processed, sometimes weeks later. And yes, there were all the usual paper documents signed with the entire precinct witnessing and so forth. The app wasn’t meant to be the official results, but rather to facilitate announcing estimates sooner.
Let’s move on to a differnt topic: Republicans scrap child marriage ban because they’re worried about a pro-LGBTQ proposal — Indiana could have stopped adult men from marrying 15-year-old girls, but Republicans wanted to be sure their marriage equality ban stayed on the books. Because nothing says freedom more than forcing teens to marry whom their parents chose. And heaven forfend that consenting adults are allowed to tie the knot…
‘Shocking Disrespect’ As Trump Acts Up During The National Anthem – Video of Trump behaving erratically while the Star Spangled Banner were played at his Super Bowl party have surfaced. This from the alleged president who called on people to be fired (and worse) for kneeling during the national anthem. And let me point out: kneeling is not disrespect! That’s the part that really gets me. Kneeling has always been a form of respect and deference. Whereas gyrating around, moving a chair, waving your arms in mockery of a choral conductor? That’s definitely not showing respect.
It’s No Exaggeration: Sweeping South Dakota Bill Aims to Eliminate All LGBTQ Rights. Again, because nothing says freedom like imposing your religious beliefs on others…
I am not going to watch the State of the Union. I don’t need to watch that buffoon lie while mangling the language for hours. If you do want to watch a good speech under 8 minutes, you might enjoy this:
LGBTQ State of the Union w/ Billy Porter | Logo TV:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
And the thing is, the people who most adhere to this idea of protecting children from even knowing that non-cisgender or non-heterosexual people exist all do a really poor job of that. Because I guarantee you that the children of those parents are the ones at school bullying any classmate who seems gender-nonconforming by calling them homo or sissies or some other slur. Kids may or may not understand the intricacies of adult relationships, but they glean and infer a whole lot about same aspects of sex and romance and related topics from the adults around them.
Some adults seem to completely forget what it was like when they were children. And that manifests in a couple of different ways. To illustrate, I’ll tell the story of two playdates.
Now, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “playdate” meaning “a play session for small children arranged in advance by their parents” didn’t come into the language until 1975, and these two stories from my childhood predate that (one happened in 1969, and other in 1971). And I’m not sure that 9-year-olds or 10-year-olds fall into the definition of small children, but the idea was mostly the same.
The first one happened early in the third grade. It was the first time I recall that my Mom took me to the home of one of my friends from school or church for the explicit purpose of letting us kids hang out. Mom also visited with my friend’s mother for a bit before taking my little sister to some other event, but I and my friend hanging out was the purpose of the trip. It was a fun evening, we spent most of the time in his room talking about comic books, as I recall. No big deal. Eventually Mom came back to pick me up. We went home. We had a few more similar get-togethers like that, usually with me being dropped off at his place, but it least one time his parents dropped him off at ours.
The second one happened in the middle of fourth grade. Because of my dad’s work in the petroleum industry, we had moved three times between these two playdates. Two of the moves involved crossing a state boundary. All three moves involved me being enrolled in a new school. At some of those intervening schools, we hadn’t remained in the area long enough for me to make much in the way for friends. At the third place, though, I quickly became very good friends with a classmate. Both of us were in orchestra (it was the first year I could join), and our mothers had met when they came to pick us up after practice.
So eventually, a plan was made when my classmate would be dropped off at our place for an evening. But the plan quickly became weird. Dad and a few other people made strange comments. I was getting teased about this friend.
Why? Because she wasn’t a boy.
When she was dropped off, her dad made some comments that made both Dad and Mom laugh, but just confused me. Most of the fathers of kids I’d known most of my life had owned guns. So why did her dad tell me about his gun and how handy it was to get to?
We spent most of the time sitting at the dining room table talking about our favorite books (she and I shared an adoration for The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew). At the end of the evening, Mom drove my friend home and I rode along so we could keep talking. When we pulled up in front of her house, Mom told me that I was supposed to walk my friend to the door. I said, “Sure.” We both got out of the car and walked up to the front door. I remember that her family’s dog was barking really loud in the house, and she made a comment about how we needed to make sure the gate was latched, in case the dog got out of the house.
We walked up to the porch. She said, “Good night.” I said, “See you at school!” She opened the door and went inside. I walked back to the car. I spent at least half a minute making certain I had latched the gate correctly, then I got into the car.
And Mom was very angry at me. “When you walk a girl to the door, you don’t just leave her there and walk away! You’re supposed to go inside and thank her parents for letting her go out with you!”
“I didn’t know that.” All of those times the year before when the other friend and I had gotten together, neither of us had been sent in to thank the others’ parents for letting us hang out. Why was this different?
There was some additional fallout, including a lot of teasing at school the following week. The upshot was that my friend didn’t want me to talk to her any more in class or at orchestra rehearsal. I was very confused about the whole thing. Not because I didn’t know why the other kids were teasing us. I knew what “girlfriend” and “boyfriend” meant. But I also knew that those words didn’t describe our relationship—we really were just two orchestra nerds who liked reading! Once that teasing started, I at least had a slightly better idea of what some of the weird comments from adults beforehand had been about.I have no idea if the boy I was friends with during the first part of third grade was also queer. At the time I didn’t know that I was, for goodness sake! It is true that one of the reasons we got along so well is because we both tended to be frequent victims of the same playground bullies, so maybe he was. Or maybe we were both just 9-year-old comics nerds who happened to hit it off. But none of the adults around us ever worried about us both being in either his or my bedroom with the door closed for several hours. No one’s dad made shotgun jokes when we got together. At the time, I had no interest in kissing other boys (that would come up a couple years later, when puberty hit like a freight train), and certainly had never thought of kissing him. We were just two guys who thought Spiderman was cool.
But everyone, including apparently our own parents, assumed I and the second friend were romantically interested. I can’t speak for her, of course, but since I’m not merely gay, I’m really most sincerely gay, that was the furthest thing from my mind. And 10-year-old me was just happy to have found someone who liked reading some of the same books as I did.
To circle back to the opening topic: People who assume that grade school children are too young to know about romance and such are the same people who call small boys “lady killers” and cute baby girls “future heartbreakers.” They are the same people who assume any time a young boy is friendly with a girl that it’s a crush. They are the same people who make those stupid shotgun jokes.
If the kids are old enough to hear bullies calling other children “fags” or “homos” or “sissies”, they are old enough to know that actual LGBTQ+ people exist, that they are members of their community, and that they are humans who deserve respect and love just as much as anyone else. If kids are old enough for adults to tease them about their supposed girlfriends/boyfriends, they’re old enough to know that sometimes a guy can have a boyfriend or even a husband, that sometimes a gal can have a girlfriend or even a wife.
I didn’t think it was my place to write about the Helicopter story, other than to link to a few of what I thought were the more thoughtful pieces about it. The story uses for its title a meme that has been a popular attack from certain kinds of bigots against trans people. It was an attempt by the author to take a painful attack and turn it around. As one of the stories I linked in this week’s Friday Five showed, for some trans readers it succeeded in that goal. For others it didn’t. Art is risky like that, even when you aren’t tackling such fraught topics.
I’m not trans myself, and as such when trans people are talking about problems they face and issues they are struggling with, I believe my first duty is to listen, and when I can, amplify their words. Thus linking to two pieces by trans people in the Friday Five but not commenting myself.
The author has since asked the publisher to pull the story. The editor of the online zine has done so and issued a explanation.
In the aftermath, I’m seeing certain accusations being hurled around about those who didn’t react well to the story. One of the accusations is that every person who explained why they were uncomfortable with using that meme as a title was attacking the author. Similarly, people are characterizing criticism of parts of the story that didn’t work for them as a reader, again, as a personal attack on the author. Others are making the cliched attack that people who admit they didn’t read the story (and then carefully explained why just seeing the title brought up painful memories) have no right to comment.
Here’s why I disagree with all of those accusations:
In the early 90s I made the decision to do what a small fraction of the LGBT community was doing at that time: to take back the word “queer.” It was hardly a popular idea. My own (now deceased) husband was dubious at first. The word had been hurled at me and at him and others like us as an attack throughout our childhoods and beyond. I decided to pick up the those stones and turn them into a shield. But that was my decision.
It’s been 28 years, and I still occasionally get grief whenever I use the word queer to refer to myself or the community. Quite often from old white gay guys just like me.
They don’t like the word because it and the memories it evokes are painful. And it doesn’t matter that I have just as painful memories as they do, I have no right to demand that they deal with the pain the same way I have decided to. It’s true that I have forcefully asserted my right to use the word queer, but that is in the face of a different kind of criticism. Yes, I have also had people tell me not to use the word and that I’m a bad person for doing so.
But mostly, the negative comments I’ve gotten after using the word have been along the lines of: “I can never bring myself to use that word. Please don’t call me that.”
They don’t disagree with the word because they lack the discernment to tell that I mean it in good faith. They don’t refuse to use the word for themselves because they think I’m a Nazi. They aren’t attacking me when they explain why they refuse to use the word for themselves. They aren’t spreading misinformation when they speculate about why people like me are comfortable with the word and they aren’t.
Taking back a slur isn’t an easy thing to do. And it is perfectly reasonable for people to avoid the pain of engaging with the slur. It is perfectly reasonable for people to explain why they don’t want to engage with the slur. Deciding not to engage with the slur isn’t an attack on the author.
The helicopter meme has been used as an attack (mostly) on trans people. Not just the meme, but many variants of it. I’m not trans, but I’ve had angry bigots use the attack on me when I’ve posted certain opinions online. Angry words, harassment, taunting, and badgering hurts. Yes, I block frequently and quickly, but still the initial blow lands and it stings.
When one has suffered through those attacks repeatedly, seeing that attack used as a title of a story in a magazine you may admire, understandably fills you with apprehension at the least. The first time I saw the book Faggots I was caught off guard. I didn’t expect to see that word in large red letters on a book. I didn’t know, at the time, who Larry Kramer (the author) was. I didn’t know he was a gay rights activist. My first response when seeing that title was pain and fear. It didn’t matter that I was in a queer-friendly bookstore at the time. The title caught me by surprise and like a punch in the gut. I learned later that a lot of people in the community who did know who Kramer was and had read the book hated it when it first came out and saw it as an attack on the community—and for many, the wounds still burn decades later.
That’s the power words have. As an author, I am constantly reminding myself that words matter, that words can hurt as well as heal. Editors and publishers are mindful of this, too. Unfortunately, even the best of us with the best of intentions sometimes make mistakes. Readers who are caught off-guard and given no context will react. Some of those reactions will be raw. Some of those reactions will be misinterpreted.
It’s okay to disagree. It’s okay to take risks in art. I think attempting to take the power from slurs is a good and worthy pursuit. I also know that sometimes trying to do that causes discomfort or pain to some of the people that we’re trying to help. It doesn’t mean we stop trying. It just means that we try to do better, next time.
There are other people writing very thoughtfully on the topic:
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.
Mele Kalikimaka me ka Hauʻoli Makahiki Hou!
Beannachtaí na Nollag!
Priecīgus Ziemassvētkus un laimīgu Jauno gadu!
Felix Dies Nativitatus!
Mariah Carey – All I Want for Christmas Is You (Make My Wish Come True Edition):
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)