On The Orlando Tragedy And The Future Of LGBTQ Rights, Two Years Later
The not so recent discourse around several broad LGBTQ rights issues has been rather low on my radar. No, not something I am proud of, and yes, it reeks of the privilege of not having to be personally concerned, but, for whatever reason, daily life interference not the least of, the issues just haven’t grabbed me with a lot of enduring force.
That is, until two things happened. I’m sure it will come as no surprise when I say that one of those was the tragedy that occurred at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando FLA on June 12/2016. When 50 LGBTQ people and their allies were massacred in cold blood. While the motive behind the killings has been hotly debated with various reasons given, some more compelling than others, let’s be clear. First and foremost, these individuals were killed because the dynamic of homophobia and the hatred of the LGBTQ community in our society is alive and well. While that dynamic may not be given outright support like a few short decades ago, it is a dynamic our culture has remained largely apathetic towards. If we ever needed a reminder of the end trajectory of LGBTQ bigotry, I can’t think of a more horrific, yet viscerally accurate example.
Before discussing more of the event that forms the heart of this piece, I’ll take a brief but intentional digression. You may recall I mentioned it was two events that served to bring gay and lesbian issues to the forefront for me. The other was very indirect, occurring several months ago while watching a Ted Talk, one given by Brene Brown, PhD; a social worker who spent ten years conducting post doctoral research which deeply analyzed the dynamics of vulnerability and shame. What I was struck by was something I couldn’t get out of my head for days. One deceptively simple but crucial factor that stood out among all others. That in all the research Dr. Brown had compiled, the clear and resounding fact was that individuals who experienced their life as having meaning, purpose and happiness, had an unwavering and steadfast belief that they were worthy of meaning, purpose and happiness.
Think about that.
Now think about our lifelong experience of being gay in a predominately straight world, and all the good and bad that has meant in our lives.
Interestingly, from my perspective as an HIV researcher Dr. Brown’s findings were something that I have seen play out in a number of ways. From my essay “Too Obvious To Ignore,” where I discuss the current state of HIV in a North American context …
Rather similar, isn’t it?
I hadn’t thought about those findings for several months. Then Sunday, June 12/2016 happened. Something I am still, almost a month later, having a difficult time getting my head completely around. All of this making my essay snippet above all the more prescient.
You may be asking what could a vaguely new age quote from an all the current rage motivational conference, have to do with the worst attack the LGBTQ community in North American has ever seen?
A Brief Historical Review
As gay North American men and women, for as much as we come from a multitude of diverse experiences, cultures and backgrounds, there is one commonality we share. All of us grew up, to some extent, wondering what the hell was wrong with us, why we were so different from everyone around us. Usually it began as knowing in some abstract way we couldn’t quite put our finger on that we were different. And as vague as that awareness was, our realization that it was something to keep hidden, was not. We slowly became adept at taking the pulse of our surroundings by becoming keen observers, skilled at the art of deception when required. The ones who didn’t possess that same skill set to a passable degree, well you remember them, don’t you? They were the ones you mocked and beat up, or at best, did nothing to protect. On the playgrounds, in the cafeterias and gymnasiums of the public schools of America, they were most often the targets. The bottom rung of the social placement ladder.
Slowly, and over time we started to figure out how we were different, and how we were perceived. Usually, that translated into a generic not good enough, reinforced every day in one hundred silent ways by the pressure of hetero-normative assumptions and expectations. Those pressures were often an awkward and ill fit, and if the elephant in the room that was homosexuality was even suggested, it was always with the not too subtle implication of it being sick, unnatural, immoral, and above all doomed to Hell existence.
But the human spirit is a funny thing, and in spite of all that, most of us found our way out of the hell that was a gay adolescence without slitting our wrists. Though to be clear, no less than a third of us were, and still are more likely to. So as we began the experience of finally being on our own looking desperately for others like us, the only real place we were able to do that was in bars, dimly lit, hidden away without a public identifier so as not to attract attention. Anywhere else was, of course, too dangerous. Even in the bars we were not safe, as they were routinely raided and harassed by police. When we were charged, our names were printed in the newspapers, often resulting in the termination of our jobs and damage to our personal relationships.
We were disinherited and shunned from our own families. Even our own bedrooms weren’t safe, according to our government. Cruel irony being what it is, when we got sick and died by the thousands in the early 1980’s we were ignored, and then told that it was all our fault. “God’s punishment,” they called it, for a “disordered” orientation. It took Rock Hudson to die of it, after thousands and thousands of us were already dead, for the media to cover AIDS as a legitimate story.
While that exposure was a good thing for a while, it made little to no measurable difference in our lived realities. We couldn’t join our friends and partners in their hospital rooms, or at their funerals, because we weren’t considered family. All the while our community was experiencing a level of death and loss previously only known by those in war time. Then to go to a memorial only to see Fred Phelps and his ilk show up to console us in our grief with signs that read, “God Hates Fags.”
When we asserted ourselves and requested the same rights that everyone else enjoys we were admonished for wanting “special privileges” and shoving our “lifestyle” down the throat of America. Simply by asking for equivalent rights straight people take for granted, this was labeled as the “Gay Agenda.”
Blame naturally fell to us for threatening the institution of marriage by people who in an instant seemed to forget a 50% divorce rate, drunken Vegas weddings, and the crisis of domestic abuse. The same men who made adultery a sport, or beat their wives and their children were the loudest ones pointing fingers of shame in our faces from pulpits on television every Sunday.
We were an easy target for Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and Born-Again Christians, to name only a few. It was often difficult for our supposed “allies,” as God forbid they be mistaken for one of us. Because that, as everyone knew, was the worst thing you could be. Banned from adopting the children of people who weren’t capable of parenting themselves, let alone someone else, we could only watch the hand-wringing spectacle and hear the cries to “protect the children.”
If, like myself, you were not burdened with the oppressive and shame inducing dogma of a faith based belief system, we still had to face the straight default. The reality of living an existence in a largely intolerant, often hostile, society and culture. Each and every one of us grew up surrounded by images in magazines, on television shows and movies, and on every street in every city in the country, of straight people kissing and fucking and holding hands.
All of this to the never ending background refrains of news segments informing us that the I-killed-the-faggot-because-he-made-a-pass-at-me defense, is actually a legitimate and legal argument.
I don’t care how progressive, enlightened, personally evolved or self actualized some of us perceive ourselves to be, every one of us, in varying degrees, shoulders the legacy of internalized shame and homophobia.
Then, in what was nothing more than a grand show of faux tolerance, we were allowed to dress up straight men on television, we were granted a white washed gay portrayal on TV of Will and Grace, and as was befitting of the narrative, we continued to listen to straight women recount their relationship problems while nodding sympathetically. Oh they would let us plan their weddings, just not have any of our own. Because …
Things take time.
Don’t be so demanding.
We must show them we are just like them.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know.
The undercurrent of which, no matter how you sliced it, was that our love for each other was sick, immoral, and undeserving of protection. Often lumped into the same category as pedophilia and bestiality. If that was not enough, well, Jerry Falwell attempted give us the credit for Hurricane Katrina.
People who hadn’t walked an inch in our shoes told their followers with unwavering conviction that we “chose” to be gay. While not even for a moment considering the more weighty question of “why does it even matter?”
Over time, the above assumptions and false attributions became a rapidly expanding, established as accurate, laundry list of what separated us from all of those who fought for their “legitimate” civil rights. That we didn’t even deserve to use the phrase “civil rights.”
All the while still being told, decade after decade, by the political allies that we elected and supported, that we needed to be even more patient than we’d already been, that our time hadn’t come, that “normal people” weren’t ready for us to have the same rights as everyone else. That if we were just good little gay boys and girls in oxford blue button downs and stone coloured khakis, we would show “them” that, really, in the end we were just the same.
Sadly, but predictably some of us donned blinders and took up residence in that hastily constructed house of promises, conveniently forgetting Audrey Lorde’s prophetic warning, that we “can’t dismantle the masters house with the masters tools.”
Others, with a somewhat less enthusiastic view of the white picket fence, retreated from the scorn, marginalization and violence, and built little communities, often referred to as ghettos, in cities where we could feel some measure of safety and belonging, however fleeting or illusory. It was strength in numbers. A place where a few of us could feel bold enough to hold our partner’s hand when we walked down the street, in neighbourhoods we built and claimed for ourselves. They were usually no more than a couple of square miles, here and there, scattered across the continent. But they were ours.
And still it continued. Over and over, people who claimed they had a right hand to God invaded our lives, came into our funerals, inserted themselves into the privacy of our bedrooms and our relationships, calling us immoral and disgusting. Arresting, beating, robbing, and, not infrequently, killing us. That, by the way, is not hyperbolic; it is a descriptively accurate representation of exactly what our history as LGBTQ people has been like.
Well, I’m sorry, I for one call bullshit!
Because if a bunch of black and latino drag queens and others who gave a finger to our cultures expected conformance to the gender binary hadn’t gotten pissed off and thrown some bricks nearly forty years ago, none of us would even have a gay pot to piss in. They’d put up with the scorn, and the violence, and the police raids for so many years, and something that night put them over the edge. Instead of meekly surrendering to yet another raid, something that night pushed them in a new and exhilarating direction. The first to fight back were the drag queens, hustlers, butch dykes, and street kids, who threw pennies, bottles, and bricks from a nearby construction site. The same types that some of us still want to push to the margins and keep from television cameras.
Just like today, while some of us still want to pretend that we can only reach our goals by acting like Stan and Dan, the Gap khaki role model queens with their adopted baby, the anger of the crowd at Stonewall swelled and turned, over the following weeks, into an urgency for broader activism. Within two years there were gay rights groups in every major North American city. We’ve continued their work but grown complacent, and in no small way, overestimated our so-called assimilation.
In a perfect world, we could walk down the streets of our cities and pass the preachers with only a glance, and continue on our way, and let them sing and worship and maybe even convert a desperate soul or two. In a perfect world, we could all sit down at a table and talk peacefully and reach some diplomatic compromise. We could work with the communities and the religious representatives that have opposed us, and come to a deeper understanding, a mutually held “common ground,” reaching our egalitarian goals together, buying the world a Coke and teaching it to sing. Nice idea, isn’t it?
Well, newsflash. That idea has never once manifested in reality, and it never will.
Yes, sometimes it takes diplomacy peppered with astute pragmatism. “In the system to change the system, blah, blah, blah”: I get it! It’s been the dominant approach for the last twenty years. But sometimes, what’s required is a heavy dose of wholly irrational, impatient fucking anger.
Sometimes, a few drag queens need to throw a few damn bricks for things to finally change, or for things to at least begin to change.
We are human, with human emotions, and one of those emotions is anger. And anger, given the current context, is a completely understandable, appropriate, and expected reaction. We need to stop apologizing for it.
We need our anger.
We need our outrage.
Because what may look like a historical and linear narrative above, is not. Those experiences are still happening today, in 2016. That is not gay and lesbian history, it is our current reality in many parts of North America.
Often, when we live in insulated communities, it can seem as if our oppressors are abstract: a flickering image on a television, a cluster of words in the newspaper. So it behooves all of us to remember that the gay experience of rural Canada and America is much more nuanced, much more complicated reality than that of downtown Toronto, the Castro, or West Hollywood.
If that doesn’t resonate for you, then think of the 50 people who can never even consider what I am saying here. We in the LGBTQ community need to face the truth and realize how it so easily could have been us. It could have been you or me. But even that isn’t exactly accurate. Because in most every way that matters, those 50 people were you and me. So isn’t it time?
To finally say, enough is enough!
What will it take? For gay people to finally come out. Yes, it is awkward. Yes, we can lose friends and family. But ask yourself, are people who can’t accept a core, central part of your being and ask you to hide it, are those people you really want in your lives?
If every gay person in North America came out tomorrow, do you really think we would be oppressed in the way that we currently are?
No, I am not asking people to come out if they are likely to risk their lives, careers, or physical safety. Everyone comes to the decision to come out of the closet by their own navigation. I am not suggesting we force people. But many of us who can come out, have not. I think at this juncture, where gay men and lesbians are being killed en masse in our own social venues, is it not time to harness whatever collective power we have?
Because, remember …
Is it not time, finally, to claim our own worth and happiness without shaping it to fit the comfort zone of someone else? To say finally, once and for all, enough is enough?
This article was originally published in June of 2016 on dacunha.com