The question of equality in America is really a matter of time at this point; polls show an increasing number of Americans support marriage equality and those numbers show no signs of decreasing. President Obama came out in favor of marriage equality and a slew of other politicians have followed. Even Republicans are starting to admit that they’ve lost the “culture war” on this issue.
It’s true, there are still those who are opposed to equality, but they are increasingly fleeing to the fringes of American politics and religion. Remember Pastor Charles Worley? After his sermon calling for gays to be penned-up behind electric barbed wire fences, he was met with hundreds of demonstrators outside of his church. Pastor Worley’s views are no longer in the American mainstream, ten or fifteen years ago, he would have seen an outpouring of support, but no longer. It’s a new dawn in America.
Yes, it’s a great time to be a gay rights activist in America, the tide is turning in our favor and we can see that final glorious mountain top in the distance. But there’s one issue I have with this increasingly “gay friendly” society, the abundance of the contemporary gay stereotype.
Gay people have been stereotyped for centuries; we’ve been called mentally deranged, child molesters, etc. Thankfully most of these are dissipating as society understands how gay people really are. But the stereotype that is presented now is one that is just as denigrating.
We are everywhere in pop culture these days, Glee continues to
receive high ratings, Lady Gaga sells millions of records and sells out venues across the nation, Chaz Bono appeared on Dancing With the Stars, Rosie O’Donnell continues to have a highly successful TV show, so it appears that the country is ready to embrace us.
But are they really? What the public is seeing is what I call the “safe” gays, the clean-cut, polite pretty boys that don’t appear threatening at all. They look harmless, safe, nearly sterile, what’s so wrong with that?
Here’s the problem, this contemporary gay stereotype is bleeding over into the gay community as a whole and it’s dividing us. It’s causing us to turn away our own brothers and sisters. Pull up a chair, fellas, it’s Walter story time.
I’m bisexual and a pretty die-hard equality activist, I got my start in the movement back in 2003, shortly after the Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas (which overturned state sodomy laws) and have been dedicated ever since, I’ve participated in demonstrations, rallies, phone call-outs, email campaigns, spoken to the media and had my poetry published in several GLBTQ literary journals. My credentials are pretty solid as far as being an activist goes.
But I’ll tell you this right now, I don’t fall into the mainstream gay stereotype, I’m not a gelled hair pretty boy in a polo shirt and nice khaki shorts. I’m sitting here typing this article wearing a dirty Hawaiian shirt, ripped jeans with an unfiltered cigarette in my gold ashtray and early Motorhead barking out of my headphones. I don’t feel the need to “prove” my sexuality by falling into the mainstream stereotype.
This has caused some issues with fellow activists. Back when I was a student at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, during my first year there, I saw some people setting up for a demonstration. It turns out that they were setting up for the Day of Silence rally that year. Well, being the dedicated street activist I am, I went up and offered to help out, help them set up chairs, hold a sign, whatever they needed. We were allies, brother and sisters united.
Well, not quite. I was pretty much told to “fuck off” by the organizers of the rally. Not because I was being a nuisance or a disturbance, I supported their cause and offered my assistance. Nope, I got told to “fuck off” because I wasn’t like them, I didn’t look all spit and polish, ready for the glossy magazine nice. I was decked out in my usual jeans and black t-shirt with my long hair spilling out of the back of my flat cap. They had no place for me because I didn’t look like them and they didn’t want somebody like me messing up their show.
I was pretty hurt over the whole mess and maintained a certain animosity towards Advocates for Equality until I graduated from ISU. I did help them out for their Day of Silence rally during my last year there, but that was at the insistence of my buddy Aaron who knew the quality of my work as an activist.
I found other kindred “outcasts” at ISU; there was Darren and Kris mainly. They were like me, they weren’t pretty boys, they weren’t accepted by the “mainstream” equality group on campus, they were rock n rollers and they were street activists. We did a lot of independent work during our time in Terre Haute and did “freelance” work for other activists as well. We were young rogues, activists for hire, willing to get out there on the streets and get our hands dirty when most everyone else just wanted to go to conferences and make soft-soap speeches.
It wasn’t just with them that I found solidarity in Terre Haute, I became active in Wabash Valley Pride, thanks to their head honcho Terri Cole who appreciated my “outlaw” style and willingness to work hard. I also became the “right hand man” of the local PFLAG chapter, their main guy Ryan Foote often came to me for my extensive archive of documentaries and the latest on the political front.
But how do I define what I mean by “outlaw”? In this case, I’m describing myself and my buddies. We never had much use for the mainstream gay culture; we were into the underground, works by transgressive artists such as John Waters and William S. Burroughs, queercore bands like Pansy Division, Limp Wrist, God Is My Co-Pilot and Team Dresch, we read militant gay poets like Chuck Willman and Bryan Borland. To put this simply, Rob Halford of Judas Priest speaks more for us than Lady Gaga ever could.
I can’t speak for my buddies on this one, but for me, the mainstream gay culture just never appealed to me. I grew up with my older brother (who is gay) and he introduced me to cult films like the iconic The Rocky Horror Picture Show and obscure freak bands like GWAR and Green Jell-O. Spit and polish and glossy magazine cover never really appealed to me in general, I wanted something dirty and gritty, something that felt real, even if I knew it was a show.
And it wasn’t just with my taste in arts and entertainment either, I’m a fighter, I’m not one for giving the soft soap speeches or going to conferences. Nope, give me a good homemade sign, my pride flag and send me on the street. I’ll stand that picket line until hell freezes over if that’s what it takes. Give me a list of congressmen to call and I’ll call ‘em, give me fliers to post and I’ll post them. I’ve always been willing to get my hands dirty; achieving equality isn’t always a pretty road and you have to get in the trenches and grunt sometimes.
So boiled down what does this all mean? What am I asking for? I’m asking for a spot at the table, nothing more. I have no issue with people who find their identity in the mainstream gay culture, that’s fine. But please don’t push us aside because you perceive us as “less” gay than you are simply because we dress raggedly or prefer rock n roll to pop.
If you don’t want to get on the streets and dig in, that’s fine, we’ll do that, we’re street warriors, we have no problem with that. If you prefer a polo shirt to a beat-up John Lennon “Revolution” shirt, that’s fine too, there’s no problem with that. But don’t push aside, don’t tell us to “fuck off”, don’t kick us to the curb like society has.
Think about our flag, the Rainbow flag, the Pride flag. What does that flag mean? It stands for the diversity and unity of our community. Diversity should mean that all are welcome to the table, from the pretty boy stepping off the cover of Vogue to the grungy looking street queer just back from the punk bar. This isn’t just a buzz word to throw around to get politicians and the public on our side, if we want society to welcome us as equals, we have to welcome each other as well.
Unity is the other key word here, it takes all kinds to make this movement work, it takes the guy organizing the conferences, it takes the guy making the soft soap speeches to the press, it takes the angry street freak defiantly standing that picket line, it takes the dedicated political junkie making the phone calls to congress to get them to pledge their support for our cause. If we can stand united, our victory is guaranteed.
Don’t think there’s only one way to “be” gay just because it’s what the mainstream media is portraying to the rest of the country. There are many colors under our banner, embrace them and embrace others who march a bit differently. We’re going to win this fight, we will have our equality and it’s time to welcome your brothers and sisters in arms.
Solidarity, Unity, Equality.