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I am not certain why the mainstream media have shown interest in the recent tragic losses of five queer youths, but this national attention is long overdue. One suicide is too many suicides. These that have occurred in just three weeks have been instrumental in reminding the country of the hostility young people face for being different. While the focus on making changes in state-level and national marriage, family, non-discrimination, employment, and hate crimes laws has been important, we need not forget that we have, still, so far to go in improving the lives of everyday queer people. Fortunately, that insight has been shared by others, including Dan Savage with his “It Gets Better” campaign, Ellen DeGeneres, and many celebrities via MTV.
I appreciate the many messages from everyday people and celebrities alike that it gets better, and I have added my own message “we have to make it better”:
We can see that change occurs year by year, even day by day. But, it is in our efforts and the efforts of our allies that change comes about. It does not magically happen; we cannot expect change while bigots work just as hard to resist change. For most of us, as I have noted before, just living our lives out and proud is a form of activism. We do the work of bigots when we inflict harm on ourselves, or deny who we are, or restrict our actions to avoid discrimination and prejudice. For laws, hearts, and minds to change, we have to live our lives, stand up to injustice, and continue to fight on. It does get better!
No, as the title might suggest, this is not a post about a party I had to celebrate the seventh anniversary of coming out of the closet, embracing and publicly announcing my (now) queer sexual identity. Though it has now been seven years since I first told another soul other than my own, I want to share the experience of another, yet equally important and memorable event.
A friend of mine recently came out to his family, to which he received a less than positive reaction. Given that I knew that I would be in town, I decided to check with my parents to see if they would be interested in having dinner with him and me. It might sound a little strange, but my intention was to give him living proof that parents who may initially not react favorably to their child coming out can, with time, arrive at near-total acceptance. My parents initially said yes, but with a touch of humor that made me wonder whether they were agreeing to do so only to appease me. I did not get much more from my father, which is not unusual for him (a man of few words on emotional matters), but my mother later sent me a reassuring email, complaining that she found it unfair that LGBT children continue to have to deal with negative reactions from parents.
We met for dinner last week, everyone except for me (because I was on spring break) still in work attire. The first twenty minutes or so were a tad awkward with obligatory questions about how my friend and I know each other, where everyone works, where everyone is from. But, then the elephant in the room was finally addressed – let’s talk about coming out and parents’ reactions. I was confident that my parents would have positive things to share with my friend, but I had no idea just how honest and positive their stories would be. Both my father and mother talked about what shifted them from an initial negative reaction (why did this happen? who is at fault? what could we have done differently?) to one of acceptance. The primary force responsible for this shift was their recognition that I was successful in my career (still in college at the time) and continue to be, and that I decided to accept and admit to them my sexual identity to be happy.
What came as the biggest surprise to me, they recounted things that have happened along the way over the last seven years that reflected back my own experience with those same events. For example, my mom noted the time she and my father sat in our family room (a room we hardly use) in the dark, with her consoling my crying father (who, at that point, had only cried twice in his adult life – the other time being when my grandmother died.) She highlighted how it appeared as though they were grieving my death. This is exactly how I recall the event, so it was quite surprising and validating to hear that she experienced the event in the same way. Finally, what I became aware of through their individual journeys to accepting me as I am is that it seemed that most of the work to reaching acceptance was within themselves. For all of the battles over choice of sexual orientation, what I am doing, who I am sleeping with, what groups I belong to, and what types of things I do on the internet (like blogging), the best thing I did to help them reach acceptance was to continue to be successful in all other areas of my life and be myself – the rest of the work fell on them to wrestle internally with their moral beliefs, religious upbringing, and parental love.
In the end, my parents were quite warm with my friend and did their best to reassure him that he need not feel ashamed of his sexual orientation and that his parents may eventually come around. My mom even offered to connect with his parents, but further down the road when they have had more time to digest the news. Seven years ago, my father reacted as though I had died and my mother had to deal with her worst nightmares as a parent come true (she said she knew since I was five that I was “different” than other boys). There were regular fights and silences that shrouded some topics. Today, my father regularly sends me emails about the debates over Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and same-sex marriage and my mother has looked into getting involved with Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG).
From this event, I feel confident to say that, with time, families can become accepting of their LGBT family members. I should admit that I am not out to a lot of extended family, either because of their age or because we are not all that close. And, I see this as part of the reason why I do not see coming out as the end all, be all for everyone. I do not necessarily think that we should expect everyone to be publicly out, as the consequences for doing so are too great for some people. We as LGBT people are not a monolithic mass; some of us have to worry about the loss of our racial and ethnic communities, or being banished from our places of worship, or being disowned by our families. Although, in one of my ideal worlds we would not need to come out, at least not anymore than heterosexuals, another of my ideal worlds is not needing to have specific labels for people based upon their preferences, tastes, and likes. In the mean time, it is important and powerful for those who can afford to to come out given the impact contact with LGBT people has on supporting LGBT rights, but we also should be careful to avoid setting that standard for all LGBT people as our experiences and backgrounds vary.
There, for once I wrote a post that wasn’t all negative!
By the time the supposed Black vs. gay war had been (re)launched following California’s passage of 2008 Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marrage in the state, I was well aware of oppression within oppressed groups (I ranted back in February about the problematic expression, “gay is the new black.”) In this post, I want to challenge the notion that being a minority automatically makes one empathetic toward other minority groups, and, further, that being a minority makes one immune to oppressing others.
Wow, Was I Naive Or What?
As a young biracial gay feminist aspiring-vegetarian activist, I understood the experience of a minority to include empathy for other minorities and explicit efforts to challenge all forms of oppression. In my case, being of color and gay meant being a feminist and actively challenging sexist oppression, as well as other forms of prejudice and discrimination. This mindset continued into college, particularly when I shifted toward a queer identity. I suppose it only took moving to Indiana and beginning my graduate studies to burst my naive bubble. It only took a few sexist and racist comments at the local gay bar and a growing awareness of the heteronormativity in Black communities (like any community) for me to begin to realize experience with one form of oppression doesn’t translate into advocacy against another. I began to recognize that being a queer man (now genderqueer-identified) did not make my objectification of women any less sexist.
“It’s Okay, I’m Gay”
My intention is to critique this misguided assumption in general, but I use queer folks as my example case here. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen gay men fondle women’s bodies at a bar or party, sometimes with the woman’s explicit consent or assumed consent through her laughter or silence. I’ve even heard such behavior justified by comments like, “it’s okay, I’m gay.” This logic implies that sexism and the objectification of women is merely something of heterosexual men (and I guess bisexual men, too). It has also been extended to justify racist prejudice. (I can’t tell you how furious I was when I met a white gay man who saw himself as a Black heterosexual woman because of his “ghetto”, sassy attitude.) Certainly, this logic may carry over to justify other forms of prejudice: ageism, ableism, classism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, and so forth.
Gay Can Mean Anti-Racist and Anti-Sexist
Today, a gay identity is not merely about sexual behavior – it’s a sociopolitical sexual identity. That means that lesbian, gay, and bisexual identities incorporate an explicit challenge to heteronormativity, racism, sexism, classist oppression, etc. LGBT and queer people, like any other minority, can begin to build coalitions (again) with other minority groups to challenge the status quo. Such coalitions have existed in the past, and I’m certain that a number exist today. But, like the Prop 8 fiasco, it seems that the “divide and conquer” strategy of pitting Blacks against gays against feminists against immigrants is still alive, well, and successful. Not only is coalition-building across minority groups possible, it is necessary now as it was in the 1960s and 70s. Although our President is of color for a change, white heterosexual middle-class able-bodied men still rule the country, yet they’re a numerical minority! But, one could say that people of color, feminists, queers, working-class people, immigrants, and other minorities banded together to vote President Barack Obama into office. Real and effective alliances are possible!