Having grown up as a minority in a pretty repressive environment in the deep South, aggressive taunts from heterosexuals in my community - my family, even - were a mainstay. You get used to it pretty early on in life because there's not much of a choice there; being out is life-threatening in that world and sometimes just supporting others who are like us can put those who are hidden at risk. And in this place, in too many places, heterosexuality is beaten into people's heads, literally and figuratively. It's in our churches. In our schools. For so long it was embedded in the framework of our military - as if bravery, if honor were heterosexual qualities. As if god-fearing religious people can only be straight.
This code was enforced with beatings, with outings, with shunning. It was enforced through the repression of the closet - as cold and evil a place as you'll find. We just instinctively knew that we were supposed to be heterosexual, that it was the right thing, and anything else would be tortured out of us, til we repented and agreed with this conservative life we were coerced and threatened into. The closet was far from a respite, it was never a secret, warm place where anyone could feel safe or secure. The closet was a forced 'institution', an expectation imposed by forces before we were ever born into existence.
Under those circumstances, it becomes difficult to understand how a community could thrive, but we did. Our community persevered, we came out, we stopped forming hiding spaces and began forming places to openly meet, to be seen with each other, to explore ourselves together. A different way of thinking was introduced to society, and though the forces of conservatism tried, our culture grew into something beautiful. It's something to be proud of - we formed a new reality that an oppressive group hated, and that group was no match for us.
This is the one aspect of living this life that I think should always be celebrated. This is an achievement against long odds. Who would have thought a community this diverse and spread out over many miles could have shifted public consciousness so much? Who could have foreseen that we could celebrate our differences with the mainstream and with each other, and tell our complex and layered story to everyone, all over?
It is under that backdrop that Out Magazine's editor-in-chief Aaron Hicklin chose to write a retrospective on 2011, calling for the end of gay culture and the heterosexualization of our people. Writing that shows like Glee are on TV, portraying our community as "equal" to heterosexuals, Hicklin tells us that gay people are "strange and peculiar" and that this is something to be ashamed of.
Discussing the "windowless gay bar with the peephole in the door," he tells us that gay people used to be drugged out sex fiends and that we are, and should be, making ourselves into benign - and probably white, there is no mention of queer people of color in the piece (or for that matter, people who are bisexual or transgender) - clones of heterosexuals:
Looking back it's clear that this dramatic metamorphosis, from poppers to paninis, represented a broader shift in gay culture, or – if you believe the commentator Andrew Sullivan – the "inexorable evolution" towards the end of gay culture itself. Sullivan may have been overly optimistic in a 2005 article that he wrote for The New Republic, welcoming the receding differences between gay and straight, but he was the first to fully articulate the assimilation of gay identity into the mainstream. A year later, when I became editor of Out, it seemed pertinent to ask what function a gay magazine would serve in a world that, if not yet post-gay, seemed to be heading that way.
No, I don't believe the gay conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan. I am also not sure that I'm optimistic about welcoming this shift. Why should we try to be just like the people who have, in a lot of ways, abused and terrified - inflicted decades of terror - upon us? Why is this a goal of Hicklin's? There's so much that's so good about all of us, so much we've been through and yet we're still here. Why would we give it all up now to embrace and exemplify a culture that never wanted us and made that fact known by making a lot of us dead over the years, in any way they had the power to accomplish the task? Why would we embrace the culture who created discriminatory laws against us on purpose as an institutional barrier to our ever gaining any sense of freedom and acceptance - for who we are - why would he think it's important?
Hicklin discusses these anti-gay laws, but completely misses the point of why they should be eliminated, arguing that the laws against marriage, military service, employment and entry into the country should be erased from the books so that we can be even more similar to heterosexuals:
The perception that marriage equality was a poisoned pink chalice persisted up to the 2008 election, when even Obama was careful to clarify that he wasn't in favour of gay marriage, apparently heeding warnings from Bill Clinton to give the issue a wide berth. Yet in this year's debates between the ragtag pack of Republican presidential nominees, the usual rhetoric denouncing gay marriage has been noticeably absent. Even Obama, facing precarious odds for a second term, has said that he favours repealing the notorious Defense of Marriage Act that has prevented federal recognition of gay marriages, even those performed in states where they are legal.
What changed in those few short years? In many ways the transformation of attitudes has been ongoing for decades, accelerated in large part by the impact of Aids, which reconfigured gay identity around community and relationships. In TV shows such as Glee and Modern Family, gays are no longer comic stooges or punchlines, their relationships treated with the same respect as those of their straight counterparts. They hold hands, they kiss, they even share the same bed. This was a quantum leap on 1990s shows such as Will & Grace, in which the gay characters had the whiff of "confirmed bachelors", to use the archaic euphemism of obituary writers, rarely presented in functioning relationships, much less in love.
This is simply not the case. There are people in our community who never wish to get married or join the military, because they reject those as important institutions in society. Some see them as heterosexist, or even racist, and don't want to put more Americans into that system to push out either more dead bodies or more heterosexism and racism. There are, of course, those who genuinely wish to do all of the same things heterosexuals do, and they should be legally allowed to do it, but it was never supposed to be the goal of our culture at all.
The reason these laws are so dangerous is that they promote homophobia, both institutionally and through face-to-face discussions and interactions of our rights, and homophobia kills people. The goal was never to assimilate, it was to not die because these homophobic laws are on the books. The World Health Organization, for example, has told us that homophobia and transphobia are so dangerous that they contribute to the spread of HIV across the globe:
Criminalization, and legal and policy barriers play a key role in the vulnerability of MSM and transgender people to HIV. More than 75 countries currently criminalize same-gender sexual activity. And transgender people lack legal recognition in most countries. These legal conditions force MSM and transgender people to risk criminal sanctions if they want to discuss their level of sexual risk with a service provider. They also give police the authority to harass organizations that provide services to these populations.
Ridding ourselves of these draconian laws saves lives, and that is what makes it necessary to continue to fight de jure discrimination - not some bizarre Stockholm-syndromesque attempt to belong to the culture that has tried to kill us.
And, on criminalization of queer people? Not a peep in this piece. You would not know that we are being arrested, jailed and detained in great numbers - especially queer people of color. You wouldn't know that in 2011, we're still not even able to seek effective counsel when we are accused of crimes because the system is so replete with bias that it even colors the perceptions of the people who are trying to help us. You wouldn't know that all of these factors increase not only deportation of queer immigrants, but that they keep otherwise decent people from entering our country, even if they are seeking refuge from oppressive regimes.
He ends by telling us that 2011 was a great year for gays and that things will just keep getting better, in terms of marriage and appearances on TV shows and songs.
His piece of writing is an incomplete, dangerous and shameful thing. Leaving out the lived experiences of most of our community is not something that should be easily accepted. We should be proud of ourselves, our diversity, our accomplishments and our future.