This weekend in Washington, DC, marked Capital Pride, an annual festival designed in part to show the visibility of the LGBT community. Saturday’s well-attended parade included a march through Dupont Circle, an area of the District that became a thriving gay district in the 1970’s. Though the festivities still wind their way through Dupont, times have changed substantially. The crowds may faithfully appear, year after year, but the character of the celebration in many ways is nothing like it was thirty years ago.
Long time queer-friendly and area fixture bookseller Lambda Rising has been closed for years. The gayborhood, if you will, has begun to erode and lose its distinctiveness. Strictly defined boundaries separating gay villages from the rest of cities often no longer exist. This is a good thing. Evolving cultural standards of acceptance towards lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders are the reasons why.
In time, even Pride itself may be a thing of the past. If the social stigma of being openly out of the closet ceases to be traumatic and shameful, a need to define oneself as different as the norm would no longer exist. Men and women who would have never dreamed that marriage equality would ever be legal anywhere in their own lifetimes have been proven incorrect. If polls are to be believed, a majority of American have softened their formerly harsh, judgmental attitudes towards LGBTs. All of us have to concede the rapid pace of progress.
Today, middle school students, not far removed from puberty, now feel comfortable enough to step outside the closet. Though I am in my early thirties, most people I knew in those days were not open with their sexuality until the end of high school or (more likely) sometime during college. At the very outset, everyone knew who was queer, or had their strong suspicions, but no one ever publicly acknowledged it. That would have broached protocol. The elephant in the room was never to be called out or identified by anything other than indirect means.
It seems incomprehensible to me that the high risk of embracing a once-dreaded label would have given way to such a new, fierce, courageous honesty. And yet, it has. Though I may be pessimistic about the health of our country’s economy, I am extremely heartened by the way the American public has shed hurtful beliefs and attitudes. Every generation has its shortcomings, certainly, but it should also be credited for its successes. This triumph of tolerance happened faster than our ability to take full account for it.
Many believe the arrival of the internet has gone a long way to hasten our understanding and lessen the fear. I do not disagree. Despite the backlash by a few conservative groups, homophobia and homophobic attitudes have been slowly thawing. What has been created in its place takes some getting used to for everyone. It doesn't just challenge heterosexuals, it also challenges those in the gay community.
Queer activists appreciate the transformation to a degree, but some still pine for the days when "gay" implied a kind of outlaw, renegade status. To them, mainstream acceptance is a double-edged sword, one that inadvertently leads to the loss of a distinctive queer identity. This identity was often a product of shame and self-loathing, formed in direct opposition to an intolerant heterosexual society. I see their point, though I may disagree with the conclusions.
If a tool of technology has enhanced us so dramatically already, imagine what might follow next. If what we have developed can accelerate progress beyond the ordinarily methodical, routine pace of other epochs in history, what should we expect in the near future? Like all revolutionary impetuses, the printing press being only one, ripples and currents throughout time will be steady and unrelenting. Instead of focusing on the negative consequences, let us dare to believe in that which brings us together in a spirit of mutual fellowship and compassion.
Our work has not yet been perfected. For a while longer, young adults will need to be assured that life does get better. Anti-gay attitudes will persist for a while longer and may never subside completely. Change is lumpy and always distributed unequally. But in the end, should we welcome the demise of the always artificial distinction between gay and straight? Assimilation for the sake of contentment and the pursuit of happiness can be forgiven, one hopes.
Once, to be queer meant living a coded, clandestine world that required insider knowledge to maneuver. Many fear that in the rush to attain equal footing with the Jones, much that would still be considered subversive today has been utterly cast aside. Some behaviors and beliefs, in fairness, have likely already been thrown upon the scrap heap, never to return.
Yet, speaking for myself, I never felt comfortable living a camouflaged life. The lengths I went to cover my tracks never particularly struck me as noble, courageous, or creative. I was always too busy looking fearfully over my shoulder to appreciate the distinctiveness of my surroundings. Fenced in, among those with whom I shared at least one major similarity, I felt simultaneously free and imprisoned.
As much as I explored an aspect of myself, I was nonetheless sworn to strict secrecy. One could expect no true freedom, or any realistic liberation in the tiny, incestuous community I inhabited. Once the walls of the club or the latest gathering scattered, so too did a sense of who I was. Only with a momentary saturation of that which was not hetero-centric could I ever really see myself for the way I was.
In my bisexuality, I felt trapped between two paradigms: homosexual or heterosexual. I was unsure of which to pick. Though no one formally put me on the spot, it was nonetheless implied I ought to make my choice plain for all to see, regardless of which one it was. Speaking for myself, sexual orientation is important, but does not define me in totality.
As such, I prefer to feel a part of the whole. I've had enough of feeling isolated, distanced, and passed over. Any desired state of exclusion is an eccentric way, at best, to define a scorned, masochistic sort of purity. Persecution may provide a group with a unified purpose, but that purpose is still rooted in pain and misunderstanding. In any transition, there will be awkward periods. We must and will be shaken loose of our moorings, eventually.
Discomfort and disequilibrium cannot be avoided. But with this tentative uncertainty, we will eventually find ourselves a better, more loving, more considerate people. Humanity must be made over afresh once again. Better we find ourselves growing together in similarity than to embrace division, even the division that is the byproduct of good intentions.