Two different incidents reminded me of queer folk’s continued vulnerability in the U.S. First, Gayest Neil wrote an honest blog entry about the ways that the current political climate impacts even our seemingly simply decisions, like filling out a travel form. Second, the evil beating of drag-performance-artist Kevin Aviance on Saturday in New York’s East Village showed the chilling reality of violence. Even in an allegedly liberal Mecca, queers are not safe.
According to reports, a gang of men brutally battered Aviance while shouting homophobic slurs. Passers-by did nothing to assist him. Alone, bloody, and with a shattered jaw, he walked several blocks until he reached a hospital.
Queer folk have reached a point where we can usually live fairly okay lives in the United States without tremendous fear. One can almost become insulated by living in prominent gay neighborhoods. The beating of Aviance reminds us, however, that our sense of safety is largely an illusion.
Queer folk will always be a minority of the population. As a result, we live under rules, customs, and laws created by people other than ourselves. Many of these laws and customs continue to name our difference as inferior. Though some change has occurred in the last thirty years, being called “gay” still ranks as one of the most threatening insults on school grounds today. Because we are deemed inferior, we are open to political, verbal, and physical attacks.
Much of the violence occurs because we are still unknown to the majority population. We have been raised by a popular media that presents only the thinnest glimpses about us. Setting aside that most representations of queer folk tend to be negative (murderous bisexual vampires still being a favorite), even the allegedly positive images present a distorted vision of queer life.
For the most part, the media’s positive films about queer folk usually focuses on an idealized “coming out” story. When I was a wee-queer-lad, I remember watching the typically cheery coming-out stories. In these instances, usually a young queer person finds another young queer person. They fall in love. They then face initial familial and/or social rejection, but triumph over adversity, and live happily ever after.
In reality, though, we know that coming to terms with our sexuality starts long before we willingly experiment with our first sexual experience. Nothing occurs in the real world until we have worked it out (at least partially) in our own minds first.
Most real-life coming-out struggles don’t make compelling cinema because they happen internally. We have to battle all of our childhood messages and demons about same-sex sex before we can even think about entering the terrain of external sexual exploration. Sex and love, in many ways, happens late in the process.
Despite the promise of happily ever after, every queer person also knows that “coming out” never ends. Each new person who enters our lives and every new situation presents whole new opportunities to spring forth from the closet.
We probably don’t think much about the constant assessments we make everyday about our sexuality and the public. In thousands of ways, we have become masters of assessing our surroundings and trying to decide when we are safe and when we are in danger. It’s such second-nature to most us, we aren’t even aware of it.
We, as a queer people, can't even come to consensus about what the best level of “outness” should be. Indeed, I constantly fought with the liar ex (who told many lies) from the very start of our relationship about this issue. I should have known from these fights that he simply lacked personal courage. Only after others did the hard work for him did he ever step-up. Then he almost always asked to be celebrated for finally being out.
My bitterness about liar ex (who told many lies) aside, we have all made tough decisions like Gayest Neil at one point or another. I liked his entry because he talked candidly about how outside pressures can seep into even the strongest of queer wills.
Despite my claims of moral-superiority over liar ex (who told many lies), I also fail to live up to the ideal standards of outness that I create. It took me much longer, for instance, to tell my extended family than it should have.
At other times, I get lazy. As an example, I often purchase flowers for my desk in my never-ending quest to be more like Mary Richards. On the last occasion, as I paid for the flowers, the clerk commented, “Gee, your wife must be happy with all the flowers you buy.” Being in a hurry (or lazy (or just not in the mood)), I didn’t take the time to correct her that a) the flowers were for gay me and b) that gay me did not have a wife (or a husband – just a liar ex (who told many lies)).
For political reasons, though, I should have made the time to do so. Certainly I didn’t fear that the flower clerk had a shotgun behind the counter waiting to blow away flower-buying-queer-boys (Then again, I do live in Texas). It would have been an opportunity to remind her that a greater diversity exists in the world. By being vocal and vigilant about our experiences, our fears, and our triumphs, we can show straight folk that we don’t wish either their pity or their contempt.
Being queer in the U.S. is dangerous. We are still at risk and those fears haunt our thinking in a thousand ways. Young queer folk are still not able to develop unencumbered by religious and social pressures that name us inferior and defective. Some of us turn to self-destructive behavior (like the bottle, or the needle, or tina) to seek escape. Others turn inward, never walking in the sun. Some even turn against their queer brothers and sisters. They can’t control their outside circumstances, so they use violence or mind-games to make themselves feel powerful in their personal relationships.
We need to ignore the criticisms launched at queer folk who become “too visible.” Some attempt to dismiss them as “wearing our sexuality on our sleeve.” Yet, most straight folk rarely realize how often they pronounce their sexual preference without even thinking twice about it. Everything from casual mentions of their opposite-sex spouse to their high-school prom experiences lets the world know their bedroom habits.
Queer folk, though, must also learn to acknowledge how our surrounding homophobic society influences us. Holding ourselves or our ideals to rigid boundaries and measures of outness will lead us to more heartache. We can only start to form a realistic political strategy when we start to embrace both the good and the ugly that informs our sexuality and our identities. None of us will ever succeed in being totally without fear.
Interrogating our daily decisions about how we present ourselves and respond to the world, though, will build our consciousness. This new consiousness will make us more engaged with the struggles that we all face in pursuing our sexual happiness.