Sunday, June 11, 2006

Getting Out from the Violence

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.


jeremy said...

Very, very right Mr. Prof. I couldn't agree more that fear informs our decisions, relationships, etc. I do think that we have to be more "out there" so people recognize that homosexuality really is a broad stroke and not truly a defining attribute, but more of an ingredient in the melange that is our lives. I think we have problems being more "out" because we socialize much later, and perhaps moreso, that we don't have these prescribed roles that our straight counterparts do. So we're left kind of figuring out how exactly we fit into things.
Of course, if we had more role models, it might be easier to understand our own place . . .
Yeah, so at least its Pride.
Happy Pride, Prof!

Hilaire said...

Yes, great post, again. You're so right about the way fear and closeted-ness shape us. When we live in very progressive communities, we tend to forget that - but it's so true. You have me thinking - thanks.

tornwordo said...

There are so many truths, I don't know where to begin. (Oh and your bitterness over the liar ex (you know, the one who told lies) cracks me up. Very healthy working through it this way, lol)

The older I get, the more "out" I get. My feelings could be summed up by a t-shirt.

"Yes, I'm a faggot, now get over it."

Conor Karrel said...

I was devistated by the news of Kevin's gay bashing. I didn't know him, though I've heard his name before. I'm not sure why but it shocked me more than anything has lately.

My user ex (who used me greatly), demanded that we remain in the closet upon moving out to L.A.

After coming out at 20 I'd thought I'd gotten over all those issues, but living in Hollywood and having a boyfriend in the film industry, who was known as straight, seemed to make it ok to go back in the closet.

It wasn't, far from it. I'm realizing that not being myself and not being an openly gay man, and proud of that may have attributed to my recent depression.

If the rest of the world can't accept me for who I am, if I can't be an openly gay artist, actor, singer, and even office employee, what good am I doing for the world and for those who are discriminated against, and in Kevin's case, nearly killed, simply for being who we are?

No more. No more accepting violence against us, no more living in the closet, no more living in fear, no more lying, no more hiding. No more.

Thank you Kevin, for being who you are, for reminding me to be proud of who I am, Goddess bless you, may you heal quickly and come back fiercer than ever!

Greg said...

I don't get it. Why don't you just go get cured? Wouldn't that be easier? Or perhaps stay "in the closet" forever and suppress any feelings you might have. That's the American Way!

What sickens me about stuff like this is the wide array of people in America who tell us that this stuff doesn't happen anymore. It's sad that not only do minorities (and I apologize for lumping all minorities together) still have to face this stuff, but that a lot of people want them to shut up about it when it does. "We nominated Brokeback Mountain for an Oscar - isn't that enough?" Sheesh.

Kalv1n said...

I really enjoy these sorts of posts. All too often I think we become complacent in our lives. Even living in San Francisco, I will hesitate to put my arm around my boyfriend on transit until we are getting closer to Castro. Part of it is that I know he is afraid, and I don't want to upset him, but part of it is stupid concerns too. Sure I love seeing couples hold hands in the Castro, but do you know what I really love? Seeing couples hold hands where you would never expect to see it. I'm trying to be better about this, and yes, I want to shake straight people when they talk about wearing one's sexuality on one's sleeve. When they say Silence=Death, I always think they were right. Great post

GayProf said...

TornWordo: Uh, yeah, that’s it, I am working through the bitterness. I am not at all consumed by the fact that I wasted eight years with somebody who was greedy, mean, cowardly, vain, and told many lies.

Kalvin: And speaking of liar ex (who told many lies), another major argument we always had was about public displays of affection. I wanted them, he did not. He swore, though, it had nothing to do with internalized homophobia. In the end, what straight woman would tolerate a husband who never showed her any affection in public? After awhile, I just gave up, thus betraying myself.

I am so totally working through the bitterness, though!

Anonymous said...

Hi GayProf,

I've read your posts off and on and have always found them to be of great insight.

One thing about safety: I've never assumed it to be a given. Given that I am Black woman and living in the US, I was cautioned since childhood by my parents, relatives and friends about where to go and not go; what places were safe and what places you really didn't want to be found after dark. Imagine the conversation I had with my former girlfriend and her parents when Howard Beach happened - that, yes, even in the supposedly safer Northern reachers that there were parts of New York that were not a good place to be if you were Black.

The color of my skin will always be the place where trouble may begin long before someone ever gets to my sexuality.

GayProf said...

Hail, Amazon Sister! Thanks for commenting on my little bloggy.

Your point is well taken. I also think that the news coverage about Aviance's attack neglects to explore if there were links between racism and homophobia in his attack.

Mark said...

I wonder if that clerk at the flower store was putting her feelers out there to get a status on a man she thought was attractive?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this. It was good to read, especially after I attended DC's pride parade and was overwhelmed by the open displays of sexual identity the crowds enjoyed. I'm hoping that between your post and between that experience - and other positive experiences I've had in and around DuPont Circle/Adams Morgan (DC's own gay friendly area) - one day I'll be a little more brave. But I do worry if, when I date again, I'll have the courage to hold his hand in public when he wants it.

Gayest Neil said...


Thank you for the shout out on your site! I really appreciate it.

Like your decision about the flowers, my decision to remove Bryce's info was very much due to a time constraint: the need to get my passport back in a scant two weeks versus the chance of Betsy Bigotry at Passports-R-Us putting my application in a "to-do" pile, and getting my passport in two months as a result.

I don't know. Kevin's beating has rattled my circle of friends. We see Kevin out, we live at the Phoenix. I've walked that neighborhood, alone, and in varying states of intoxication, during the day, night and morning.

It's frightening, terribly so. In my post, I mention a rubber band snapping back...

I think there's a palpatible gay backlash happening. My partner Bryce and I have heard of three different gay bashings now in three weeks. Kevin's being the third.

Something is happening out there, something ominous.

Anonymous said...

Coming from the straight world (was married for 20+), one of the most frustrating parts about coming out was that I suddenly had to be aware of PDA's with my bf. In my relatively conservative town, it's just not seen. Over the past few years; however, as I've become more comfortable with myself, it becomes less of an issue to hug or kiss a man in public. That said, I and many of us have a long way to go.

And then I ask myself what would Mary Richards do? Well, she had SPUNK! And unlike Lou, I like spunk.

Adam said...

You hit it out of the park AGAIN! You are my idol, fantastic!

Anonymous said...

That is completely awful. And you have a point, and as a high school student, I know it's happened because I see it happening every day. At the Public School I'm at now, most people are sensible about the issue, considering the ammount of gay couples have, but at the Catholic high school, if you're gay or if people think you are, prepare to get the shit beaten out of you. X_x We had a few incidents of people who were in the Catholic School's theatre program who were hurt because people assumed they were gay.
So once again, it seems that public schools (at least in my area) are more open to it, (We had some parents protesting last year about a picture of a gay couple in the school's yearbook, but the board refused to have the picture taken out of it.) it's in conservative areas where the hate keeps being taught.

A Bear in the Woods said...

It's so easy to forget that Germany was the most liberal and democratic state in the world, shortly before Hitler came to power. I don't believe in the nation state as a unit of governing power anymore. Territorial possession as an index of national identity is outmoded, I believe. And yeah, exes who lie suck, big time.

jeanadventures said...

well i think we should not be disheartened by society's outlook, on the positive side we've come a very long way since the old days where we're likely to be tied to the city square and thrown rocks at :) it is rather disconcerting to note that most people simply refuse to acknowledge the fact that same sex can love and care for each other.