A conversation with a beautiful disfavored daughter
Expanded from the August 22, 1999
Last week, Gov. Dudley Do-Right decided to welsh on signing a gubernatorial proclamation for yesterday's Reno Pride '99. The news media speculated that Guinn's objection was to the participation of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in the festivities after the parade, then interviewed Parade organizers about the impact and advisability of parading the gay community's 'fringe elements' in the media spotlight. I had occasion to discuss the issue via the web with a friend of mine.
Andrew: The faux nuns inadvertently provided a slow pitch for Gov. Guinn to hit out of the park. I am sure Dudley got lots of heat from his right wing for signing the gay job discrimination bill. As you may have noted in my July 11 column I called it an easy and innocuous sop to gays and liberals. We're a fire-at-will state, so you don't have to be gay to get fired, just employed. The gambling-industrial complex can support gay rights and look like good guys. Along comes this parade and proclamation and Dudley has a great chance to regain lost ground.
As PR man for a gay pride event, I would have said "violate the stereotypes." Throw a changeup and the bad guys will strike out.
Having everyone at the parade dress like three-piece-suited rock singer Jackson Brown would have driven the bigots nuts. It would have made international news: "We intentionally dressed to look just like anyone else, because WE ARE JUST LIKE ANYONE ELSE. We are average U.S. citizens. If you feel at all otherwise, you need to re-evaluate the prejudice you just identified in yourself."
Lady X: Ah, but we're not necessarily just like everyone else. You hit the bull's eye by naming it a PR question. This has been the political strategy dilemma of the 90s -- the first decade in which we've been visible at a daily, national level in the media and the acquisition of meaningful civil rights has become a real possibility. The problem is, we're both "just like you" and we're not.
Believe me, we're not.
Andrew: Oh, I certainly realize that. But you're talking to a flaming Libertarian when it comes to defining people. I revolt against the practice.
Lady X: I'm not convinced that emphasizing the ways that we're like everyone else necessarily promotes acceptance. For instance, the amount of violence against lesbians and gay men has increased alarmingly during the past decade. Of course, there have been thugs waiting outside of bars to attack "queers" for the last half century. Like wife-beating and rape, many people thought that acceptable behavior; it didn't do much good to complain to the cops. But even when one accounts for the violence being reported now, and named a hate crime, the fact is that anti-gay attacks now happen in venues outside the gay ghetto, and the number of such attacks is going up, and up.
I think the increase has a lot to do with the fact that, more and more, the ways in which we're just like everyone else is front page news.
The problem with the PR issue when applied to a Gay Pride Parade is that the Parade's the one event that isn't supposed to be about demonstrating our acceptability. It's not even supposed to be a protest march. It's a celebration, and it's for us. Sure, we're cognizant of the media attention and its implications. But personally, I'd rather reach the gay teenager on the brink of suicide in Winnemucca with the message "Hey, we have fun and there are lots of us, all different kinds of us" than try to reach the Bible-raised child of Republicans with the message that "we're tax-payers, too."
Andrew: Hell of a point.
Lady X: I also look at it historically. The idea that maybe the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence should stay home so that we don't scare the folks who find homosexuality frightening isn't a new one. Vehement debate over whether drag queens (and other "freaks") should be "asked to stay away this year" raged in Gay Pride Parade organizing committees in San Francisco throughout the 70s. Those who voted for exclusion never won. Yet the irony is that the event the parade commemorates, the week-long riot at the Stonewall Bar in June 1969 in New York City, was engineered by Puerto Rican and African-American drag queens, transvestites, stone butches and street people, and it was Stonewall that turned "Gay Liberation" into a national movement. For over a decade prior there had been mainstream "suit & tie" gay men and lesbians politely petitioning society for a few civil rights -- without much success. It was the "freaks" on the fringe who kicked ass and set a movement in motion. Not to put down the suit and tie folks. I've friends who wear drag, and friends who wear conservative suits. It takes all of us.
My own political, and public relations, preference is along the line of "on as many different fronts, in as many different ways, as possible, all at once." One chooses one's appearance and strategy appropriate to the situation. Such political flexiblity reflects a simple truth: lesbians and gay men are a thousand different kinds of people. And, it's harder to attack a constantly moving target. If I've learned nothing else after a quarter century as an "out" lesbian, hiding the "embarassing" (one wants to ask, "to whom?") portions of our population hurts no one but ourselves.
Hate is not a rational thing. The reasons someone hates "fags" and "dykes" has nothing to do with who I am, how I, or any of us, live a "gay" life. I've always beleived that if 'they' want to kill us, they'll kill us, regardless of political justification. If we ask for tolerance by arguing that we were "born this way," the hate-mongers will vote for genetic testing in utero. (And for abortion. Just watch how fast anti-abortionists will reverse position.) If we argue for the liberty to "choose our (gag) 'lifestyle'" we'll hear "Why should we give you special rights? If it's a 'choice,' choose differently."
Enough soapbox. You're on the right track. We ARE like everyone else: impossible to pigeon-hole. We are Ellen Degeneres and Aileen Wournos, James Baldwin and Roy Cohn. We're street hustlers who turn three tricks a night, and couples who "marry" our same-sex high school sweethearts, adopt children, and remain faithful unto old age. We're Jack Fertig (once one of the Sisters I knew) and Ambassador James Hormel, Eleanor Roosevelt and Melissa Ethridge. As long as we're seen in monochrome -- whether it's "all gays are drag queens" or "we're all average law-abiding Americans" -- we'll be easy to hate. It's a lot harder to hate diversity.
Andrew: Be well. Raise hell.
Copyright © 1999-2004 Andrew Barbano
Andrew Barbano is a member of Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of U-News. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks Tribune since 1988.
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