After Stevie and I broke up, I had a rebound relationship with this dude Tony. We met at a sports bar, started talking, he lived in my neighborhood, we staggered home together after being over served, I mentioned "my ex-boyfriend, Stevie" early in the night, he told me he thought I was cute, and we took it from there. He later told me "if you hadn't told me I wouldn't have known you were queer." Might have been pillow talk, but I know that if he hadn't told me, I wouldn't have known.
Embedded in me saying this, there's an assumption so opaque that it's almost invisible: by saying that he and I wouldn't have known without telling each other, I'm acknowledging that there is a way to tell, and thus that there can be "gaydar." Further, saying that we needed to tell each other is to make a claim for ourselves to a non-stereotypically gay presentation. Our location, speech, dress, way of moving through space, interests we discussed - all placed us outside of "gay" in some way, so that we had to disclose our sexual alignment verbally to claim it. And despite my intellectual efforts against it, I would say that there was some pride - that we "passed" was seen as a good thing, or a better thing than "not passing."
I recognized that temptation to pride early in my coming out process, and I tried to be vigilant against it, recognizing it for what it is: divisive, oppressive, laden with gender normativity and value judgment. The fact is, though, that it takes constant vigilance to resist the temptation and to remain aware of the constant flood of messages that bombard us about gender roles and what is and isn't desirable, and I'm lazier now that I used to be. And in some ways I'm less out today than I was in the 90's in Denver or Chicago, when I wouldn't date someone who wouldn't hold my hand wherever the hell I wanted to, who wasn't fully out, who didn't have an integrated life. I have fallen out of some of the habits of earlier decades, in part because they are no longer necessary, but in part because I'm less cognizant of the need, and less surrounded by people who challenge me.
Shortly after I came out in undergrad I pinned a button on my backpack that read "Don't presume I'm straight" because it used to piss me off - this assumption making and distinction drawing. I wanted to reject the notion that "straight acting" was more desirable, or better, or even a thing, or that because I presented a certain way you felt fine telling faggot jokes around me.
But why am I like this? Is this how I really am, or at some level is my behavior formed by reacting against the straight need to be comfortable with a certain type of gay male, and its artifice?
Stereotype: All gay people are x.Reaction 1 never made any sense to me; I wasn't x. (Who IS really, though? Oh, yeah. That kid on "Glee." And that kid in School of Rock. And every male character on "Will and Grace." And that character when a straight lead needs a gay best friend to help them laugh or shop or pick out clothes. Lazy, offensive, one dimensional depictions of gay men - rich, white, shallow, funny, and femme.)
Reaction 1: I'm gay, so I have to be x.
Reaction 2: I'm not x, so therefore I'm not gay. Whew!
I can't help but wonder if I love football so much as a reaction to stereotype, and that I let straight people's gay stereotypes define me even in a counter-typical way - in any way at all. I don't think that's the case, but it's impossible to test the null, and it's certainly possible. I've read enough biographies and met enough gay ex-Marines to know that there is a type of gay male who on some level tries not to be gay by doing the most stereotypically un-gay thing he can think of.
And in that pursuit or that action, the power is still ceded beyond himself - ourselves - to those to whom we give permission to determine what is the "right" way to talk, to dress, to move through space. The hegemony of cultural types and normative expectations is just that - hegemonic. By either revolting against it or acquiescing to our role within it, we are acknowledging its presence and power.
But I don't know how to avoid it - it's hegemonic, after all. It's foolish to pretend we live in a vacuum, or that our environment doesn't impact us. So what do we do with the normed expectations that are instilled in us from birth, once we begin to see them? What do we do when we reach adolescence and begin to understand that we don't fit - fundamentally can't fit - our proscribed roles?
As an adolescent I dreamt about playing football, and started watching and going to games every weekend. I started memorizing stats, scores and rosters to talk with other kids about. Why? How informed was that choice to follow football as a gay adolescent? From whence came my motivation? Is it coincidental that it started at the same time as I began to understand my inability to be who was expected of me? Unanswerable, unfortunately.
I think of this while thinking about Ricky Martin.
I was going to excoriate him for his cowardice and express my disappointment in his delay. I thought that maybe he is doing the best he can - but on further reflection, that doesn't pass the sniff test. I don't buy it. I try to be compassionate with my gay brothers (movement, not biological - and I have learned that the experiences of gay men and gay women don't have tremendous overlap, and I don't want to speak here for lesbians) and to be patient with their coming out processes. I know all humans have their own paths. I know that sometimes people come out when they aren't ready and that usually goes badly. I know that some people come out in anger. I know that some men are too weak or too wounded, and they can't by themselves get to a place where they are okay with being gay - they need those they love to make it okay for them.
But I continually come back to: dammit, grow a pair!
I made the conscious decision to come out; I did the work and I paid a price. And people who had the conversations after I did with the people with whom I had spoken had an easier time because I blazed the trail. It was 1988, 89, 90 and 91 in Milwaukee - you don't think it was hard sometimes? Or that when I walked straight people through their questions and their discomfort, for as long as they needed, that it didn't make it easier for those same straight people's little brothers, or roommates, or future co-workers? It was, and it did. And I knew it was a political act when I did it.
I made the decision - scared and after much deliberation, but I made a deliberate, conscious, political decision to tell my friends and then my straight roommates, to tell my mom and siblings and dad, to wear a button on my backpack, to hold my boyfriend's hand when I wanted to, to bring up an ex-boyfriend early in every conversation with a new person in my life so that if they didn't like gay folk we could move beyond it early, to put the pride coalition - made up - on my resume so that anyone thinking of hiring me would know, to come out in interviews and ask if it was a problem, to write about it in philosophy and theology papers, to challenge professors to do better than the lazy characterizations of gay folks they had been using in their lectures, to write letters to the editor of every paper I read when they needed to be written, to demand that the institutions for which I worked extend me equal rights and protections.
Gay people who say, "I don't feel like I have to go around announcing it to everyone," are usually so scared or so wounded that they don't realize how offensive they are being to those of us who are out. And it sucks they feel that scared and have been that wounded, it does. But the reality is that they are contributing to their own oppression by remaining invisible - the straight people who want us to feel like telling the truth about our lives is "flaunting" win, in that case. I try to react from compassion and not from crazy, and I think I usually succeed. But people ceding permission to others for how they live their lives, and people acquiescing to the institutions and power structures that says their relationship with the person they love isn't good enough to be named, are contributing to their own oppression.
And I am unwilling to do that. And I am willing to call you on it when you do that.
Don't those closeted queer folk realize that EVERY straight person goes around announcing how straight they are? On NPR Sunday, a radio announcer on Marketplace Money mentioned her husband, totally nonchalantly, where it was not at all needed for the advice she was giving a caller on purchasing a new car. I'm confident she did so without realizing that it was a political act because for her it isn't - it's so opaque it's invisible, her laying claim to the majority and the power implicit in that straight privilege. They don't even realize they're privileged, most of them. (Just like many males don't realize they're privileged. Just like many wealthy people don't understand the implications and depth of their privilege. Just like many white people - gott im himmel, try to point out to white person that he or she is privileged! And wealthy straight white males? You better have some time on your hands.)
People make a decision about coming out.
I get that some people live in a place where coming out requires a much higher price than what I paid. I don't live in a theocracy where I can be openly discriminated against; I don't work in a state that offers no civil protections for gay folk or where I could be fired for coming out; I don't live in a home where I could be beaten; I don't live in fear of losing my housing; I don't serve in a military branch from which I could be discharged with no pension or benefits. I am incredibly lucky. I know.
But people make a decision about coming out. And Ricky Martin, by waiting until he was pop-culturally irrelevant and until a sea-change on queer issues had occurred in Latin America over the last decade as they grew to be pretty tolerant of queer folk, missed the opportunity to be brave, and to be a leader. He is not someone who had to fear for losing his job, or losing his house, or losing citizenship status or being killed. He was insulated by money and power in a way that made it a small risk. And it's still a risk he didn't take.
And that is disappointing, as it is for people anywhere who still, in 2010, choose to live their lives in the closet. You can do better. Better late than never, but you can do better.