YES, I’M ANGRY THIS PRIDE MONTH, BUT NOT FOR THE REASONS YOU MAY THINK
Here we are, Pride Month 2020, and it’s as if it’s not even happening. It’s bad enough that the pandemic has shut down Pride events around the world, but Pride itself has been reduced to ads from companies shilling rainbow shoes and really silly memes about how many wigs are needed for proper social distancing… as if that’s what we as a community have devolved into.
So for Pride this month let me turn attention away from the Pride flag face masks and the poorly designed, “slap a rainbow on everything and suddenly it’s gay!” t-shirts and talk about something no one really dare even whisper: the history of LGBTQ people in America, a history so lost that we can only guess at the horrors from the few incidents that are mentioned. So let’s fill in a few details, as best we can, shall we? We know, for example, that in the 16th and 17th centuries suspected gay men were routinely burned at the stake — note, suspected gay men. How many? We have no idea, but it certainly came part and parcel with the influence of the Church in those times, so I daresay it was a lot. We also know that, again, suspected gay men were used as human kindling during the burning of witches during those heady days in Salem. Lesbians, when they were mentioned at all, were coded as witches and routinely drowned to somehow prove their innocence.
After the American Revolution, the emphasis changed from burning gay men alive to sending them to prison or work farms for life — usually the worst possible prisons around, where they were beaten and tortured, by the guards, by the other inmates, by just about everyone, for no more crime than simply being gay. This practice continued well into the 20th century (and something on that in a moment) but still exists sporadically with a bit of legal tap-dancing to cover everything up. How many were sent away? Again, we don’t have precise numbers, because no numbers have ever been released: it was all done very quietly so no one ever had to talk about the filthy sodomites who were infecting “proper” society. Even the bluest of the blue bloods were not safe: we have records of men from “good” families being sent away, out of sight, so as not to embarrass anyone. If anything happened to them while incarcerated, well, it just wasn’t talked about: rather, these men were “traveling” and not expected to return “for many years” — when the reality was much harsher. While lesbians were able to hide, thanks to the social morés of the times that encouraged intimate female friendships, gay men could not. And even just suspected of being gay was generally enough to seal their fates. Arguably, tens of thousands of gay men and lesbians were beaten, tortured, and killed… simply for being gay.
We draw back in horror at the minstrel shows and blackface revues (as well we should), but it’s equally telling that, even now, the same attention isn’t focused on the entertainment industry’s use of the limp-wristed, lisping dandy as a means of a cheap laugh. We’ll be outraged over white people exploiting the worst possible stereotypes of blacks and Asians and Hispanics, but when it comes to LGBTQ folks, the reaction is almost uniformly across the board “Oh, c’mon; that’s funny! Grow a pair, huh?” During most of the 19th and a good part of the 20th century, it was straight-up illegal to have a gay man or a lesbian — either as an actor or as a role — on the boards on Broadway. The police routinely closed the show down and arrested everyone involved, which resulted in suicides rather than have a dirty secret revealed in court. But we still reveled in those stereotypes: CRAZY RICH ASIANS has the usual flamboyant “gay wedding planner” who is the only male character in that film *not* to wind up with a “happily ever after” ending. IN LIVING COLOR had a long-running sketch series called “Men On”, in which two straight men would go right for those exaggerated gay male send-ups, and everyone — even to this day — finds them hysterical. If we applied the same logic for this to a couple of white guys acting like the worst possible portrayal of blacks on a sketch comedy show, there would be immediate calls to have the show pulled from the air and everyone involved to go through sensitivity training. But because it’s gay men? Hey, it’s funny! Grow a pair, huh?
Politically, things get even worse, if that’s possible. Want some red meat to throw out at your base? Propose a law that would forbid gay couples from adopting, and you’ll see folks responding with “They’re gonna brainwash our precious children!” Never mind that statistically children from same-sex households turn out to be far better adjusted — that’s irrelevant and hardly worth mention. Instead, we’ll jump on the hoary old myth that gay men are child predators, waiting around parks and schoolyards to do unspeakable things. Gay teachers must be fired for the sake of the good of the community. School support staff must be kept squeaky clean, because, you know, bathrooms — and imagine what might go on in there.
But it doesn’t stop with just trying to pass specious and absurd laws. We are routinely told, even to this day, that any claim we might have to equal housing, equal job protection, equal spousal rights is simply riding on the coattails of the “real” Civil Rights actions, as if civil rights are some kind of zero-sum game, with only so many to go around before the well runs dry. The recent Supreme Court decision supporting transrights in the federal workplace was greeted with not only howls of derision and dismissal from the hardcore social conservatives but utter and complete silence from black civil rights leaders. Black transwomen are beaten and left for dead, and BLM says nary a peep — because, you know, they were prostitutes as well as trans, and who wants to be associated with that? Sorry, no big street protests over those, because it might get… eww… icky for the branding image. Gay male couples are ambushed and beaten, sometimes beyond recognition, sometimes to the point of dying — and where are our own leaders? Silent as the heads on Easter Island, and I do not understand why. Is it because we still cling to the concept that the victims here are gay men, who do unspeakably nasty things with each other and are on the prowl for any man they can find, ruining the lives of countless supposedly straight men by tempting them into the “downlow” and causing untold grief and divorce and shame? If there’s any other possible reason, O Leaders, do please tell us all what it is, because your silence is infuriating.
Am I the only one seeing a very basic problem here? Between the Scylla of the various levels of government who hate us and the Charybdis of leaders, sometimes even within our own community, who hate us, we are dismissed, overlooked, and essentially told our value as human beings is near-zero. We should all go back into the closet so as not to upset everyone else — even though one would be hard pressed to hear a story of roving gangs of gay men beating and murdering people for being straight. Yet, somehow that’s the fear, I suppose, as unfounded and absurd as it may sound. We are feared for simply existing.
One final thought, a part of our history that is hardly ever discussed and yet remains especially telling. In the 1940s, when the camps in Germany were liberated, everyone was set free… except for the gay men. As in the US, it was illegal to simply be gay in Europe at the time, so those incarcerated were told they could not leave. Their treatment under the Allies was just as brutal as what they experienced under the Nazis, but we don’t talk about that, even now. Most died in those camps, but we don’t talk about it. It took a major push to have us represented in both the official Holocaust art piece in Berlin and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, because no one wanted to talk about it. It’s one of history’s many, many dirty little secrets, and a lot of people want it to stay that way.
So forgive me if I’m not as enthusiastic about Pride this year as I probably should be. I have seen the ugly side of things, and it has not gone away. It confirms that the US in particular is incapable of having an honest and open talk about the treatment of minorities, by both the government and other, seemingly more persuasive and empowered minority groups. Until that happens, I will nod in understanding for everyone else. I will empathize. But I’m not sure how much more I can do.