April 15th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

In Defense of Feather Head-dresses and Ass-less Chaps

Eris forfend that I should step into the middle of an argument between a half-closeted gay man and a furry activist. (* waits *) Uh oh, Eris didn't forfend. Crap, you know what that means. It means that my "someone is picking on the freaks unfairly" alarm has gone off, and I'm going to try the thankless task of convincing people that the scary, weird, crazy and obviously dangerous freaks (or so they think) are actually harmless people who have a pretty good reason for what they're doing. I've been comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable since 1983, so I guess there's no reason to stop now.

What the argument is all about is that triggur has put together (or is promoting? it's not clear the authorship of) a video up on YouTube.com entitled "Pride versus Progress." (Warning: Link will play video automatically, and is not work-safe in most environments.) Via his blog, he's asking for every gay, lesbian, bisexual, transvestite, and trans-gendered person in the world to see it and to act upon his recommendations. cargoweasel's reaction can best be described as uncharitable. Or, it could be described someone more thoroughly and accurately by saying that Cargo thinks that Triggur is a homophobic gay man who's done more to fan the flames of hatred against GLBTTs than anybody this side of Pat Robertson, and he didn't even vaguely mince words about it. kynn has weighed in on Cargo's side, hard ... and in particular, he's mightily offended that some of the furry activists who are most demanding that people be kind to them about their weird hobby are among those most thoroughly angry about Gay Pride. And since then, xydexx, who's normally a pretty reasonable person, is veering close to being one of those furries, himself.

So what's the argument all about? For the benefit of those of you who aren't interested enough to watch the video, or who don't have a chance to do so yet until you get home from work, what Triggur is arguing is that the very survival of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and transvestite human beings depends on not angering or offending the rest of the population. That, in particular, any suggestion of sexuality or kink or fetish "belongs in the bedroom," and simply should not be on display in any public forum, let alone paraded in front of TV news cameras. He has filled his video with pictures of transvestites dressed like 70s Vegas showgirls, and of (presumably) gay men dressed in leather gear, thongs, and backless chaps. And he insists that by showing that side of themselves to the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells and Fred Phelpses of the world, they are giving them the ammunition they need to convince the calmer, saner part of the American public who are, despite being calmer and saner than Falwell and Robertson Phelps (a low hurdle) are only tolerant of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and transvestite citizens so long as it is possible for them to imagine that they are all celibate. The least reminder that these people actually have sex, and much of it their own kind of sex with other people like themselves, so grosses out people (and surveys show that it does) that, per Triggur and Xydexx's reasoning, every time we show an actually sexual gay man in public as opposed to a mincing, prancing eunuch or a boring office drone who says that he's gay without showing any hint of attraction to any actual men, the cause of full and equal rights and respect for gay men is set back by another 20 years.

Let me beg to differ, if I may.

Eight years ago, and I know that none of you have forgotten this so I'm astonished I have to remind some of you of the details, a semi-closeted gay man exactly like the ones that Triggur and Xydexx extol met another man in a gay-friendly bar, believed based on his internal "gaydar" that the man might be gay himself, and asked him out on a date. The other man agreed, but when they got to the car the man who was asked out had several friends with him and no intention of a friendly date. They took that semi-closeted, polite young gay man out of town, beat him to within an inch of his life, and then crucified him on a barbed wire fence and left him there to slowly and painfully die -- and felt no remorse for doing so. To the best of my knowledge, what happened to Matthew Shepard has not actually happened to any feather-bedecked drag queens or strap-clad exhibitionist leather daddies. I suggest to you that the reason why not is that they're not alone. Is it really so hard for those of you in the generation behind mine to remember or understand that Silence = Death? What those of us who fondly commemorate the Stonewall Riots for is not just that they fought back, but why they fought back. They were so angry that they forgot to be embarrassed about who they were and what they did. And rather than let themselves be taken away to be separately shamed, they collectively stood up for not just themselves, but each other.

Before Stonewall and for a long time afterwards, it was considered a matter of settled law, a 100% confidently known fact, that all gay men, lesbian women, bisexuals of either sex, and people who dressed or felt as if they were intersexual, were so ashamed of what they did that they would do anything to keep it a secret. That is, after all, why they were routinely denied security clearances or any sensitive or financial jobs; it was assumed that simply by being GLBTT, they were 100% all of them vulnerable to blackmail. And that didn't change until a generation came along who refused to be made ashamed. And that, friends, is what a Gay Pride Day is really for. A Gay Pride parade is not for pretending to be just like the straights so you can be accepted; that's a lie and you'll never sell it, everybody knows better. Since that lie can't possibly work, the original Gay Pride generation, and those who continue the tradition, have fallen back on the blunt truth most famously summarized by ACT-UP: "We're here. We're queer. Get used to it." That's a hostile, confrontational demand, yes. (Too much so for the St. Louis chapter, to my embarrassment, who routinely softened it to, "We're here, we're queer, and we'd like to get to know you." Oh, good, because nothing so closely resembles defending yourself as mincing and apologizing and groveling for pats on the head.) It puts the uncomfortable majority on the defensive. It demands that they not only accept that there are GLBTT full citizens of their countries, it places that demand in its inescapable context that if you can't stand the fact that this is who they are and what they do, you're not really standing them.

And the "we're just like the straights thing" is, you know, really a lie. Men and women really are different, and even if you disagree with that, you must agree that they certainly are raised with different expectations, roles, and skill sets. A relationship between two men or two women can not especially closely resemble one between a man and a woman, irregardless of any mechanics of slots or tabs. Nor does it. Hell's bells, this is for all practical purposes what the public on both sides of the GLBTT versus homophobes war crucified Robert Mapplethorpe for. Again, a history lesson is in order. Prior to 1990, he was mostly known as a photographer's photographer, one of those ultimate technical photographers for whom everything, from lighting to lens use to darkroom work, had to be about the truth of the subject, about showing the subject in a way that fully conveys the reality of it, a journalistic style so precise and artistic that it transcends journalism. Then came Gay Related Immune Deficiency, a cluster of odd illnesses that was statistically isolated (at first) to American gay men. Eventually came a broader understanding of it, and its modern name: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, AIDS. And he had it. So did a lot of New Yorkers and San Franciscans in the creative class; we lost half a generation or more of our theater, art, dance, music, and photography talent. But, at least at first, not a lot of other people. And between the relatively low number of people dying of AIDS compared to, say, cancer or heart failure, and considering that AIDS way, way disproportionately struck people that mainstream Americans wished would die, junkies and gay men, finding funding for research into the causes of and possible cures for AIDS was pretty hard. So mainstream gay activists adopted a strategy of "putting a human face on AIDS," of convincing the straights that gay men are just like everybody else. But to an artist like Mapplethorpe who had devoted the entirety of his artistic career to The Truth, the dishonesty of that stuck in his craw. So he went down to a regular, ordinary gay leather bar on an ordinary, unscheduled Friday night, and took seven pictures of things that gay men routinely do to each other in public, with his full artistic precision, and put them in his next display, "The Intimate Moment." The anger, both gay and straight, hasn't quieted down yet, and probably never will. But it was the truth, and a truth he died telling, and I respect him for that.

A culture that isn't OK with what gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transvestites, and the transgendered do in private is not a safe place for them, period. The Stonewall Rioters suddenly understood that. The original Gay Pride marchers proved it. Robert Mapplethorpe went to his grave proclaiming it. Matthew Shepard's death proved the futility of claiming otherwise. Show a little respect -- and a little backbone.