by NICK BUCHANAN
“I would have held your hand back there, but I didn’t think they would have liked that,” I said to my boyfriend, grabbing his hand as I looked behind us.
It was our third date. We had just passed a group of inebriated bar-crawlers – loud and rowdy ones, at that – on a dim street in Sandusky’s marina district
As a pair of average young men, we thought we could avoid conflict by swiftly separating our hands, even though this wasn’t the first time we had found ourselves in an uncomfortable public situation and we knew solutions weren’t always that simple.
Despite showing no signs of being a prospective couple, we already had been stared down by two families – one clad in camouflage and the other in Bowling Green State University garb – on our first date at a bowling alley. My boyfriend’s attempt to make conversation with the youngest member of the camouflage family who was struggling to lift a bowling ball from the return was met with a stern, disinviting glance from the child’s older sister, while Mr. and Mrs. BGSU’s eyebrows scrunched into strange formations each time they glanced at us.
I would argue that they were marveling at our horrendous performances in the sport – my score average is a solid 82 on a good day – but we were subjects of interest before we could finish tying the laces of our fashion-forward bowling sneakers.
Mind you, we gays can’t even be in a commercial for chicken noodle soup without a cockamamie petition from One Million Moms, let alone go on a date in the presence of the blessed children of America, so I’m not surprised. I’m not used to the stares and faces, though; after all, I am in a pretty comfortable position of privilege. I’m young, I’m white, I’m able-bodied, and as long as nobody opens my phone’s music app, where a whole repertoire of gay deities resides, I’m straight-passing. These dates were some of my first times being thrown into the position of a minority publicly, and as demeaning as they were, they were eye-opening experiences.
For better or for worse, I quite like solitude and spend ample time in my own head. My thoughts have run wild regarding these incidents in correlation to the bigger picture; eventually, I recalled an introductory-level sociology lesson.
Sociologist Robin Williams outlined a number of core values most Americans share. When condensed into a list of 10 by textbook author Nijole Benokraitis, both individualism and conformity were listed as separate entities.
That’s a bit contradictory, isn’t it? We Americans supposedly value the traits of individualism, yet we want everyone to be the same. Upon some additional thought and introspection on American society, however, the coexistence of these conflicting ideas somehow seems understandable.
To clear things up, let’s combine those two into one element: individualism within conformity. Even better, we can think of it as a spectrum, making a balance between the two a desirable result. Alternatives that fall too far to either end of the scale are then deemed less acceptable than those that cluster in the middle. In other words, we want people to make choices that embrace their own individuality, but idiosyncrasies mustn’t exceed a caliber that will garner stares from the middle-class white family in the room.
As homosexuality inches its way nearer to the center of the proposed spectrum, a certain viewpoint has become more prevalent: “I have nothing against gay people; I just don’t want to see it.”
I just don’t want to see it, as if it’s some sort of ASPCA commercial or Will Ferrell movie that can be turned on and off. This sort of conditional acceptance (“I support them, but…”) is just a delicate way of saying something along the lines of, “You can be gay; just don’t be flamboyant around me so I don’t have to admit that I’m uncomfortable. This way, I can continue to hold onto the illusion of being an understanding person in a perfectly heterosexual world.”
These same people often offer the rebuttal that “not everybody is out to get us” to us gay couples (and most other minorities, for that matter) when we share our thoughts and experiences. At first thought, I agree with that, because it’s true: there are some good people out there.
I must go deeper into the analysis of the argument, though.
Do people realize that the statement accepts that there are people who are “out to get us” and implies that we should be content with that? It’s a statement that tries to both acknowledge and refute the existence of inequality – often provided by individuals who wear veils of being allies to the community.
As minorities, our race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender do not define us. That does not mean, however, that we can ignore that those things are the integral parts of our identities or be content with the fact that “not everybody is out to get us.” We cannot try to go unnoticed, camouflaged in the middle of that individualism-conformity spectrum; gays and lesbians tried that before, and how did it work for us?
Not well. Closeted men of the early to mid-twentieth century retreated to public bathrooms and parks for intimacy, giving birth to now-outdated stereotypes that are still used against us. Openly gay men, meanwhile, had to plan their entire lives around being gay because there were so few of them who were willing to make such a declaration. Coming out meant becoming an outcast; openly gay men couldn’t get any jobs worth bragging about, were murdered without murmur from the press, and weren’t considered members of society.
Without much thought to how privileged we are compared to just 30 years ago, many young, openly gay men I have met are ready to move on in the wake of marriage equality, arguing that they don’t want their lives to revolve around their sexuality and that they want to seamlessly blend into society. But how can we when our fight isn’t over? The Supreme Court’s decision on June 26, 2015 did no more than legally validate our partnerships in these United States – it didn’t guarantee us absolute equality or representation.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
Gay and lesbian partnerships were deemed equal to heterosexual ones, but my boyfriend and I can’t go to the bowling alley without a reaction. If we can’t show signs of even being interested in someone of the same sex despite the legal validity of our partnerships, then how are gay and lesbian couples, especially ones in committed, long-term relationships who cannot translate the love they share in their homes to their public lives, equal to their heterosexual counterparts?
Our history is wiped from curriculum and textbooks, and basic sexual education courses don’t acknowledge us; moreover, laws prohibit the inclusion of LGBT+ topics in public education curriculum in eight states. Here in Ohio, my American history books ignored noteworthy events like Stonewall and the outbreak of AIDS, and my health classes assumed that all sexual intercourse was penile-vaginal. Most of my expertise on gay history came from documentaries uploaded to YouTube, and most of my sexual education from online resources. If we’re overlooked in the classroom, how are gay students equal?
Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act debacle of 2015 and a similar Mississippi law signed this month have opened the door for legalized discrimination, allowing refusal to serve LGBT+ customers on the basis of religious beliefs. Revisions were made to the Indiana law soon after it was signed into effect, but think about it: politicians see no problem with open doors to discrimination until widespread backlash hits. If we can be considered nuisances to business owners’ beliefs, how are gay consumers equal?
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) lists 19 states that still allow denial or termination of employment based on sexual orientation; three more, including Ohio, ban such discrimination only in public positions. While most large corporations enforce private policies against LGBT+ discrimination, the avenue is still there and has been taken before; let’s remind ourselves of Cracker Barrel’s former policy that ended the employment of anybody who didn’t display “normal heterosexual values” or the Salvation Army’s uncovered internal policy that dictates that officers of the organization may not officiate or attend a same-sex wedding in uniform without facing termination. If we can be fired based on our sexuality, how are gay employees equal?
The HRC also recognizes 20 states that exclude sexual orientation from their definitions of hate crimes, although the federal definition was extended to include sexual orientation and gender identity through the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. According to an annual report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, almost one-fifth the single-bias hate crimes reported in the United States in 2014 were based on sexual orientation. If we’re still a sizeable category in a chart of hate crime victims, how are gay Americans equal?
Even worse, gays and lesbians are being jailed or killed – legally and by their government – for their sexuality. A 2015 report compiled by The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association states that gay sexual acts are illegal in over 70 countries and that homosexuality is punishable by death in some African and Middle Eastern countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Nigeria, and Somalia. If we can be killed for being who we are, how are gays equal?
The fact of the matter is that we’re still being ignored, devalued, fired, beaten, and killed for our sexuality. These aren’t even all of our problems – the Human Rights Campaign acknowledges inequalities in housing laws, anti-bullying policies, and nondiscrimination legislation for lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans; transgender individuals have an even longer road ahead in their own fight for equality.
We’re still social anomalies. We’re just social anomalies who can get married in the United States now; therefore, this revolution is far from over. Onward the fight must continue – and those who commit their lives to their sexuality have the track record of getting things done. Take a look at the Stonewall riots, or more importantly, the AIDS panic of the 1980s: the people who sparked the gay revolution were the ones who demanded to be heard.
If it weren’t for those pioneers, we would still be in the shadows. The murders of gay men would still bear the same significance as the death of a dog in the eyes of the media. The government would still feign a deaf ear as AIDS ravaged the gay male population. Bathhouses and parks would still be our bedrooms.
Today, in a nation of substantial advantage for our community, we must grab the baton from our predecessors – and luckily, the tallest hurdles have already been jumped for us. At the very least, we must elicit and embrace those stares in everyday life to better blend into the social landscape without forfeiting what makes us unique. The more we are seen, the less foreign we seem. It is our responsibility to demand and create not only equality, but also everyday normalization through visibility.
Equality is change in law. Normalization is change in overall mentality.
In the United States, we’ve been reached a level of equality – but that’s one battle in the war we have yet to win. We’re obligated to continue our own elevation and bridge the gap between equality and normalization; those who came before us worked too hard for us to stop here when our roles are comparatively less straining. While it won’t happen overnight, achieving normalization is obtainable in the long-term if we just remain visible. That’s it; that’s all we need to do to carry this onward.
Rainbow flags and HRC bumper stickers are great, but they’re byproducts of what is really keeping this revolution in motion: people who are seen and heard on a daily basis simply by holding great confidence in their beliefs and living their lives unabashed of their own individuality. Whether you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, a straight ally, or anything in between, challenge yourself to be one of those people. After spending days, if not weeks, pondering all of this, I know I’m going to.