I remember the 1990s well–ATMs were a novelty, all the cool kids had neon-colored pagers, and Friday nights were spent playing an X-Files drinking game.* 1992, the year I graduated college, was an election year, and there were all kinds of debates within and about the queer community, some of which made the mainstream news–also known as “the evening news.” Which was watched on television, not on the Internet.
These debates included:
- Whether bisexuals should be included in the umbrella of “queer”
- Whether we should try to reclaim the term, “queer”
- Whether gays should be able to marry
- Whether queer civil rights should be about liberation or assimilation
- How best to advocate for more/better access to health care (mostly in light of the AIDS crisis)
- Whether lesbians should date bisexuals, and what that would mean about their lesbianism
- Whether gay men occupied too much of the priority list at the top of LGB civil rights
- Whether butch/femme or androgyny should be the preferred goal for lesbians
Twenty-one years later, we haven’t moved far from these debates, if at all. To some degree, questions about gender identity have supplanted the fear regarding bisexual people, but folks like Dan Savage are still out and proud about denigrating people who express an attraction to men and women. (Thanks for holding down the fort of 1993, Dan.) In the last week new vitriol has exploded on the screens of The Guardian** and Twitter over a writer getting called out for using trans women as a joke in an article. A rising star college football player invents a dead girlfriend, and the press openly wonders if he’s a closeted gay man. Riki Wilkins writes a piece in The Advocate asking, “Where are all the butches?” (Answer: They like to stay out of the spotlight, and they always have.)
Why are we still in this place of infighting and self-doubt? Where are the nuanced discussions of barriers to health care for LGBT people? Where is the analysis of taking lessons learned during the AIDS epidemic for setting contemporary policy around LGBT civil rights? Why, in the midst of the “gun violence” debate are none of the talking heads on TV mentioning the use of guns in suicide, which disproportionately affects LGBT people?
Let me be fair–some people are having some of these discussions. They haven’t, however, captured the nation’s attention. The issues on the stage are same sex marriage and a couple of autumns ago, gay youth suicide, which came with some severe limitations in scope than the real problem presents (i.e., it’s not just white gay men at increased risk and incidence). The Williams Institute and the Task Force conducted a joint study on transgender discrimination, which got zero press in the mainstream media, except for one statistic, also about suicide, which revealed that fully 41 percent of survey respondents admitted attempting suicide at some point.
I’m not naive, I swear. I know that the media err toward sensationalism–how else to explain the river of articles about Lance Armstrong and Casey Anthony–but we also live in a community that isn’t pushing many issues. We don’t support our leaders well as much as we call them out. Even so, public “approval” of LGBT people is at an all-time high, possibly because so many of us are living more openly than before. Tammy Baldwin, the first out loud and proud sexual minority member of the US Senate, is something of a bellwether. But having one Senator out of a hundred with a shared lived experience does not push us into new territory. We are still more likely to be abused when incarcerated, more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, live in physically abusive relationships, struggle with housing, drop out of high school, attempt or commit suicide, and receive substandard medical care. These aren’t simple issues, and they aren’t abstractions–they’re about millions of individuals in the richest country on the planet who struggle to survive and be happy because some other people think they have the right to consider us less than fully human, or deserving of discrimination.
That same sensationalist media gives us long diatribes with every epithet against trans women that a small-minded person can conjure. It presents the general public with articles about what gay marriage means to the nation, about whether “conversion therapy” works or not, when all of the evidence says it is quackery. We agree to watch and hold the same wrong-minded debates as if they are meritorious in any way, even though spending time conversing over debunked logic takes energy away from other fronts. Why are there no out and visible NFL players? Because the NFL is a discriminatory monopoly that doesn’t care about the mental or physical well being of its players, that’s why. Perhaps we’ve been going about this queer liberation thing all the wrong way.
Instead of pushing for people to come out and hoping that changes the opinions of our adversaries, why don’t we push for material improvements to our lives and full equal rights, expecting that attitudes will have to adjust to the new norm? But even if you disagree with me on that point, consider starting new conversations, in person and online, than the same tired nonsense we’ve been stuck in for two decades.
*The unofficial drinking game had us taking 1 swallow for whenever Mulder or Scully drew their weapons, whenever Scully answered a question with another question, whenever we saw filtered light shining through a window, whenever Scully said, “I’m a scientist,” and whenever the Cigarette Smoking Man made an appearance. There were other, higher prompts, but maybe those deserve their own post.
**And then removed by their editors.