Challenging times call for challenging actions, and we are living in such a time.
Globally, we are facing multiple challenges—environmental, economic and otherwise—but I am focusing here on social conditions in the United States, and since it’s Pride Month, specifically on sexual identity.
Two and a half years into the Trump administration, there’s no doubt that expressions of bigotry have increased, online and IRL. Rhetoric against anyone not white, straight, male and a U.S. citizen has been growing more vile. Not just words have been thrown, but punches too. Violence has ticked up.
The U.S. has never been an accepting and inclusive place, of course. The nation was founded on the theft of land from Native Americans. Much of its wealth was built on the enslavement of Africans. The domestic sector was (and remains) dependent on the unpaid labor of women of all colors.
However, thanks to a nexus of demographics, wealth and awareness, following decades of dedicated activism, something called the Sixties happened, and society softened a bit. This phenomena happened throughout the industrialized nations of the time. The result was a period of more openness in culture and increased rights under the law.
Those who would paint the Sixties as merely self-indulgent or as outright detrimental are either ignorant of history, opposed to justice, or both. The Civil Rights Movement (which had been building steam since the Fifties) can hardly be characterized as either hedonistic in character or spurious in its goals. Likewise, Second-Wave Feminism simply sought to make room for women to stand as equals, with control over their own lives. Native Americans, who had arguably suffered their nadir of independence in the Fifties, started gaining their stolen power back.
Then there was Stonewall. I was three weeks old and over 1200 miles away when the now-fabled riots broke out on June 28th, 1969, but I like to think I caught a piece of that rebellious spark. Certainly, questioning authority has been central to me from an early age, as well as an undeniably non-heterosexual identity. (Not that I didn’t try to deny it at times.)
Throughout the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, and into the 2000’s, it seemed to many that all issues of social justice were improving, if only gradually at times. Bad laws were struck down and better ones enacted, but more importantly, the everyday attitudes of normal people were steadily evolving. Certain words were no longer acceptable to use. Different faces appeared at workplaces and in the media. Old taboos about friendship and dating were broken. Most hopefully, the younger you were, the less you cared about the old divisions.
Not that steps backward didn’t happen. That’s why I said, “it seemed to many” up above. Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill—which was written by Joe Biden, let us never forget—intentionally targeted Black people and tore apart their communities. (See Thomas Frank’s “Bill Clinton’s crime bill destroyed lives, and there’s no point denying it.”) Obama was known as the Deporter-in-Chief for kicking out more people than any other president in history. Although Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, access to the procedure has been steadily eroded by most Republicans (and many Democrats) since then.
That’s the world of policy, though. Culturally, a growing number of people kept getting more open-minded, which can’t be reversed with an executive order or a Supreme Court Decision.
Now we fast-forward to Trump’s ascendancy. In March 2017, I wrote:
We are in no danger of “setting the clock back fifty years” as some have shrilly insisted. Case in point: during the post-election protests, high school students walked out of their classes in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. A rainbow flag was on display, which really impressed me. Such open support for LGBTQ rights would never ever ever ever ever have happened when I was in high school in that city in the 80’s, at an all boys’ institution where it seemed like the most frequently used word was “faggot.” And this contemporary acceptance, which continues to grow among the younger people, is not going to go away just because one close-minded jerk won a national election.
Over two years after writing this, I still believe it to be the case. But, now that I see how it’s been going, I must add that defending and advancing our causes certainly requires greater effort now.
Case-in-point: Nazis crashed the Pride parade in Detroit this year, accompanied by police who appeared to be escorting them, not merely standing in between to “keep the peace.” (Despite PR stunts like this year’s NYPD apology for the 1969 Stonewall raid, law enforcement too often takes the wrong side.) The list of such incidents since 2016 is long, too long to tackle here. The point is that extra work is needed these days. For me, that includes being more open about my own queerness. I see that I need to come out “again,” in a way.
I’ve been politically active since 2000, but have not centered sexual issues or my own identity. This was for a number of reasons: my political interests are very broad, my sexuality is not the most important part of my identity to me, and, homophobia is still a real thing. It was different in my personal life, where I was quite open, sometimes to the point of flamboyance, but to a large degree, I walled that off from my activist/writer life.
Well, I can’t do that anymore. Not in these challenging times, when so many hateful people feel empowered by the Orange Menace in the White House. Life can’t just be about me and my sense of self. It’s gotta be about my brothers and sisters (and aunties) too. It’s true that the more of us band together, the stronger we are. It’s also true that “standing up and being counted” has more consequences in this age of mass surveillance, but it’s still vital.
So please pardon me if I was a little too quiet for a few years there. I will speak up more now.