Hey - this is going to be a pretty long column. My apologies, but I have a lot to say this time. Visiting the nation's capitol gives you a lot of material to work with, not to mention recent events.
"For the dead and the living we must bear witness"
The pants are old, ragged, worn thin. Black and white stripes pattern it and below where a shirt would end is a simple triangle of colored cloth. In the dim light I can't tell if it's pink or purple; it really depends on your point of view. Somewhere I'd read that one of the few pink triangles still in existence was kept in this building, and so maybe my mind tricks me into thinking this is it, or perhaps it'll be further into the museum. But until I move beyond this collection of ragged clothing, all I can see is the triangle. And by extension one of the more blatant displays of homophobia in the twentieth century, that resulted in an estimated ten to fifteen thousands deaths among gays, and twelve million dead total.
The Holocaust. It all has some resonance in us. We've all sat in history class and been told of the six million Jewish people who died because of their religion. If our teacher actually cared to do a little extra research, we were also told about the Poles and Slavs who were murdered, the Gypsies who were near obliterated, the mentally and physically handicapped who were wiped out under the T-4 program, the Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Communists, and blacks who were also killed under Hitler's regime. I don't think a teacher has ever mentioned the gays that died. When I think of that, all I can hear is some random peer saying "Who cares if a bunch of faggots died?" And that ran through my head as I wandered around the Holocaust Museum over February vacation.
In the early part of the year, I signed up to go with my 20th Century & Social Psychology teacher to Washington, D.C. on a class trip. It was a whirlwind three day trip, with sixteen hours on a bus back and forth, plus trips to the Smithsonian, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, Library of Congress, the Jefferson, FDR, Lincoln, Vietnam, Korea, & Iwo Jima memorials, the National Zoo, Arlington National Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the National Cathedral. We even saw the truckers' protest. But it was the Holocaust Museum that made the most impact. In a four story building is a monument to twelve million dead. My normally loud and outgoing classmates, all of our group, were solemn and quiet as we wandered through the dimly lit labyrinth of each floor, looking at the artifacts under glass, the clothing and shoes and pictures and faces of the dead. I broke away from my group, and wandered along, reading the displays and trying to grasp what I still cannot comprehend. Twelve million is a huge number. That's like the population of two Massachusetts. Twice the number of my home state going poof. It's impossible, I think, to understand it.
The forward to "The Men With The Pink Triangle" says "according to a recent survey commissioned by the American Jewish Committee, only about half of the adults in Britain, and a mere quarter of adults in the United States, know that gays were victims of the Nazi Holocaust." It goes on to say, "Homophobia has never been discussed with Holocaust studies as an important part of Nazi propaganda, racism, and population politics." The United States Holocaust Museum is the only one in the world to integrate the story of the gay dead among the Jewish, Gypsy, black, Polish, Communist, Catholic, and other victims. There were around maybe a dozen specific references to homosexuals being victims of the Holocaust. I wonder if my classmates even bothered to read those few paragraphs. Some of them, I'm sure, did. I will take it for granted that at least four or five did- my friends who were there. The others probably didn't. In the back of their minds, they know that gays died - they saw the headline "Homosexuals" under certain displays - but have they integrated that into their understanding of the Holocaust? Most likely, no. Considering the homophobic remarks/jokes that some classmates made during the trip, I doubt that it made any impact on them. Who cares if a bunch of faggots died? Answer: We all should, not just gays, but straight people as well. Any time people are killed for being different, we must remember that anyone could be next. The pink triangle was a death sentence for thousands of gay men, and we can't forget them.
My father is aware of the story behind the pink triangle, and I know he's uncomfortable with its use as a pride symbol because of that story. He likes rainbows, even has a rainbow sticker on our family van, but he always seems ambivalent about the pink triangle. I've told him that it's a matter of reclaiming something that once destroyed us, making it into something to be proud, instead of ashamed, of. It's about remembering our history, and making sure it doesn't repeat itself. He still doesn't like it. As I see, it's the gay version of the new pin on my knapsack: black background with white lettering saying "REMEMBER". We had no symbol before Hitler gave us one. Jewish people didn't stop wearing Stars of David after the Holocaust, and for the first time, gays were united by a symbol. It was a symbol for death, but now, as we have reclaimed it, the pink triangle is a symbol of life and love.
"I'm not leaving the room until I find my bra!"
Overnight class trips require staying in hotels most of the time. Washington was no exception for my group. There were five of us crammed into a Comfort Inn- Ballston VA hotel room. Luckily, we're all friends. Within half an hour of our settling down for the first night, or if not settling down, at least chucking everything into the room, it was a complete disaster area. I mean trashed. Clothes, shoes, socks, toy dart gun, tapes, suitcases, strewn all over. The top of the entertainment center, which housed a TV and cable box, was our pantry, with all the food my friends and I had brought housed there in easy reach. One friend spent ten minutes jumping up and down on the bed. Another laid her wet clothes from right out of her suitcase onto the heater to dry them (can we say last minute packing anyone?). And we were among the well-behaved rooms. It was fun! A bit cramped, but as I said, we're all friends.
Months ago, I was informed by my friends that I had been put into their room at their insistence. When we got to the hotel and were figuring out sleeping arrangements, I had to insist on taking the cot. "Oh ye of little faith" ran through my head more than once, I'll admit. Imagine four seventeen and eighteen year old girls (strangely enough, I was the youngest in our room) faced with the prospect of sharing a relatively small hotel room with a lesbian. Having them be totally cool about it doesn't immediately come to mind. It didn't even figure into anything. Insane, isn't it, that some teens can be so laid back about homosexuality while others freak at its mere mention?
Not to say that my being gay didn't come up in conversation- it did. But it was more in the context of regular conversations than anything, since as one friend said, "We couldn't keep thinking of you as asexual forever", so for the first time in my life I was able to talk about actual crushes and stuff like that with these friends of mine, during conversation about some of their emotions and relationships. No more trying to convince them I had a crush on LeVar Burton. I was even able to tease them about their cure for post-Holocaust Museum depression: hot guys, food, and shopping, not necessarily in that order. Their sweet, low-key total acceptance was unexpected and something I greatly cherish.
Knight In Shining Armor?
Picture it: Sicily, 1945... Okay, okay, sorry- I just love The Golden Girls... Picture it: Washington D.C., February vacation 2000... Five teenage girls are waiting for the bus that will take them home, sitting on the Mall in front of the Air & Space Museum. Four of the five are crowded on a bench, slumped with exhaustion, while the fifth stands before them, still hyper after visiting her favorite museum exhibit in the world, "Where next, Columbus?", while in the Smithsonian. To pass the time they play a game: someone asks a question, they all answer it.
"What's your perfect wedding?" one of them asks. Slowly they go around, describing a wedding ceremony that's just what they want. The standing one is the last to answer, and she does, talking about one outside, in the fall, etc. She's hyper, excited still, unable to keep very still, and not just because her feet ache more when she does stop moving for a second. After they've all answered the question, they chat a bit, two semi-jokingly decide to hold a joint wedding because their descriptions are so similar- and they'd be inviting a lot of the same people anyway. The standing one takes a reality check, and says something to the effect of at least all her friends before her *can* get married. Tired, they are still optimistic that by the time their gay friend before them wants to get married, she'll be able to, legally.
Three weeks later, the Knight Initiative, the "Defense of Marriage Bill", is passed in California. Two days after that, the gay girl from in front of the Smithsonian presents a project on media messages in advertising to her English class. One of the pictures on her poster is cut from an Advocate and shows two couples; the magazine's cover story was on the state of gay marriage. The issue keeps cropping up in her mind. A day later a piece of law like the Knight Initiative passes in West Virginia, and another day later, she sees a bit on one of the 24 hour news channels about a California Roman Catholic diocese, the bishop of which apologizes to homosexuals during his Ash Wednesday sermon. The piece notes that, while he apologized, his diocese was still one of the largest supporters of the Knight Initiative. She swears at the television screen, angered at his hypocrisy.
I'm angry- at that bishop, at the anti-gay voters in the thirty-odd states and who knows how many countries with laws that refuse to recognize gay marriage, at the bigots all over the country who say that gay couples getting married would spell the doom of the nation. What the hell?! Half of all current marriages will fail, and some of the most dedicated couples I know are gay- yet they can't get married. How is denying them their right to marry protecting the nation? How can the Democratic candidates for President say they're pro-gay, yet still be against gay marriage? How can they so blur the lines between church and state as to say that, because marriage is traditionally viewed (read: in the eyes of certain Christian denominations) as between a man and a woman, same-sex marriage isn't acceptable? I'm furious at the people who are trying to keep us down.
For me, gay marriage is a symbol of progress. It would be such a coup, such a way of saying, yes, we're accepted now so protect our rights. There are two things that would make me think that progress is being really made: if we could get married, and if teens such as myself could know that we wouldn't get much more than a second glance if we brought same-sex dates to the prom. On the one hand, gay marriage says that adult, mainstream society has to recognize the gays among them. On the other, the whole prom thing would be a symbol of acceptance by teenagers of their gay peers. At this point, I can't see either really in the future. A friend once said to me that it takes guts to bring a same-gender date to a dance or prom. That it even requires courage to bring the person you love to what essentially is a celebration of couplehood is outrageous.
I don't endorse hate, it's what gotten us into this whole mess in the first place. But I can't help it. I detest the bigotry that keeps us down, denies us our rights. I hate that my friends and I have had to struggle so much just to be able to say with pride that we're queer. I hate the ignorance and fear that keep so many of us in the closet. I hate it when people say it's okay to be gay, but it's not okay to "act gay". I hate it when my classmates use homophobic slurs while the teachers just stand by. I hate that I have to educate some of my teachers about the fact that there are gay kids in my school, and that we're okay, not perverts. I hate that I have to hide in the closet when around some of my family, because they're so homophobic. I hate that I haven't enough courage to speak up when I hear homophobic slurs in the hall. I hate that I have to be so angry, that I'm not treated like a real American citizen, just because I'm gay.
Most of all, I hate hate. I hate the hypocrisy that lets some Christians preach fire and damnation on innocent people in the name of a loving god. I hate that there are bigots and blind sheep that go along with that crap. I wish the world was different. I wish I could get married. I wish my friends, when they were sitting in front of the Smithsonian, had been right. Because as I see it, there's still a war to win, and the most symbolic battle, the one over gay marriage, has a lot of setbacks to overcome. Someday, we'll have regrouped, rearmed, and we'll take the damn hill, but until that day, marriage will be just for the heterosexuals, and I'll be putting off my wedding. Those four dear friends of mine will walk down the aisle of a field in either spring or fall, resplendent in their wedding clothes, barefoot, and surrounded by accepting friends and family, while I look on, biding the time until it's my turn, hoping and praying I won't need to be wheeled down the aisle with my oxygen machine in tow.
Forgive my cynicism. "I'm not cynical, I'm conscientiously critical!" as I used to say in eighth grade. In some arenas, we've made so much progress that even my English teacher remarked on it. When I gave my presentation on niche market advertising, all but two of the examples were pulled from gay magazines yet my classmates, juniors and seniors all, were very respectful and got involved in the presentation (I still can't believe that one of the guys didn't know Melissa Etheridge came out!). This incident, with its acceptance of a gay classmate, clashes outrageously with all the hate out there. Oh, that all the world was like my English classmates! Oh, that every gay kid could make a poster covered in images of same-sex couples and present it to their class without getting beaten up!
Another day, another battle to fight. Someday, we'll win for good.
Bethany is 17 & from Western Massachusetts. She attends a small public junior-senior high that she'll escape very, very soon, thank gods! If you'd like to comment on the contents of this article, complain about how long it was, or just ask her about the meaning of life (as if she knows the answer!), email firstname.lastname@example.org and, if you're polite and don't write your note in some lower Mesopotamian dialect, you'll get a reply.