It's a conversation I have heard throughout the years. But, as Gay Pride celebrations are held around the country, it takes on added resonance to me. Gay men and lesbians spend a lot of time complaining to each other about the appearances, clothing, behavior, diction, or politics of other gay people they know or happen to observe. In some cases, these conversations remain amiable and innocuous. In other instances, especially around the issue of pride parades and their participants, they become a vehicle for homophobia -- homosexual homophobia. The problem of stereotypical homophobia, which we are quick to challenge in others, also deeply afflicts ourselves and our community.
As someone who lived in the closet for over fifty years, I remember the distancing acts I took to separate me from other homosexuals, thereby avoiding both the vicious and the genteel societal homophobia that was all around me. Throughout those years, I felt a kinship with gay people who had the courage to be open. Yet, in a mistake that still marks many people's responses to gays, I often associated any perceived weakness or eccentricity in a gay person with his or her homosexuality. Yes, I was aware of my own frailties. But I told myself that my rough spots, however conspicuous, were different from those I saw in openly gay people, that I was not -- indeed, could not -- be one of them.
But I always was -- and am today -- one of them. Still, the dynamic of dodging my connection to them, of criticizing what I deeply feared I could become, did not die with my coming out six years ago. The tendency to carve shallow distinctions between myself and other gay people, to buy into the arbitrary and brutal division between "good" gays and "bad" ones, is simply an act of delusion. And, it is a foolish delusion. If gay people are to survive and gain respect and equality as individuals and as a community, we need to stop looking down our noses and lift each other up. We need to change the conversation. I have been guilty of such transgressions myself when I have mocked or ridiculed gay Republicans in these columns. They are doing their thing for what they believe is good for our community, just as gay Democrats, Libertarians, Socialists and Queer Nation activists are doing their thing. I apologize for writing what I condemn in others.
The strategies gays use to distance themselves from each other came back to me on two recent trips, one to the Southeast and the other to the Northwest. At a dinner party in the course of each journey, gay men of various ages began to criticize other gay people they'd met. Catty and campy quips like "Can you believe her hair?" and "Who taught her to talk like that?" and "He walked through the restaurant, almost knocking down chairs with her nellie hips!" were commonplace. Like firecrackers, most of these remarks just sizzled and popped; one or two particularly clever, teasing jibes, like bottle rockets, whistled over the heads of laughing guests and fell to the floor, extinguished.
Then came attacks packing a little more punch. At each event, guests began to assail the personalities of other gay people, relating how "embarrassed" they were by their eccentricities, politics, activism, and the presumed havoc they wrought on the gay community's public image. I was annoyed at first, but realized I had heard this conversation before. It resembled the anti-gay diatribes I experienced during get-togethers with straight colleagues and acquaintances decades earlier, and those of the Christian Coalition and their clones today.
Something had changed, though. Six years ago, I stopped hiding. I stopped lying to myself and the world. I came out of my psychological "bomb shelter" into a community of brothers and sisters, many of whom welcomed my contributions, some of whom even valued my quirks. The stereotypes of lonely, predatory, vice-ridden faggots and dykes were dreadfully false, I realized. The stereotypes could no longer paralyze me or stifle my voice.
"Listen, we are all in the same boat," was all I told the dinner guests on each occasion. What I didn't say was that we cannot flee the stereotypical images imposed on us not only from the outside but from within our own ranks. Where the gay community is concerned, particularly on public occasions such as pride parades, who can tell who puts the optimum, most reassuring face on homosexuality? We shouldn't waste our time trying to figure out this non-issue. Blue-jeaned macho or brash transvestite, leather, or lipstick-wearing, we aren't defined by our exteriors.
As the success of the movie "THE BIRDCAGE" might suggest, drag performers -- long the nemeses of image-conscious gays -- may outdo any well-scrubbed spokesmodel when it comes to advocating our right to lead integrated lives, without discrimination, in our society. We have to start a new conversation about who we are as gay people, warts and all. A test of our character, as individuals and as a community, is how we deal with each other's differences, our imperfections, and our enormous diversity.
From my perspective, this conversation begins with one simple statement: Those who want to do us harm and hate us, hate us all -- from those of us still in the closet, to the buttoned-downed imitation of the mainstream, to the most flamboyant queen, all of us. We are one and separate only in our own minds. We must get used to it and learn to deal with it as strong men and women who are, simply, non-heterosexual.