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Derik Cowan

October 1996

School Daze

It strikes me as odd to be back in school again. I'm a senior now, writing a thesis, and in about nine months I'll find myself facing the "real world" (unless I run screaming towards grad school). Yet again I find myself one of those few out and proud on campus, running organizational meetings for Amherst's queer political organization, choreographing a piece about gay teen suicide, and generally playing the role of "fag at large" in campus life.

However wonderful and accepting Amherst is, it is not San Francisco. There just aren't the numbers of LBGT people around here that I got used to over the summer. It's difficult going from a place where every night you have a choice of over a dozen clubs to hit to a place where there's only one gay bar and another club that has a gay night, or from living in a place where it's a common sight to see rainbow flags and same sex couple walking around holding hands to a place where such things are something of a spectacle. Oh sure, no one minds when I wander around with my freedom rings on or when I kiss my friends hello in the quad, but there are painfully few such occurrences, so I can't help but feel somewhat out of place.

I'm taking a class in black gay fiction this semester, and we were talking about the issue of "other-ness," or more specifically, what it meant to feel like an "other." A lot of people in my class objected to the use of the term "other" because it implies that some how you're the lesser site, i.e. there's "normal" and then there's "other," but I see it differently. For me, the binary falls along the lines of "majority" and "other." Given that, "other" carries both strengths and weaknesses. The weakness is obvious: If we're one in ten, then that leaves nine people to beat us up. But otherness carries a less obvious strength to it in that we as others are able to define ourselves and "know" ourselves with far greater clarity and we are the ones who define our position to the majority. I know that's a rather vague statement, so I'll try to explain it this way: part of the coming out process involves a realization that we aren't like "most people" are, and that realization triggers a need for us to figure out what we are, to define ourselves. The majority of people don't have to do that, because they never see themselves as different in the first place.

By now you're probably wondering what the hell I'm rambling on about all this for, or else you're wondering why I think the ability to define yourself is a strength. Well, the answer to the second question is simple: knowledge is power, and the more you know about yourself, the more powerful you become. The answer to the first is a bit more involved, and it's going to take me a bit of time to really get around to answering it.

I've also started working this year for the first time in my academic career. I work with an after-school arts program with a multicultural impetus. In the program we encourage the children to understand and celebrate themselves, but also to celebrate others for their differences. We stress the value of diversity, be it racial, cultural, religious, or sexual. I worked with the summer camp version of this program two years ago, and it was an extremely rewarding experience that I'm eager to continue. In a society so obsessed with it's standards of normalcy and the propriety, it's a truly wonderful experience to be in an environment where people accept and celebrate the wonderful diversity that we as human beings possess and the wonderfully diverse and yet equally valuable things that we can bring into our society.

In my last article, I wrote about finding ways to accept yourself for who you are, not who society says you should be. After I had written the article and reread it, I knew that it would probably be read by some as inflammatory and expected mail disagreeing with my stance. Nonetheless I was rather disturbed by some of the mail I received, most notably by one letter in which the person said that "stereotypes don't get a word in edgewise" and that it was those of us who practice stereotypical behavior that keep gays and lesbians from being accepted in our society. I was disturbed by this for three big reasons.

First, it showed a huge lack of knowledge of the history of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement. I mean, the movement as we know it today was started by a bunch of drag queens who rioted when the bar they were in was busted by the police the night of Judy Garland's funeral while the "normal" gays did everything they could to stay out of jail. The way the federal government and drug companies deal with new medicines especially for AIDS was revolutionized in the 80s by the militant queers (and women and people of color) of ACT-UP, a group that made no attempt to appease the majority. Second, the letter showed a lack of grasp on the reality of the situation facing gays and lesbians today. I know several people who have been gay bashed in the last five years, and they range from extremely stereotypical to extremely "straight-appearing." People dislike gays and lesbians because "what they do in bed isn't normal" whether or not the person in question is stereotypical or not.

But I think the third and most disturbing thing about the note for me was that I hadn't realized that the final goal of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement was assimilation. Personally, I thought the message was that we deserve equal rights because we're human beings just like you and we should be treated that way, not that we deserve equal rights because we can pretend we're just like you. Like my job, one of the reasons I love doing gay activist work is because what we're really striving for is the freedom to be who we want to be and love who we want to love and still have equal standing with the "heterosexual majority." We're striving alongside racial civil rights groups and feminist groups towards a society where we celebrate our diversity and the varied things each of us bring to better our society as equals instead of having to settle for the scraps we're given if we behave ourselves like "normal" people do.

So anyway, I'm back at school. My thesis performance involves a drag number and a homoerotic encounter between two of the characters, lovers, one of whom dies of AIDS at the end of the piece. I've been invited to do a drag number for the World AIDS day variety show. The queer political group I'm heading up is working on the campaigns of various gay positive candidates. I'm behind in classwork because I had mono at the beginning of the year. Things are back to normal. As they should be. Well, I could use a boyfriend...

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