Ron Belgau

December 1997

Two Cheers for Democracy

Since this is the special expanded December issue, grab a hot chocolate, sit back, and enjoy my special 'expanded' column! As many of you know, Washington's Initiative 677 failed at the polls this month. It would have guaranteed workplace protection for gays and lesbians. It even got the official endorsement of the Catholic Church! But the NRA spent millions to defeat a gun-safety initiative, with the result that most of the voter turnout came from the rural counties. So let's see what we learned: conservatives think it is unfair for the government to protect children from handgun accidents by regulating gun owners; they also think it is dangerous to children for the government to protect gays and lesbians from job discrimination -- gay teachers might 'recruit' their students into their 'lifestyle.' Their motto for children must be 'better slayed than gay.' Let's give a cheer for family values, NRA-style.

Three Cheers for El Nino

Still, the news from the Northwest isn't all bad. While El Nino is supposed to make things colder and wetter and stormier for most of the country, the Northwest is supposed to be warmer and dryer than normal. Weather for the past week has been clear with temperatures in the sixties and even seventies. I went to class today in shorts and a T-shirt. Seattle usually isn't like this in November, but I like it. Maybe I'll get a suntan. I'll be thinking of the rest of you while wearing shorts to class this December.

Three Cheers for Oasis

I've only been reading Oasis since the July issue of this year, so it hasn't had a long time to have a big effect. Also, I'm already fairly out, so I don't need to 'test the waters' online or anything like that. It would have been nice to have this a few years ago, though. Of course, I've gone back to read the back issues, which were good.

Anyway, here are the things to like about Oasis:

1) It's clean. I don't like the idea that being gay is all about sex. That's a bad stereotype, unfortunately borne out on some gay sites. It's a free country, but I'm not into porn. Call me old-fashioned.

2) It's real. People have the opportunity to say what they think. We've got a lot of different perspectives. I don't agree with everyone. I expect that some people don't always agree with me. But most magazines tend to follow a fairly homogenous perspective. The crowd here is pretty diverse, and people can express that.

3) It has Andy. Actually, this accounts for at least two and a half of those cheers, and maybe as many as five. I liked his first column, and decided to write to him. (I'll throw in the obligatory "I usually don't make friends over the Internet" disclaimer here.) We have pretty similar perspectives, because we're both committed Christians, and we both grew up in conservative families. The combination of gay and committed Christian is pretty rare, or at least seems really rare. It's always nice to know I'm not alone. I especially liked his column on being gay and Christian. Plus, he laughs at my jokes. Which is also rare. Anyway, I think we've learned a lot from each other, and it's good for this guppy (gay urban professional) to hear what it's like in much more conservative places. It helps me to count my blessings.

Two Cheers for Gay Groups

I really liked Patrick D.'s column last month. My freshman year at the UW, I went to see a talk sponsored by the Gay, Bisexual, and Lesbian Commission on campus. Gloria Anzaldua, a Latina Lesbian, was speaking about discrimination. I dressed up in standard Northwest casual preppy: Dockers, a nice green long-sleeved shirt, and boat shoes. I walked into the auditorium. The audience was in torn jeans, multiple earrings, leather, chains, all sorts of different "alternative" clothing styles. I sat down, and waited for the speech. Behind me, a woman in her forties with hair about a quarter of an inch long and earrings about six inches long was telling everyone who would listen that Cuba was a workers' paradise. Ms. Anzaldua began her speech. She talked about a lot of legitimate gripes -- harassment, being cut off by others, being an outsider. But when she attributed a too-hot cup coffee on a recent airline flight to homophobia, I thought she was stretching. You don't have to be gay to get bad service from the airlines. I wonder what she thought of the service in Cuba?

At the end of the speech, there was a time for the audience to ask questions. I asked if it wasn't possible for us to do something positive instead of complaining, and got attacked because it was assumed that I was a straight white male who couldn't possibly understand persecution. I wasn't about to come out to an auditorium with over 500 people in it. But it was obvious that Ms. Anzaldua assumed I was an oppressor because I was a white male who didn't have an earring. It would be three years before I attended another gay function at the UW. And I still haven't gone to Cuba.

But as bad as my experience was, it did help me. I went through a lot of pain growing up, and I basically suppressed the emotions. I figured the only thing to do was to push down the hurt and go about doing things. I'd pushed it so far down that I didn't even know I was mad about it. Anyway, after listening to Ms. Anzaldua complain, I realized that I was mad, I mean really, really mad about the way I'd been treated growing up. I talked to one of my closest friends about being gay and about how I felt. He listened and let me cry and gave me a hug. It helped a lot, and I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't gone to that speech. At least, it probably would have taken longer. But all's well that ends well. I still think that complaining doesn't change a lot. It's better to do something positive than to complain about what's wrong with the world. But I now realize that I have to deal with my feelings of anger and hurt.

So for me, things turned out well, even though I had a bad experience with a gay group. Others, whose initial experiences are better than mine, sometimes seem to do worse in the long run. I remember a long talk with a closeted gay freshman. He hadn't gotten involved in any gay groups yet, mostly because he was too afraid. He told me that he had no interest at all in cross-dressing or anything like that, and wanted a stable relationship with another masculine man. A few month later, I met him again. He'd made some friends in the gay community. He was planning to go to a cross-dressing party that weekend, because a bunch of his friends were going. He'd taken up smoking, and he had had several boyfriends in the intervening time.

Cross-dressing puzzles me. I love masculine men. It seems to me strange to take all the social risks of being gay to date people in dresses. But this is a free country, and if someone wants to cross dress, they don't have to explain it to me. What concerns me, however, is when someone who is gay and isn't interested in cross-dressing gets pressured into it by friends, or starts smoking to fit in, or gets into a faster lifestyle than he wants. I know how isolated I felt growing up, and I know how desperate for support and affirmation I was. I am glad, in a way, that I was so turned off by the lecture I went to. The friends I came out to were helpful and supportive. They were willing to let me figure out what it meant for me to be gay and Christian.

Now I am involved in gay groups. I'm 22 and a virgin. I get subtle (and not-so-subtle) hints that I need to 'get over myself' and start having sex. But I'm not a virgin because I have no opportunities. I'm a virgin because I choose to be. I'm mature enough to resist the pressure and make my own decisions. But what about an 18-year old who is completely alone? Will he be able to resist the pressure? Will he be forced into having sex in order to have gay friends?

The bottom line, though, is I don't condemn gay groups. I know some things are imperfect. But then if you go to a college gay group, you're basically dealing with other people who are just beginning to explore what it means to be gay, who are just coming out, who are just as lonely as you, and who want to make some kind of meaningful connection. A lot of times that turns into a meat market -- which is definitely not a meaningful connection. In the Christian groups I've been involved with, we generally have an unwritten rule against dating newcomers, which gives them a chance to get to know people without being pressured into romantic relationships. I wish gay groups had the same respect, but I understand why it doesn't work that way. The newcomer comes in and may feel like others are pushing for a date. But many of those pushing for the date are themselves very new. They've only been out for a few months or a year or two. They went through the isolation of feeling like the only gay person in the world in High School. Now they're trying to find a connection. And for a lot of young guys, 'connection' means 'sex.'

Are some groups too 'radical'? Yes, at least too radical for my taste. But after keeping everything in through high school, some people want to explode and tell everyone they're gay. I know, I've been there, and lots of my friends have been there, too. Many of the people in college gay groups are frustrated by the silence, would like a relationship, and are naive enough to think they can change the world overnight. So they 'act up' and sleep around and act basically the way young rebels -- gay or straight -- have always acted. Not all gay groups are like this. I've had some (very little) political involvement, which means I've met older gays. I felt no dating pressure at all in the political groups. Then again, gay bars are even more of a 'meat market' than college groups.

Would I send someone to a gay group? It would depend on the person and the group. I'd try to evaluate how mature they were, and balance the risks and the benefits. The basic point is, don't get discouraged by bad experiences, but don't let yourself become 'fresh meat,' either. And most importantly, don't treat others like 'fresh meat.'

Three Cheers for 'Acting Straight'

I act pretty much like a normal man. My voice is normal, my gestures are normal, and my walk is normal. I don't have earrings, and my clothes are pretty standard: jeans or Dockers, polo shirts, T-shirts, or sometimes long-sleeved collar shirts. In short, I'm pretty much like most of my classmates (with the exception that I'm slightly better looking). Because of the way I act, most people don't think I'm gay. Pretty much the only way anyone finds out is if I tell them, or if someone else tells them. But I act the way that feels natural to me. I am not trying to conform. I'm wearing the clothes I like.

Am I afraid of being identified as gay? Of course. Part of the reason I wrote Andy the first time was to give him some hope. But part of the reason was that I identified with him when he wrote, "I'm gay and I hate it." I don't hate who I am; but I sure do hate some of the crap I've had to put up with because of it. I'm not going to claim I don't like the anonymity that comes with dressing and acting like most of my friends. But it simply isn't true that I'm trying to hide in the closet. I've come out to conservative pastors who oppose gay rights and explained why I think they're hypocrites. When I ran for student government, only two of the twenty-five candidates acknowledged their support of gay issues in their campaign fliers; I was one of them. I've had pro-gay political stuff on my door in the dorm.

However, I don't introduce myself to people as gay, nor do I just bring the subject up at random in conversation. I understand gays who want some sort of identifying mark to show that they're gay. It helps for picking up dates, and it helps to increase visibility. I know the drawback of my approach: a lot of people do not recognize that I'm gay. On the other hand, I've had a lot bigger impact on a lot of people than I would have had if I acted gay. Nothing challenges stereotypes like meeting a really normal gay person.

The other problem, of course, is that if I fit in and some radical gay activists go out of their way to stick out, most people will think that the activists are typical gays, and will not notice me. On the other hand, if I go out of my way to stick out, then I will be mostly like the activists. This problem isn't unique to gays. The radicals in any group always stick out the most. Most gays assume all Christians are bigots like Pat Robertson or Beverley LaHaye. That simply isn't true. I have only met a very few Christians like that. Most are very respectful of me. But if one Christian yells "God hates fags" and ten others live their lives quietly respecting everyone, everyone will remember the one who yells "God hates fags."

We all know how badly we've been hurt by stereotypes. But the problem goes both ways. One of my best friends in student government was attacked a few years ago for being a homophobe. He is not. In fact, he has been one of the most supportive friends I've ever had. He is more understanding of gays than almost any other straight person I know. But because he is an active Christian, some students on campus assumed he was anti-gay, and attacked him repeatedly in the school newspaper. Of course, he tried to set the record straight, but those sort of attacks are very hard to rebut. It may have contributed to his defeat in a subsequent election. In our enthusiasm to attack bigots, let's make sure we're not attacking the wrong people.

Basically, I think that a mix of styles is good. Thirty years ago, the only people who would take the risk of identifying as gay were radicals. I consider myself very lucky to have been born at a time when I have a chance to be out and find a life in society. I owe a lot of that to activists, some of whom I would be uncomfortable being around. I gratefully acknowledge the debt. But progress has not come exclusively through activism. It has also come from mainstream gays who try to be involved in the system. Neither style is perfect. Neither method alone would have brought us as far as we have come. Some radical activists have done significant damage through inappropriate protests, like the time ACT UP simulated anal sex in a church, and showered church-goers with condoms. On the other hand, mainstream gays like me do significant damage when we are too silent. There has to be a balance, and everyone should just try to find whatever works best for them. Besides, gays are at least as diverse as straights. There are always people who want to be into 'alternative' dress or music. If straight teens can do it, why not gays? But again, some people want to go into the professions. Again, if straights can do it, why not gays? The point is, we're a diverse community, and there's a lot that everyone can contribute -- even if they act 'straight.'

Three Cheers for the End of the Column!

OK. This will turn into a book if I don't stop now. If you made it this far, you're a hero. I don't really know how helpful all this stuff is. I really think talking about feelings with others is more useful than reading these columns, though the columns are definitely helpful. My friends are more important to me than most stuff I read. I've gotten more out of my personal e-mail with Andy than out of his columns here. I hope the rest of you find people you can talk to.

I don't have any profound advice. Just don't let people push you into doing things you don't think are right. Know your beliefs, and stick to them. Find good friends, and share with them. Don't pressure others to do things they think are wrong. Be a good friend and a good listener. And send me e-mail -- rbelgau@u.washington.edu.

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