Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Beyond Stonewall

A couple days removed from the hyperbole and the echo chamber, I would like to express my appreciation to President Obama, with some caveats. It pleases me greatly that he mentioned gay rights in his Inaugural Address. It astonishes me that we live at a time where a sentiment once considered risky and divisive, even within my own lifetime, produces a minimal amount of vitriol.

I was, however, not entirely satisfied with the gesture. It very nearly qualifies as a safe statement, amazingly enough. When a Chief Executive voices an understanding of the complexity of sexual orientation, I will feel appropriately recognized. Inaugural Addresses are likely not the place, nor the occasion, but I’m still waiting for the fullest measure of devotion to trickle down to everyone.   

In part, I speak of my own feelings of isolation. I’ve rarely felt a part of the collective entity usually referred to as “the gay community.” In my experience, being a member required insider knowledge and a willingness to conform to a particular standard. Although not directly stated, nonetheless one learned to copy the models laid before us.

We’d never really belonged to the mainstream. If we agreed to wear the proper uniform, conforming in a different way altogether, we’d surely find commonality and common purpose there. I resisted easy categorization, mostly because my own sexuality was dense and convoluted, not easily to pigeonhole. I would even be so bold as to say that everyone’s personal expression of sexuality is complicated, but made simple for the ease of it. This is especially true for those who are not heterosexual.  

I write today because three weeks from now, I depart for an LGBT conference. This gathering, I am told, will be calm, sedate, and loving. The older I get, the more I find comfort in the sanctity of my own apartment and circle of friends, less in communal events. I never had much interest in protest rallies. My successes have arrived in small packages, but I begrudge them not at all.  

In this case, I will voluntarily break my regular routine in the hopes of achieving greater self-acceptance and perhaps even the promise of good company. I’m a little nervous, but that’s because of past life experience. Most people couldn’t distinguish me on the street from the run-of-the-mill straight person. It is there where I am most comfortable.  

My first experience among a predominately queer audience was a matter of too much, too soon. I’d been raised in a conservative state among social conservatives. I had only come out to myself as bisexual a short time before I signed up to attend. Then in my early twenties, I was beginning to slowly explore what it meant to be queer, but only on my own terms and only at my own glacial pace.

My introduction to queer culture came in the form of a Berkley radical, in-your-face, tattooed, pierced ethos. In my own life, I have felt no particularly compelling need for body modification or ink. I sometimes wear my politics on my sleeve, but four years of living in Washington, DC, has given me a pragmatic understanding of the pace and nature of reform. I’ve observed wave after wave of activism done wrongly and protest culture writ large.

Strong opinions, regardless of individual conviction, often boomerang or are self-limiting in practice. Southerners like me are still raised to find coarseness in opinion vulgar, even for the right cause. We’re generally diplomatic creatures until our honor is impugned, at which point wars can result. Activism should be disciplined, not knee-jerk and reactive.   

Politics aside, my personal life experiences are as much of me as my causes. For years, the feelings I had towards other men were usually stuffed down and denied. I’d sleep with a man, and then renounce the whole concept for a while. Then my curiosity and desire got the best of me again. My sexuality appeared to be a no-win proposition. If I was with a woman, I felt I ought to renounce all interest in men. If I was intimate with a man, I believed I needed to fully act the part.

I reluctantly, but fundamentally expressed belief in a self-limiting dichotomy.  A person could be all one way, or all the other, but not both at the same time. Now, I know this to be false, but it took me a very long time to accept the premise without summarily rejecting it out of hand. I can view, at long last, the grand spectrum of presentation and sexual identity.

I see the male within the female, the female within the male. No longer do I cringe at the sight or at the very thought of a gender traffic accident. Even more incredibly, I’m able to see those distinctions and combinations within myself. This was the hardest work of all.    

LGBTs have made considerable strides, but we still feel the need to self-identify for group unity. Today, young queer men and young queer women still signal to others who they are by subtle and not-so-subtle flourishes. A haircut, for example, might signal to other men that I’m interested. Even so, I’m very comfortable dressing as someone who is often considered heterosexual at first glance.

Stonewall paved the way for me to be as open as I am.  I don’t want to sound ungrateful. But now that the first layer has been peeled back, many people will have the ability to observe for themselves the complexity of human expression and biological design, especially when it concerns sexual orientation. We know the surface now, but should keep unearthing layer after layer. Those who broke so much new ground in their own time would be disappointed in us if we did not further everyone’s understanding.

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