Queer Villains Remind Us That Gay Does Not Always Equal Good
Say what you will about 2016—that it was a reeking dumpster fire, maybe, or a malfunctioning computer that needed to be turned off and rebooted—but the year thrust a few magnificent villains into the spotlight. There was Peter Thiel, a dead-eyed billionaire who called his bid to a help a racist millionaire destroy a news outlet “philanthropic,” and who didn’t exactly not say he’d suck teen blood for immortality. We also got Milo Yiannopoulos, a Nazi-sympathizing bizarro Ken doll with a British accent and a talent for turning the internet’s latent undercurrents of hate into waves of violent threats.
These men are more than just bad actors on the national stage: They seek influence and use it for evil means, then show no remorse. They are comic book–level villains. And they also happen to be two of the most visible gay men in America.
Black Lives Matter Gave Me the Confidence to Be Visible in Appalachia
I live in the thick of Appalachia. What’s beneath this sun here? A local auto parts store, ferocious trees, nearby trails, plenty of lakes, and a vast sky. We are a small town just above the cut of the coal mining district. It’s a majority white town, about 97 percent with, surprisingly, a black mayor. I see him during Sunday’s service at the town’s only black church. I hug him and ask if he’s building us a movie theater or underground monorail this year. He asks if I would want to run for the infamous school board.
I’m fearful to live in Appalachia sometimes. Simple rural imagery can be beautifully treacherous—like a child propped in the flatbed of a truck, eating ice cream, inhaling the saltire of the Confederate battle flag from his T-shirt. A Blue Lives Matter flag flaps behind me across the local fire department. Not too far from my home, dipping into the state of West Virginia is a sign that shouts “White Lives Matter.” The list of Ten Commandments are displayed across businesses and landmarks. Across the street from my home is a barbershop door masked in Bible verses, gun idioms, and a meaty sign that always stings me: “The Silent Majority Support Trump.” Oppression and silence are wickedly evil bedfellows, and although I carry faith, I curdle at its manmade kinship to governance, marginalization, and guns. But I live in this beautiful thicket, and I walk outside black, beautiful, and queer. It was the Black Lives Matter movement that helped get me to this place.
After Transitioning, I Want to Blend In. But My Lesbian Wife Still Wants to Be Out.
About an hour into an informational meeting on becoming foster parents, the woman giving our talk got to the slide on LGBTQ acceptance. With hesitation in her voice she asked my wife and I how we would feel about accepting a child with the “difference” of being LGBTQ into our home. “That would be ideal!” my wife responded, with palpable enthusiasm. I could tell she wanted to say more, to let the woman know that we were not the heterosexual married couple she’d mistaken us for. I hesitated, considered coming out as a transgender man, and then I nodded, saying nothing at all.
For most of the first thirty years of my life I maintained a grudging relationship with the knowledge that when people saw me, they saw a queer, butch woman. It never felt quite right to me, but it felt even less right to make myself feminine to pass as straight, and so I accepted being recognizably queer as a fact of life. Transitioning has changed all that—for the first time in my life I can be an unremarkable man instead of an odd-looking woman. By an odd coincidence, my wife is my mirror opposite—she’s commonly perceived as straight, but feels invisible and awkward when people around her don’t realize that she’s queer. She comes out as a lesbian early and often to the people around her, or at least she did, until my transition made things much more complicated. Nowadays, she can’t come out as queer without also outing me as trans—and I can’t pass as a cis male without dragging her into the closet.
Visibility Is at the Heart of LGBTQ Politics. But Is It Always the Best Strategy?
“The problem with liberals today,” said an 80-year-old, liberal real estate developer friend whose gruff cadences sometimes remind me of Trump, “is they need to learn when to shut the fuck up and win some elections.” His remark betrayed his age and all manner of privilege, but it also framed in stark terms one of the central tensions created by what we might call “visibility politics”—the notion that increasing familiarity with marginalized groups is key to expanding respect for their rights. The tension is this: Exposure to those previously considered “other” is helpful in reducing prejudice against them—except when it’s not. Being able to see, really see, people for who they are can help humanize them, spur empathy for their plight, and galvanize support for action on their behalf; but it can also create the very perception of difference—and threat—that breeds prejudice in the first place.
As we mark Pride month with celebrations of the Stonewall uprising—the event that launched the modern LGBTQ movement with newly emboldened assertions of queer visibility—we’d do well to reconsider the role and value of visibility politics in the 21st century. How critical is visibility to the strategic advances of vulnerable minorities? How critical is being seen to our sense of emotional well-being, and can the strategic and emotional imperatives of movement politics conflict with one another?
Resistance, Diversity, and Joy Led the Way at NYC Pride 2017
Led by balloons spelling out RESIST, New York's 2017 Pride March on Sunday exemplified all that has been accomplished by the LGBTQ movement since the galvanizing Stonewall riots of 1969. A coalition of 18 LGBTQ organizations shaped the tone of the event, memorializing victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre, declaring #blacklivesmatter, and taking the fight against Trumpcare to the street. Pride celebrations in many cities have been the subject of critique and protest this summer over what some see as the problematic involvement of corporations and the police and the foregrounding of white gays and lesbians over other queer constituences. But those debates shouldn't detract from the incredible diversity of the parade itself, both in terms of marchers and spectators. In New York this Pride, revelers celebrated queer community and visibility, channeling a spirit of joyful defiance towards the fights yet to come.
My Queer Teachers Saw Me—and My Future—Before I Could Totally See Myself
Señoríta Rodriquez had a thick Nuyorican accent, a shock of white hair, and a dry, sly wit. On the first day of class she made it known she would be called Señoríta, not Señora—a clear signal this middle-aged woman had never married and wasn’t divorced. She often talked about her love of softball. In my ‘90s high school where no one said the word gay except as an epithet, her message was unmistakable. If we had somehow missed the point, she occasionally trotted out her “boyfriend,” one of the English teachers, a petite fey man who ran all the important clubs in school—and who was beloved and feared in equal measure. He had a gravelly voice, wore a blazer to class every day, and sported a perfectly curated mustache. He would have looked right at home on the set of the Merv Griffin Show. It was not long before I noticed that there were other gay teachers at my school: the band teacher who also demanded we call her Ms. not Mrs., the politics teacher who spoke lovingly of his niece, the quietly demanding speech teacher whose wedding would be later celebrated in the New York Times.
I paid attention to these teachers, because as a queer black kid growing up in the suburbs in the ‘90s, I was desperate for a clue to what my life would be like. I was trying to figure out a way to be gay, to understand where I belonged in the world. I was certain there was a book that would tell me everything, a blueprint I could follow. There were not any non-white role models I could point to, except my beloved Baldwin. I was not out in high school except to a few random friends in marching band, but they thought I was kidding or just had no idea how to react.
Supreme Court to Hear Constitutional Challenge to LGBTQ Nondiscrimination Laws
The Supreme Court announced on Monday that it will hear a constitutional challenge to Colorado’s LGBTQ nondiscrimination statute next term. The case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Civil Rights Commission, could carve a hole in civil rights law by prohibiting states from protecting same-sex couples’ rights in the name of religious liberty.
Masterpiece Cakeshop involves a Colorado bakery that refused to sell a cake to a same-sex couple. The couple filed a charge of discrimination with the state’s Civil Rights Commission since Colorado law explicitly bars sexual orientation discrimination in public accommodations. Predictably, the commission agreed that the store had discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation and fined it accordingly. The shop appealed, alleging that the sanction violated its rights under the free speech and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment. But the Colorado Court of Appeals rejected its arguments, holding that states may constitutionally outlaw anti-LGBTQ discrimination. The store appealed, and now the United States Supreme Court will review the lower court’s decision.
I find it deeply disconcerting that the Supreme Court chose to hear this appeal. It does not bode well for LGBTQ rights. The justices could have easily declined to take the case without comment. Or they could have simply affirmed the judgment below without hearing arguments. That solution would’ve been eminently sensible since the court has never held that commercial businesses have a constitutional right to discriminate against a certain class of customers.
Supreme Court Orders States to List Same-Sex Parents on Birth Certificates; Gorsuch Dissents
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution requires states to list married same-sex couples on their children’s birth certificate. The per curiam decision marks a landmark victory for gay rights, confirming that the court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges protects all rights relating to marriage, not simply the recognition of marriage itself.
In Obergefell, the court held that the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Constitution require states to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples “on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.” Arkansas began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples—but when these couples had children, the state refused to list both parents on the birth certificate. The Arkansas Department of Health insisted that its rule was simply a recognition of biology.
As the court noted on Monday, however, there was a huge problem with this claim: Arkansas already lists nonbiological parents on birth certificates. When a woman conceives via artificial insemination, for example, her child’s birth certificate lists her husband as the father. Indeed, when a woman gives birth in Arkansas, state law states that her husband be named as the father—even if he is known not to be a biological parent. These laws are quite sensible, as birth certificates are used for vital transactions in child-rearing, such as school enrollment and medical treatment. And yet, Arkansas refused to extend its birth certificate rules to cover same-sex parents.
Pride Celebrates Being Seen—But What If Body Dysmorphia Makes You Want to Hide?
Leather and mesh. Pride season always drags these materials from the depths of my otherwise bland closet. I’m not so unlike other people in that way. Pride is a queer Halloween of sorts: a liberating campiness hovers over the whole thing, blurring the line between clothing and costume. The result is an opportunity for earnest self-expression that doesn’t carry the same risks, because it’s offset by a sarcastic wink.
But at a strobe-lit party, standing shoulder to sweaty shoulder with bodies that move more gracefully than mine, I’m reminded why I prefer these clothes on other people. I’m wearing a sheer top, like hundreds of others in the room. But I swear the light is hitting me differently, and I swear my love handles are giving me away, and my costume feels more like a disguise. It doesn’t express. It deceives. I wonder if people can see right through me. I wonder if people are taking one look at me and thinking, “Oh, hon.”
If We Want to Tell Authentic LGBTQ Stories, We Have to Show the “Bad” With the Good
The first piece I wrote that was ever published was titled, “I Came Out as Bisexual and Now Can’t Date Anyone Gay or Straight.” I wrote the piece for XoJane’s infamous “It Happened to Me” vertical, and much to my surprise, it went viral.
The piece wasn’t anything groundbreaking. It simply dispelled the trope that “it gets better” when you come out. After years of sleepless nights questioning my sexuality, blacked out unprotected sex with men, and feeling like a liar to every person I ever dated, I was excited about the prospect of finding love after embracing my (bi)sexuality. I was young, naive, and believed Woody Allen’s joke, “Bisexuality immediately doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night.”
That couldn’t have been further from the truth. Both gay men and straight women refused to date me for the stereotypes commonly believed about bisexuals: I’m actually gay; I’ll leave them for a person of another gender; I’m confused, greedy, incapable of being monogamous, and so on and so forth.
After the piece went viral, I was suddenly given a platform to keep writing about bisexuality, and I grabbed it with both hands. There was only one problem: I knew very little about identity, LGBTQ culture, or more specifically, bisexuality politics. All I knew is that my experience wasn’t as unique as I thought it was—the dozens upon dozens of emails I got after my piece went viral had made that abundantly clear. I wanted to increase bisexual visibility, so these people knew they weren’t alone. But what I didn’t realize is that when it comes to the visibility of minority groups, depictions must always be positive, even if that leaves out some unsavory truths.