Feministing in Havana

14 August 2016

Going to Cuba was a lot easier than I thought it would be. My second major at Emory in the Reagan ‘80s was “International Studies” with a focus on Soviet and Latin American politics, Cuba being the connection. My mother was there as a bobby-soxed teenager in 1959 and flew out Havana the day Castro took the city. The one paper my she saved from her college days was about Kruschev and the Cuban Missile Crisis. So Cuba has always seemed completely off-limits to me. But if Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house, I can see Cuba from my balcony here on Isla Mujeres. Actually, it’s just over the horizon. If I had a frisbee and a good south-eastern trade wind, I could probably land it inside a cell in Guantanamo Bay, where the U.S. government is still actively creating terrorists. So why not just go?

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That’s what Andrea and I did. On a mad impulse we bought tickets to go. On Tuesday I went scuba-diving and on Wednesday I was on a Cubana Airlines flight over the water from Cancun to Havana. Barely an hour in the air and we were there with our hastily prepared visas and access to the world’s last “socialist paradise.” (Your Nikes are made in Vietnam and your iPhone is made in China, so they are disqualified and nobody is claiming North Korea as anything but an Orwellian nightmare.) Off to the land with no internet, leaving our wi’s and fi’s behind.

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There’s so much to write about the experience. We were there as the country was getting ready for Fidel Castro’s 90th birthday. I can’t believe the guy has been there my entire life. His brother, Raul Castro, has somewhat normalized relations with the U.S. and since Obama eased the embargo, you can feel the Starbucks shops just lining up to come in and change the nation overnight. Ask anyone from a small-town what Wal-Mart has done to America. Havana had plenty of construction cranes and the new hotels were coming. I’m sure the names “Hilton” and “Trump” will become part of the new oceanfront skyline. (Although nobody seemed to know who Donald Trump was. God bless them.)

It reminded me of my first trip to Czechoslovakia in 1991, right when the country opened its doors to the west. The people and infrastructure in Prague had no idea how to handle the rush of tourists who wanted to come and look around. There were no hotels or restaurants and capitalist entrepreneurialism was a foreign language. We stayed in people’s homes and ate whatever we could find in beer halls. When I returned in 1992, all that had changed. Western money flooded the “Paris of the East,” and there were billboards proclaiming (in English), “There are now four McDonalds in Praha!”

So we’ll see if Brother Raul lets that happen to his island. I have feeling it’ll look a lot different next time we go back. We stayed in a wonderful casa in the center of the city that might be a Quality Inn this time next year.

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But I thought I’d write a little but about gender on the streets of Havana. Cuba has been known for being on the vanguard of gender equality issues for a long time. Women, like Celia Sånchez, were at the forefront of the revolution in 1959, fighting alongside Fidel and Che. The Federation of Cuban Women was formed shortly after that. Half of the judges and justices in Cuba are female, over a third of the parliament is female and 62% of university students are female. There are great feminist Cuban rappers, like Krudas Cubensi and Obsession and 31 Cuban women are competing in the Rio Olympics.  (Watch for Yorgelis Rodríguez in the heptathlon finals.) Unlike in the United States, gender equality is a part of the Cuban constitution. “The state guarantees women the same opportunities and possibilities as men in order to achieve woman’s full participation in the development of the country.”

So it must be a great place to be a woman, right?

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Andrea and I were walking around our little neighborhood on Friday morning, just behind the Cuban capital building and some guy, seeing her, angrily shouted out to his friend, “She got fucked by the French!” He probably thought I was French and what was this brown girl doing with a white guy. It was in Spanish so I totally missed it but Andrea was visibly upset. After a similar comment she felt abused enough to return to our room and just hang out, away from the catcalls. She was shaken as the daily war on women followed her all the way to a communist outpost that supposedly outlawed sexism before I was even born.

Cuba is an incredibly diverse place, from dark Afro-Caribbean to Europeans (and probably some Hemingway descendants). Andrea, who would be punishingly sexy in a medieval suit of armor, noticed the comments were coming from men of color and asked me why that was. I assured her that white men were not free from the same behavior but there might be some good feminist explanations of the race-gender interaction.

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I took a moment to play professor and tackle it from three of the many feminist perspectives. Liberal feminists would argue that black Cuban men have be raised with a different relationship to women than white Cuban men which may be more vocally aggressive and seeing a Latin woman with a white man viewed as a betrayal of an ethnic subcultural value. Marxist feminists would say that even in allegedly communist society, poor people still exist and are alienated and poor black Cubans are alienated the most. (Stats back up that black Cubans have the lowest paid jobs.) So Marxist Feminists would argue the one place those men have power in a patriarchal world is over women. (Stats also show black women in Cuba experience more domestic violence.) Finally, radical feminists argue that patriarchy will rear its ugly head in spite of popular values of gender equality, finding any way possible to subordinate females, either through institutional means (less pay) or old-fashioned scare tactics. So on our little block, mostly populated by men who were poor and dark-skinned, it was the catcall.

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I don’t know if this discussion was of any value to my wife. The conversation became one of how do we get men to raise their sons right so our daughter won’t routinely experience the same harassment. We both absolutely loved our brief time in Cuba and want to return as soon as possible, before Starbucks and Wal-Mart (and future bankrupt Trump casinos) erase a nation frozen in revolutionary amber.

There’s a great line about Cuba – “Cuba got three things right: education, health care, and baseball.  And it got three things wrong: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” The food can be pretty bland. I would say it’s been wrong on lots of human rights issues as well (although the last ten yeas have seen massive improvements for the lesbian, gay, and transgender populations). But all the socialist good will hasn’t stopped men from being dicks. I have to side with the radical feminists on this one. You can get rid of capitalism, but until you get rid of patriarchy it’s the same old shit. Cuba libre.

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Ode to a Gay Bar

June 15, 2016

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On Monday afternoon I was walking along the Mall in Washington, DC, looking at all the flags at half mast in remembrance of the massacre in Orlando. It was powerful to see our nation’s capital honoring 49 people killed in a gay club. But I don’t think the weight of the thing really hit me until the following day. I was listening to a story on NPR about how the city had hired Spanish translators to explain to the parents of some of the victims, who had been killed at “Latin Night” at Pulse, the city’s biggest gay club, what had happened to their children. Many of the parents were confused at why their “straight” child had been at a gay bar. The fact that the victims had to come out after their murder was like an emotional sledgehammer. Such a common story.

I could talk all day about the shooter and the reactions from the bitterly gun-obsessed, Islam-hating right-wing narrative inventors. But I want to talk about the crime scene. More specifically, the importance of the gay bar in America.

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Friday will be the one year anniversary of the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina where another hate-filled man killed nine black worshipers. A black writer that I admire (I can’t remember who), penned a piece about the meaning of the racist killer invading a space that was sacred to many African Americans in more ways than one. The black church is historically a sanctuary from the racism outside the church doors, a place to be in the majority and bond over common struggles. Dylan Roof invaded a safe space that had been invaded many times before.

Omar Mateen did the same thing.

As a kid in rural Georgia, there were stories about gay bars in places like San Francisco and New York City. (We didn’t know about the Stonewall Inn, just Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”) It wasn’t until, at age 16,  I started going into downtown Atlanta to hang out in punk rock clubs, like 688, that I discovered the thriving underground world of Atlanta’s gay bars. When the rock clubs closed at around 2 am we had a few options; Krispy Kreme on Ponce de Leon Avenue (“Hot Doughnuts Now”), the Majestic Diner, also on Ponce (“We never close but we’re often rude”) or the gay dance bars that seemed to serve drinks until dawn.

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In the early 1980s, that was mainly Backstreet in Midtown, set back far enough from Peachtree Street that it felt like a secret mission just to find the door to get in. I first went with a bunch of friends in 1981. I was 17 and still schooled in the homophobia of the South but also aware that I never fit in that Southern culture. It didn’t take long to learn that the “queers” were a part of my tribe of misfits. That was the beginning of the end of my homophobia.

All I knew was that the cool kids were at the gay bar, dancing to Two Tons of Fun or Grace Jones, smoking cigarettes and bitching about rednecks. That first night I was sure I was gonna get hit on as I entered the door with my crappy fake ID. By the time I left I wondered why I didn’t get hit on. Did I not rate? I felt insulted but welcomed at the same time. One one hand we were the straight crowd invading somebody else’s space but I always got the feeling that it was appreciated that we were loose enough to be there without starting some stupid shit.

It felt dirty and dangerous and liberating. It was clear people were risking life and limb to be there, to find a community in the shadows. There were cops and hustlers and straight thugs and repressed thugs all itching for a chance to play Smear the Queer right outside of the bar’s door. Just a block away, “straight” men from the suburbs and the sticks were cruising Juniper Street for a quick gay hook-up. (Georgia license plates have the county of registration on them so when you saw Mr. Coweta County on Juniper, you knew what was up. They just kept it on the down low.) There was an air of constant danger. And my mother always thought I was staying over at a friend’s.

Maybe most important was the simple fact that people there could be who they actually were. So many LGBT people are forced into double lives. Their true sexual selves and the persons their religion or community demands they must be. This was certainly true of the 1980s Bible Belt and I am quite sure it was the case for Omar Mateen. For many, all they had or have is the gay bar on a Saturday night and then it’s back to the big lie Sunday morning. You felt like you were in an oasis of sanity and disco lights.

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But it was in those clubs that a movement from the fringe to the mainstream was born. Like at Stonewall in 1968 and Pulse in 2016. This was the flash before AIDS changed so much. It became the routine to see the Now Explosion (Atlanta’s even gayer B-52s) perform at 688 then follow the crowd, Ru Paul leading the way, to Backstreet or Weekends, and dance until our legs gave out.

I’ve written about how I worked at the Turtles Records in Ansley Mall next to Piedmont Park (where it was more than rumored that gay men were having sex in the bushes). I thought I’d ask co-worker Ronnie Holland what those days were like. In many ways he my translator of Southern gay culture in the early 80s.

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Backstreet was a safe haven.  It didn’t feel safe getting there, in the early days of 79/80, we would park off site on the side streets cause we didn’t want the police to get our tag numbers and the streets weren’t particularly safe either, but once we got inside, it was total freedom.  You were accepted, regardless.  Now, that didn’t mean there wasn’t attitude and cattiness and cliques, but everyone just dealt.  To have grown up thinking you were different and strange and somehow wrong, and not ever being able to talk to anyone about it, to find a “tribe” of people who had similar experiences was “otherworldly”.  You didn’t have to explain the journey, it was a common one.

I would have to say that, for my group, the bonding was intense.  Drugs probably helped with that, but the experience of being in a group of people on the dance floor with the music building to a frenzy and everyone being a part of the same experience, was very similar to a sort of “religious” frenzy.  The music and the closeness of the bodies and people losing inhibitions and the lights and the joy……I can see how people would feel a comparison to a church like experience.  It became tribal and transcendental. You lose yourself into the group.

The gay club became an extension of our underground scene and it grew as the climate evolved. By the 1990s, Ru Paul was hosting events at Velvet, a club in the heart of downtown. But it was never completely safe. In 1973, a gay club in New Orleans was the target of an arson attack that killed 32 patrons. In Atlanta it was the bombing of The Otherside Lounge on Piedmont Road in 1997. The lesbian bar was the targeted by Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph, a “Christian patriot” who used a bomb full of nails to maximize the carnage. Fortunately, no one was killed but the terroristic message was clear. You can’t even feel safe in your safe spaces.

I was listening to Washington Post writer Justin Torres talk about the Orlando shooting two days afterwards. His first thought on seeing the news was, “Oh, my God. These are my people.” Then he spoke, in almost reverent terms, of the gay club severing as a “queer church” that rejuvenates souls. “So when you walk into the club, if you’re lucky, it feels expansive. Safe space is a cliche, overused and exhausted in our discourse, but the fact remains that a sense of safety transforms the body, transforms the spirit. So many of us walk through the world without it,” he said.

To have your church attacked by someone who had been welcomed into it with open arms, just like what happened in Charleston a year ago, is a deep wounding that cannot heal easily. Where can you feel safe if not there? And for every big city gay club with armed security (a lot of good that does) there is a small town gay bar hoping to survive a firebombing or having its patrons followed home and harassed. Can a brother and/or sister just have a drink in peace?

I have a friend named C. Ray Borck. Besides being a much loved sociology professor, he is transgender and came of age in the gay clubs. He posted a powerful homage on Facebook to those clubs less than 12 hours after the news about Orlando broke, writing:

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I have been remembering the countless nights I’ve spent in gay clubs, especially the Latinx ones, and I keep discovering moments of solace in the memories and magic of those places, as early as last week on Cherry Grove. A gay dance party is always a good time. The sexy lighting and incessant beats. Excessive drinking and cigarettes after everyone else had kids and quit. Loud fashion and incisive wit. Watching men be tender with each other and feeling like that’s the revolution. Sweating and yelling and laughing. Telling coming out stories, stories about our youths and our parents, our backwards communities and schools, having found each other in the city streets.

I didn’t need the gay bar because my heterosexuality was celebrated in every corner of my world. But I did need the gay bar for other reasons. Not because it was a “safe space” for “gender non-conforming” kids like me and my punk rock gang. Yes, we were the target of gay-bashings as well. (A guy once drove up next to my car on Piedmont Road and said, “You look like a fag from England,” and then started whacking my Gran Torino with a 2 X 4). We needed it for our friends so they could simply have a space to breath and dance and not be “gay,” but be human beings. Some were gay outside the club and some did their best performances of a “heterosexual lifestyle,” but the either way, their guard was always up. That must be why those clubs are open so late. Just one more dance, please. One more song before I have to again hear how gay people are going to burn in hell or that gay people need to be killed. And make it the extended disco mix.

Wherever your local gay bar is, you don’t have to patronize it but protect it. People you love need to be able to breathe.

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Sweet Jesus, I hope my daughter is gay.

November 2, 2015

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I got to spend a day last week with Matthew Shepard’s parents. Shepard is the University of Wyoming student who was brutally murdered in 1998 because he was gay. I was invited to participate in a Department of Justice hate crime training of law enforcement officers in Salem, Oregon. I’ve talked about the “Matthew Shepard case” since it happened, but after hearing his parents talking about their son and seeing his face in theirs, I felt like I finally got to know Matthew himself. The pain of losing a child must be insurmountable. The pain of losing him or her to a hate crime only ads to the weight. The training was held on the sixth anniversary of President Obama signing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. So much of that was to due to the hard work of Dennis and Judy Shepard.

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Listening them talk about how far we’ve come was encouraging. Gay people now have the same right to marry in all fifty states, thanks to the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision. Discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation in most states is illegal (although it’s still legal in Wyoming). “Homosexuality” has gone from shocking (Does anybody remember Billy Crystal’s character on Soap or Jack Tripper’s flamboyant caracature on Three’s Company) to Ellen DeGegerenes spending her afternoons with middle-class housewives. Some famous athlete or actor comes out of the closet and you can hear the crickets chirp.

But lord, we’ve got such a long way to go. In 2013 there were over 1,200 reported anti-gay hate crimes (and countless unreported attacks). Homophobia is still part of the mainstream youth vernacular (“That’s so gay.”) and there is a presidential candidate who thinks going to prison makes you homosexual. (Can there be a prize for the dumbest brain surgeon in America?) I could go on and on but it’s too depressing. For example, gay kids are still 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than straight kids. But we’re on it. We are way on it.  It’s a good day to be gay in Portland, but it still has to suck in Omaha.

The point is it’s getting better. There is a crack in the heteronormativity of our culture. Not only are there Gay-Straight Alliances popping up in schools all over the country (even Mississippi!), many parents with kids are not just assuming their children are straight. When I imagine dancing with Cozy at her wedding, it might be her marriage to a really awesome woman! Who knows?

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So while I was watching the Shepards talk about the murder of their son, how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go, I became lost in thought. There were two things stuck in my head that I thought would be important to say out loud.

First, Andrea and I don’t really care if Cozy is gay, straight, transgender, bisexual or any of the other letters. I think most parents worry that their queer child will just face more obstacles (including being victimized by hate criminals). Sure there are a few idiots who think their kid will burn in hell because of their “choice.” (What if Mike Huckabee has a gay kid?) But most just mourn the loss of freedom that child will experience in a homophobic society. My great hope is that when Cozy is a tween, coming out for gay kids won’t be any more dramatic than coming out for straight kids (and straight kids do come out).

She’s not going to have to wait for the right moment to break it to mom and dad. (Like most parents) we will already know. I’m more worried about finding out she’s left-handed (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Nobody should waste one second of their lives in the closet. (I’m looking at you, Mike Huckabee.) All she’s gonna get from me at the announcement is, “Meh. Have you done your homework? Oh, and I love you, bug face.”

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The other thing is there’s at least some good news for lesbians. Because men can be such pricks and are not good about talking about their feelings and shit, heterosexual couples have it rough. They fall into all that Mars and Venus gendered discourse. (Just read any book by Terrence Real.) These “traditional marriage” blowhards don’t seem to worry much about how most straight marriages end up in the dumpster. But research shows that since women are much better at talking to EACH OTHER, Cozy’s lesbian marriage has a much better chance of lasting until she’s an old lady riding off into the sunset (because that’s what lesbians do, I’m told).

Of course the added bonus to all this is that it will limit her exposure to douchebags. I’d prefer her having a soccer-playing girlfriend to a video game-playing boyfriend.

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At the least my gay daughter would be forced into taking up the fight against all the oppression that will still exist. She won’t be free to sit on the sidelines and just worry about her queer friends. As I’ve mentioned, it took me way to long to join this fight. Hopefully, she’ll be sitting in her fourth grade civics class in 2024 and reading about the bigoted morons that hogged the limelight in 2015.

And to paraphrase Heathers, one of the best movies ever made, I love my (possibly) gay daughter.

“Oh, I Get It” Moment #2: The Ellen James Society and Gay Pride

June 26, 2015

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Waking up this morning to find out that the Supreme Court had established marriage equality in all 50 states was the greatest surprise. Tears streamed down my face as I listened to President Obama talk about the power of love and I realized that “gay marriage” would never be an issue for my daughter’s generation. We will look back at June 26, 2015 the same way look back at May 17, 1954. Some old people will scream that the world is coming to an end, just like they did after the passage of Brown, but go ahead and holler, love won over hate in both.

The occasion causes me to reflect on my own path to becoming an ally, gay rights activist and all around queer heterosexual. Like most journeys it wasn’t a straight line. Growing up in Georgia in the 1970s wasn’t the best place to practice acceptance. Most Southern Christians really aren’t. I think they would string the real Jesus up from a tree. So I got a lot of the homophobia as a kid. We’d play “Smear the Queer” on the playground and nobody stopped us. My father told me that homosexuals were sick (which I guess is better than evil), and I never asked for proof.

But my mind wasn’t committed to homophobia. There were some cracks in it from the beginning. I seemed to always know that San Francisco and Greenwich Village were cooler places than Stone Mountain. One of my first concerts was Queen in 1976 (with Thin Lizzy opening) and I loved their operatic approach to rock and Freddie Mercury’s flamboyance. I knew that the Beatles’ manager was gay and the Fab Four stood by him. TV was filled with plenty of people who were a “little light in their loafers,” as they used to say, who were favorites. From Paul Lynde to Rip Taylor, gay equaled fun. Billy Crystal’s empathetic gay character on Soap made more sense than John Ritter’s fake gay slapstick on Three’s Company.

The problem was if you acknowledged this, you got labeled the queer and you got smeared. When I began to embrace punk rock as my tribe in 1978,  my name at Redan High School went from “Hey, Blazak!” to “Hey, Gayzak.” I was gender non-conforming before that was a term. How I didn’t get beat up for wearing spandex with a velour purple and black striped top was a miracle. But I did get beat up other days. I remember in 1979, I was wearing a shirt of a cool Australian rock band that nobody had heard of yet, called AC/DC. Outside my Spanish class this redneck called me out. “Hey, Gayzak! ‘AC/DC’? That means you’re a fag, right?” (A year later he was wearing the same shirt.)

The problem was I didn’t know anybody who was gay. Actually, I knew lots of people at Redan High School who were gay, I just didn’t know it, many who came out as soon as they escaped to college. So it was really hard to develop empathy with the gay struggle. There was no Gay-Straight Alliance in school, no internet with somebody telling you it gets better, no history lesson about Stonewall. Basically, all the gay kids were cowering in a corner, hoping they didn’t get discovered this week and maybe could escape into Atlanta when they were old enough.

I did have the music. My love of The Who in 1980 led me to Secret Policeman’s Ball album to benefit Amnesty International. Besides Pete Townsend and Sting, the record had a song called “Glad to Be Gay” by Tom Robinson. I listened to it over and over. The idea that your sexuality could be criminalized by the state was just heartbreaking. If songs can change the world, I think that song did.

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Once I escaped into the punk rock world, I knew plenty of queer ass folks. I hung out at the 688 Club with Ru Paul and loved his shows and little movies. I worked in a record store in Ansley Park, the “gayest” part of Atlanta. In the summer of 1984, if a guy with a mustache in an undershirt came in, he probably wanted a cassette of Tina Turner or the Bronski Beat. I joke, but that music became another window into the subculture. That and La Cage aux Folles. When the punk clubs closed, we’d head to Weekends, the gay bar that stayed open until the wee hours. If I ever got hit on, I took it as a compliment (then probably grabbed the closest female). I wrote the first ever review of The Indigo Girls in The Emory Wheel and realized I should abandon my crush on Amy Ray, but continue to be a friend and a fan. The door was open.

Not being homophobic was a rebellion against redneck Georgia, but I still had plenty of homophobia in me. As a young male, a lot of my behavior was designed to publicly assert my heterosexuality. I think being “girl crazy” was part of that. But I had a real breakthrough moment thanks to an Atlanta band that I was a huge fan of.

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If the Ellen James Society had made the scene ten years later, they might have been lumped in to the Queer Core movement (Portland’s Team Dresch, one of the coolest bands ever), but in the late 1980s, they were just a killer underground band with amazing bass and guitar riffs and a few members who might have been lesbian. I saw them play lots, soaking in the passion and anger Chris McGuire and Cooper Seay brought to the music and vocals. So when I saw they were playing at Atlanta’s annual Gay Pride Fest in Piedmont Park I had a conundrum straight out of a Freudian psychodrama. (In this play, the angel represents the superego of societal rules.)

Devil on my shoulder: Yeah, I can see Ellen James for free fuck yeah.

Angel on my shoulder: But it’s at GAY PRIDE. If you go, people will think YOU ARE GAY. That’s not gonna help you with ladies or the churches or the church ladies.

My head being in the middle had to decide who to listen to. I remember this very clearly. I remember thinking this: WHO CARES? People who know me know my sexuality and people who don’t don’t matter and who cares if anybody thinks I’m gay. The gay people I know are all seriously awesome compared to some of the straight assholes I know. Fuck you, angel, I’m going to see The Ellen James Society. For free.

And I did. And I rocked out in front of the stage like a maniac with other music fans, gay, straight and otherwise. There were beautiful drag queens and suburban refugees and I’m sure a few kids from Stone Mountain who, for one afternoon in Georgia, felt free to let their freak flag fly. It was an awakening. We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.

Since that afternoon, I’ve felt that the LGBTQ tribe is also my tribe. My work on hate crimes has sensitized me even more to the struggle. I love my friends who are out and am there for those who are waiting for the right moment. (Facebook is a great place to track old friends who have opened the closet door.) I have had gay and trans students who have really helped me understand the whole spectrum of realities, perceptions and emotions that accompany existing as a sexual minority in America. I owe so much to all those people who have helped me leave smearing the queer behind and helped me to queer my own identity. (If you don’t know what that means, please refer to my previous post.) Here’s me in 2009, stating the obvious:

So today is a day to celebrate in America. There will still be hate crimes, discrimination, suicides, and people who are trapped in their closets. There are also places around the world that are light years behind America. This includes large chunks of Africa, Russia and the Middle East. (Everyone should watch the 2007 film Jihad of Love about being gay and Muslim). But today, there is a gay kid in deep Mississippi who feels the world is a little less hateful and that a basic right that straight people take for granted is available for them, too. They can be full citizens. And my daughter will grow up in a world where marriage equality will be one less battle to fight.

There will be one big gay party tonight and I’ll be there, waving my hands in the air.

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“Oh, I Get It” Moment #1: B.B. King and the lady in the purple hat