Further thoughts on whether one must be radical to be gay

John wrote the other day about an article by Julie Bindel, expressing concern that the modern gay rights movement, with marriage equality at the forefront, has grown too conservative, and thus strayed from gay liberation’s historical radical roots.

I think Ms. Bindel is romanticizing LGBT activism and history. Exactly as our friend The_Fixer notes below, it used to be unimaginably radical simply to ask for acceptance.

Not that many years ago, the announcement, “I’m gay” — or more accurately, the involuntary discovery of such by someone else — usually meant your life as you knew it was over. Your job, your home, your family — gone. If you had kids, they were taken from you.

There was nothing left but to decide whether to slink away, hide and disappear (Mad Men fans might remember what happened to the gay character, Salvatore Romano). Or to turn radical.

Or to use another example: In 1957, the entertainer Liberace brought a libel suit against the Daily Mirror for publishing a story that merely suggested he was gay. Think about that: A libel suit. Meaning this flouncing guy who dressed in sequins and capes, and who never had a female liaison or partner that anybody knew about, believed credibly it would ruin his career if anybody actually knew he was gay. And he won settlements.

Protesters outside the Supreme Court, and across from the US Congress, for the oral arguments on the gay rights cases involving DOMA and Proposition 8 in March, 2013. © John Aravosis 2013

Protesters outside the Supreme Court, and across from the US Congress, for the oral arguments on the gay rights cases involving DOMA and Proposition 8 in March, 2013. © John Aravosis

Some more examples: Being gay used to be automatic disqualification for a U.S. security clearance, as well as dishonorable discharge from the armed forces under Section 8 — a mental illness designation. (Aside: By the way, those who remember MASH and the crossdressing antics of Cpl Klinger and his quixotic pursuit of a Section 8 discharge might also recall the episode when visiting psychiatrist Milton Friedman finally offered to give it to him — if Klinger would sign a form attesting to being gay. When the life-long consequences of that notation on his permanent record were explained to him, Klinger relented and didn’t sign.)

As some of our commenters can attest, LGBTs used to be routinely thrown into mental hospitals and subjected to the most horrific of treatments, including ECT and insulin shock. Arrested by the cops ‘in flagrante delecto‘ by the cops with someone of one’s own gender? If it hit the papers or became general knowledge, being fired and evicted immediately were all but expected. Unless you really were a member of the counterculture, moving to another city and trying to start all over again, anonymously, was the only option.

I guess that’s what I’m saying: To be out and gay, being ‘radical’ was the ONLY resulting option available. Which meant there was a whole list of ‘ordinary’ things you were forever excluded from participating in. Including an ordinary career, an ordinary family life, and an ordinary social life.

Again, just wanting not to be oppressed to that degree was radical in and of itself. But the thing is, at the core, most of us never wanted to be radicals. We just wanted ordinary lives — someone to love and settle down with. For some of us, the freedom to raise our own biological or adopted kids. The right not to be fired from our jobs. And not to have to lie to everyone about this person we’re seen with. No more, “This is my housemate” or “My long-time friend.” (In India, where being gay remains illegal, my wife and I usually passed ourselves off as mother and daughter. I never liked it, but the lie was necessary.)

We didn’t want jobs as protesters — which doesn’t pay the rent or mortgage in any case. Way back, gays and lesbians laughed at institutions like marriage because most of us never would have dreamed we could have access to it. Now, increasingly, we have the ultimate freedom: To marry OR NOT, as we choose. It’s the same deal with jobs (although we still need ENDA) — increasingly (although sadly not entirely yet) we don’t have to fear the revelation of sexual orientation as resulting in automatic termination. (Consider that town in South Carolina where the homophobic mayor was overruled by his town’s counsel and the lesbian police chief rehired over his objections. We’re talking a tiny rural SC town — and they picked her over him.)

The Lovings, of Loving v. Virginia.

The Lovings, of Loving v. Virginia.

So despite the bigots’ yowling objections and slanderous lies about LGBTs, we’re nevertheless passing out of the “ordinary is radical” phase. It used to be radical for two men or two women to be “married” (irony quotes intentional) and *gasp* raising a child or two. Now it’s ordinary; slightly unusual, but still ordinary. People don’t refer to someone they know as “my GAY friend” anymore; now it’s just “my friend…oh, and he’s bringing his boyfriend to the dinner party, you’ll love him.”

Ordinary is becoming…ordinary, once more.

To romanticize radicalism is a nostalgia we can’t really afford, and it’s actually inimical to the goals of equality, tolerance, and full acceptance. It’s like being in a war and saying, “I really miss the bomb-dropping part — that was exciting. I know we won and all, but I wish it hadn’t ended. This peaceful rebuilding part is boring.”

Increasingly, we’re free simply to be ourselves…and the vast majority of us are rather boring, ordinary people, with just one or two differences over the rest of the huddled masses.


Published professional writer and poet, Becca had a three decade career in technical writing and consulting before selling off most of her possessions in 2006 to go live at an ashram in India for 3 years. She loves literature (especially science fiction), technology and science, progressive politics, cool electronic gadgets, and perfecting Hatch green chile recipes. Fortunately for this last, Becca and her wife currently live in New Mexico. @BeccaMorn

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