I've been going through some old blog posts from a previous queer spirituality blog I had written several years ago. One of these posts, I wrote shortly after seeing the movie Vito about gay activist, Vito Russo. I had seen the movie at the Neon, our local art theater. Before the movie, a professor from Wright State University, Charles Derry spoke briefly. I'll mention Dr. Derry's comments in a bit. I came away from the experience thinking about 3 areas of queer experience--visibility, culture, and community. In this blog post, I'm going to focus primarily on the importance of LGBTQ visibility and to a lesser extent, the importance of preserving our gay culture.
Who was Vito Russo?
Before I dive into my own ideas on the importance of LGBTQ visibility and gay culture, let me share a little bit about Vito Russo and his work for those that may not be familiar. Vito Russo was a film historian and LGBTQ rights activist. Vito is most well-known for his book The Celluloid Closet which explored camp and portrayals of LGBTQ people in film. He was very concerned with the way LGBTQ people were depicted in the media. This led him to later start the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) which acted as a type of watchdog for images of LGBTQ people in the media.
After contracting HIV in 1985, Vita co-founded ACT UP with Larry Kramer. ACT UP was known for their protests for greater access to experimental AIDS treatments and more action on AIDS from the Reagon administration. Vito died of AIDS in 1990.
To learn more about Vito Russo and his work, check out Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo.
Pre-Stonewall and Post-Stonewall
In his introduction to the film, Vito, Dr. Charles Derry mentioned that modern LGBTQ history could be divided into 2 different eras. He called these eras pre-Stonewall and post-Stonewall after the Stonewall riot in 1969. Those who came out in the pre-Stonewall era have lived a very different experience as a queer person than those who came out post-Stonewall.
One the biggest differences between pre-Stonewall and post-Stonewall is in LGBTQ visibility. For those growing up in the pre-Stonewall era, there really wasn't any LGBTQ visibility. Partly, this was due to laws against being LGBTQ but also due to the persecution and social stigma associated with being out.
One example that Dr. Derry gave, was the 1967 television special, CBS Reports: The Homosexuals. For this show, the journalists interviewed self-identified homosexuals. While at first, this might sound like a giant step towards greater LGBTQ visibility, but the interviewees stood behind a huge potted plant. They basically hid. And while being interviewed, they often talked about being ashamed about being LGBTQ or wishing they could change. Not exactly a positive role model for anyone watching.
LGBTQ Visibility Post-Stonewall
Post-Stonewall into the modern era, we've seen huge gains in LGBTQ visibility (and some steps backward which are discussed below). One thing that really began to normalize the image of queer people in America life is the gay pride parade. The first gay pride parade was held on June 28, 1970, the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.
In the earlier days of gay pride, the parades were protests for gay rights as well as opportunities to be visible as queer people. As a result of the parades being political as much as social, there was a strong element of sexual liberation, common in the 1970s, to the parades. Shock value was often a goal of the gay pride parades. The early pride parades were also far more intersectional than some of the pride celebrations today.
People marching at the Cincinnati, Ohio pride parade in 2018. Pride parades began post-Stonewall as a method of increasing LGBTQ visibility and normalizing seeing queer people in America.
Post-Stonewall also saw queer characters appearing on television and in film. Some of these early portrayals were gross caricatures of queer people. As queer rights organizations, such as GLAAD, worked to highlight the problematic nature of these portrayals, we've seen more fully realized, healthy queer people and relationships represented in the media.
The legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 led to even greater LGBTQ visibility. Images of queer people being married saturated the media and made most of America realize that it wasn't the terrible thing they'd been led to believe.
In the year or two following the legalization of same-sex marriage, the visibility and acceptance of queer people, in my opinion, peaked. Following the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, we've seen some backward movement in LGBTQ visibility and equality. I've been thinking about this a lot and there are, in my mind, at least 3 things contributing to this backward slide. These 3 things are the concerted effort by conservatives to silence LGBTQ voices, the erosion and mainstreaming of queer LGBTQ culture, and the loss of queer spaces.
Don't say "gay" and LGBTQ visibility
As mentioned above, we're seeing a concerted effort by conservatives, both in politics and outside it, to silence LGBTQ voices and the voices of their allies. Of course, the most obvious example of this is Florida's infamous "Don't say 'gay'" law. This law prevents educators from discussing LGBTQ issues in the classroom. The intention is, of course, to erase LGBTQ people and make them invisible. The flimsy justification for it is to protect children, an old anti-queer troupe that plays on fears related to pedophilia and grooming. Other states with conservative majorities in power, have begun to follow with their own versions of "Don't say 'gay'" including my home state of Ohio.
The danger behind this push to make LGBTQ people invisible is that kids who are growing up and discovering or struggling with their queer identity feel alone. Not seeing themselves in others, they feel like there might be something wrong with them or that they're broken. This has traditionally led to a very high suicide rate among queer kids. If we truly want to protect children, we need to make sure that there are visible queer role models that can reassure them that they are great just as they are.
The attacks on LGBTQ visibility aren't limited to the conservatives with political power. There has been an alarming uptick in violence against LGBTQ people. Sadly, the trans community seems to bear the brunt of this but it hasn't been exclusively limited to trans people. This uptick in violence is domestic terrorism towards queer people. The intention is to sow fear and drive people back into the closet. We cannot allow this strategy to make queer people invisible again.
Erosion of LGBTQ culture
The other factor in the erosion of LGBTQ visibility, in my mind, is the erosion of a unique LGBTQ culture. What I mean by this is that in many ways we've mainstreamed being queer in America. With that mainstreaming, there has been a lot of pressure to "clean up" gay culture and make it family friendly and inoffensive.
One area where this has taken place is in the annual pride celebrations. The addition of corporate sponsor and company employee LGBTQ resource groups in the parades has removed the protest element from the pride parade. I've also seen posts on social media where the appearance of leather men or "puppies" has been criticized as not family friendly or portraying queer people in a negative light. This is very counter to the sexual liberation of the early pride parades. In doing this, we are relegating a lot of aspects of gay culture back to the bedroom, the exact proposition heteronormative America offered in place of queer rights.
With the legalization of same-sex marriage, there has been a mainstreaming of gay culture. Shows like RuPaul's Drag Race bring aspects of gay culture to the television. This is certainly a positive development. As a result, we've seen queer phrases like "Yass" turn up on merchandise and in popular culture. But there's a downside to the mainstreaming of gay culture.
I've seen and heard a lot of judgement turned on queer people by other queer people. For example, I've often seen harsh judgement towards those who prefer polyamory or non-monogamous relationships but those who have chosen marriage. Many of the hallmarks of gay culture are now deemed "unacceptable" or viewed as giving queer people a "bad reputation" by other queer people who wish to blend into mainstream American life.
Queer spaces & LGBTQ culture
Finally, the other factor that I think hurts LGBTQ visibility is the loss of queer spaces. Our technological age has led to the rise of apps for queer people to meet. Combined with more queer people choosing sobriety (which I applaud), this has led to many queer bars closing down. As the queer bars had previously served as the meeting place for LGBTQ people and the hub for gay culture, many queer people today struggle to meet others.
But queer space is important for more than just meeting each other for friendship or sex. Queer space creates a safe environment to be authentically yourself. In this way, it even gives rise to LGBTQ culture. Without dedicated queer space, LGBTQ find themselves editing parts of their lives in order to fit into and socialize in heteronormative spaces. There's no safe space to really let our hair down and be as unapologetically queer as we'd like. This becomes more important, as the world becomes less safe for LGBTQ people.
In my own experience as a co-facilitator and founder of two festival for gay and bisexual men, I can say that being in all queer space has often been an incredibly freeing experience. I've had many attendees over the years tell me that they didn't realize they needed queer space until they had the opportunity to experience it. Being in queer space, be it a bar, retreat, or whatever, gives the feeling of belonging. It feels like family or kin to be in space with other people like yourself. And it makes it feels safer to be out in the mainstream.
Bringing it together - LGBTQ culture & LGBTQ visibility
LGBTQ visibility can save lives. Seeing yourself mirrored in another person can be incredibly liberating and empowering. To stave off the attacks on LGBTQ rights and visibility, I believe we need to create new queer spaces and work to preserve LGBTQ culture.
New queer spaces give people unsure or struggling with their identity a safe place to belong and to experience other LGBTQ people away from the pressures of heteronormative society. And queer spaces, give rise to queer culture.
By stopping ourselves when judgements arise about how other queer people live their lives, we can help preserve our LGBTQ culture and prevent ourselves from vanishing into the mainstream society. When we blend in, we're no longer visible to those that most need us to be.
And that's really what LGBTQ visibility is about--being a beacon of hope and acceptance to other queer people as they come to terms with their queer identity. It's also about protecting our rights and reminding the rest of society that not everyone walks to the beat of the same drum.