Last edited: January 07, 2005

Remember the Past as We Enter a New Gay World

San Francisco Chronicle, July 4, 2003
901 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 94103
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By Dave Ford

I was riding BART to the Gay Pride Parade on Sunday when I noticed a middle-aged man dandling a younger woman—all legs and high-heeled sandals—on his knee. They cooed and necked, and I thought: I don’t mind what these heterosexuals do in the privacy of their own bedrooms, but flaunting it in public?

Speaking of bedroom privacy, hooray for the 6-3 Supreme Court decision in Lawrence vs. Texas declaring the unconstitutionality of state anti-sodomy laws.

I was almost as delighted by the respectful tenderness of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision as I was amused by the foaming vitriol in Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent. (Both contain instructive reading, and can be found—free for the nonce—excerpted at

I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to say this, but I never thought I’d live long enough to see this day. I vividly recall the Gay Pride Parade of 1986, which, like Sunday’s, fell on June 29 and dawned foggy and cool, with patchy sunlight.

The Dykes on Bikes made a hairy racket, and for the next few hours it was a kick to see—honestly? To see people still standing. AIDS was then despoiling the gay community. The parade had the typically nutty: drag queens, the nude and naughty, bar floats with young guys blinking in the too-bright sun. But it also had new grassroots organizations catering to the AIDS- afflicted: hot lines, support groups, hospices, pet care.

President Ronald Reagan had yet to even utter the word “AIDS” five-plus years into his two-term presidency. (He’d do so the next year.) His successor, father to our current president, would handle AIDS by having his steel-nerved wife hug a baby infected with HIV. (One could argue it gave nongays a way to see AIDS affecting not just junkie homos. Cynics—there were many of us—saw it as a “safe” way for a Republican president to tackle the issue without really tackling the issue.)

Also in 1986, the “Christian” right was having a fund-raising field day linking same-sex love to incest, bestiality, child molestation and, one almost suspected, an unfortunate dependence for self-empowerment on the memory of Judy Garland.

(The wit remains: Scalia, in his dissent, wrote that the majority decision might lead to the quashing of state laws “against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality and obscenity.” Hail Sen. Rick Santorum! It’s a litany so nice, Scalia repeats it twice, apparently to ensure “Christian” rightists hear him—kind of culture-war-ish for a guy who elsewhere in his dissent harrumphs that, with this decision, the court has “taken sides in the culture war.”)

So the ‘86 Pride Parade was a deeply political moment of togetherness—a ray of white light during dark days.

The next morning the Supreme Court rendered its decision in Bowers vs. Hardwick, voting 5-4 to uphold the constitutionality of state sodomy laws. It thus reaffirmed states’ abilities to criminalize gay sex (and certain sexual practices enjoyed by nongays). It was like a hammer smashing to pieces the fragile hope that had evolved from the previous day’s festivities.

Therefore, to have the Court’s current iteration overturn Bowers just days before this year’s parade, and during pride week, felt like more than a bit of a vindication.

That said, once at the parade on Sunday I found myself grinding my teeth over the corporate-sponsored floats, the lion’s share of them from liquor companies. Most egregious was that of Miller Lite, a multinational beer company which, in a full-page, back-of-the-book ad in the July 8 Advocate, offered the slogan: “We’re here. We’re beer.”

The reference is to a chant—“We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!”—that emboldened disenfranchised early ‘90s queers living under the shadow of AIDS, Reagan and societal invisibility. Thus consumerist irony. Irony is anathema to passion; passion sparks change. Change is anathema to continued consumerism.

To be ironic about what was once essential for the progress of gay people—and to do so in service of a corporate bottom line—is to denature and disempower that which created change. Keeping people dumb and passive—in part by assimilating and erasing their history—is the corporate, not to say the American, way. Fie on those who buy in, gay or nongay.

I talked about this on Sunday to a gay man in his early 30s. He said it got tiresome hearing about how things were better or more activist a decade or so ago. He had missed part of my point—things were much worse then—but, you know, guilty as charged, Your Honor. Maybe it’s a sign of creeping codgerism; sometimes I feel like a Vietnam War vet.

But if I ring this bell often, it’s only because the generation wiped out by AIDS might have been able to pass on a history not covered in schools, where nongay people learn all about their past.

Without a sense of history to ground them, a people are left with little but blind optimism or irony unto cynicism. History has hard lessons, but it offers hope, too. Learning of past oppression isn’t to glorify oppression. It is to value the possibility of change—and, when it comes, change itself. Today’s young queers are standing on the shoulders of giants, just as I did when I was young. I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that this year’s Supreme Court rendering is made sweeter by the harshness of the Bowers decision.

That said, one leans, in darker periods, toward the crotchety. So, plainly put, these are good times for queers. The Supreme Court’s decision, Canada’s nod to gay marriage, a domestic partners bill zooming through the California state Senate—all are hopeful signs. They came about because culture at large has changed, due, in part, both to media exposure of gay diversity and, it must be said, corporate acceptance of the gay marketplace. Culture changed because queers have become visible. Our new chant: “We’re here! We’re queer! We’re here!”

That will be true for as long as we don’t forget where we once were. The philosopher George Santayana wrote that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That sentiment was made clear Sunday, when a float passed boasting a “Wizard of Oz” drag queen Dorothy dancing atop it. The ghost of Judy Garland once again graced the gay stage. Odd thing: it made the jaded heart sing.

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