Remember the Past as We Enter a New Gay World
Francisco Chronicle, July 4, 2003
901 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 94103
Fax: 415-896-1107, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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 www.nytimes.com/2003/06/27/national/27GTEX.html.)
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
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
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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