Drag Queens and a Few Bricks
Last Friday a couple hundred gays and their friends chased a small group of young Christian preachers out of the Castro, calling them “bigots” and chanting “Don’t come back!”
I wish I’d been there.
The video of the event, or rather part of the event, has now been posted on YouTube, along with a written account by one of the preachers, who claims that they were both physically and sexually assaulted.
“It wasn’t long before the violence turned to perversion. They were touching and grabbing me, and trying to shove things in my butt, and even trying to take off my pants – basically trying to molest me…”
Unfortunately for him the video doesn’t capture any of this particular “molestation,” but our little gay uprising has predictably garnered both scorn and ridicule, and our community is accused of hostility and intolerance, and all weekend I wrestled with my conscience over the primal anger that still sweeps through me when I watch this video.
Why so angry? Why so hostile? The reasons may seem obvious to us, but since all of the preacher’s buddies on YouTube keep asking those questions, let me take a stab.
We grew up wondering what the hell was wrong with us, why we were so different from everyone around us. We observed and learned how to act, and some of us could hide that part of ourselves and pass, and some couldn’t, and those are the ones who were mocked and beaten on playgrounds and in cafeterias and gymnasiums.
We started to figure out how we were different, and how we were perceived. And for the rest of our lives we were told that we weren’t good enough, that we were sick and immoral and doomed to Hell.
Sometimes we made it out of adolescence without slitting our wrists, and we grew up and started looking for each other but we could only find each other in bars, because any other place was too dangerous. And those bars were raided by the police and we were rounded up and thrown in jail and our names printed in newspapers.
We were thrown out of jobs, out of schools, out of the military, out of churches. We were disinherited and shunned from our own families.
Our own bedrooms weren’t safe, according to our government.
When we got sick and died by the thousands we were ignored, and then told that it was all our fault. “God’s punishment,” they called it. Only when Magic Johnson revealed his HIV-positive status, after thousands and thousands of us had already died, did the media treat AIDS as a legitimate story.
We couldn’t join our friends and partners in their hospital rooms, or at their funerals, because we weren’t considered family. Or we were allowed at the funerals only to see Fred Phelps and his followers show up to console us in our grief with signs that read, “God Hates Fags.”
When we asked for the same rights that everyone else enjoys we were castigated for wanting “special privileges.” Our fight for the same rights that straight people take for granted was called the “Homosexual Agenda.”
We were blamed for threatening the institution of marriage by people who drunkenly wed in Las Vegas chapels, people who committed adultery and beat their wives and their children and then preached and pointed fingers from pulpits on television every Sunday.
We were the scapegoats and the punching bags for Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and Born-Again Christians, to name just a few. And our supposed allies couldn’t stand up for us because they might be mistaken for one of us, and that, as everyone knew, was the worst thing you could be.
We were barred from adopting the children of people who weren’t capable of parenting themselves, let alone someone else. We watched as people wrung their hands on television and cried that their children needed to be protected from us, that children needed to be sheltered their whole lives from even realizing that we existed.
Each and every one of us grew up surrounded by images, in magazines and television shows and movies and on every street in every city in the country, of straight people kissing and fucking and holding hands. But when we demanded the right to marry we were “shoving it down their throats.”
We were told by our families not to bring our partners home for the holidays, so we left our partners and flew home and sat around the dining table with people who pretended that we were something we weren’t, and that everything was fine when it wasn’t.
We read in newspapers that “I-killed-the-faggot-because-he-made-a-pass-at-me” is a legitimate legal defense.
We were allowed to dress up straight men on television, and listen to straight women recount their relationship problems while we nodded sympathetically and told them that their shoes were fabulous. They let us plan their weddings. But the idea of a gay wedding was just too much, too soon.
We were told that our love for each other was sick and immoral and undeserving of protection. They placed our love in the same category as incest and bestiality.
We were even blamed for Hurricane Katrina.
People who haven’t walked an inch in our shoes told their followers with unwavering conviction that we chose to be gay. That this distinction (this lie) therefore separated us from all of those who fought for their “legitimate” civil rights. That we didn’t even deserve to use the phrase “civil rights.”
We were told, decade after decade, by the political allies that we elected and supported, that we needed to be even more patient than we’d already been, that our time hadn’t come, that Americans weren’t ready for us to have the same rights as everyone else.
So we retreated from the scorn and the violence, and we built little communities, neighborhoods in cities where we could feel some measure of safety and belonging, however fleeting or illusory, where a few of us could feel bold enough to hold our partner’s hand when we walked down the street, in our neighborhoods, just a couple of square miles, here and there, scattered across the country.
And still they came. Over and over people who claimed that they were led by God came into our lives, came into our funerals and our bedrooms and our relationships, called us immoral and disgusting, arrested us, beat us, robbed us, and killed us.
And still they came. After we’d been given the right to marry, after we’d stood in line at City Hall, after we’d baked each other cakes and made cards and bought presents, after we’d taken each other’s photos and stood and witnessed our love for each other while surreptitiously wiping tears from our eyes, after all of that, they still had to come. They came into our private lives, and stripped away our rights.
And Friday night, after we’d lost at the polls, after we watched the entire world celebrate the “dawning of a new day,” after our rights had been eliminated, after we’d crawled back to our neighborhoods and licked our wounds and talked to each other about what we should do next, they came again, into our neighborhood, into the Castro, to try and save our souls.
They were just stupid kids, with the worst sense of timing ever, but they were led by “love,” right? They came into our neighborhood, after we had suffered such a defeat, to “worship and to sing.” How innocent it all sounds.
But why us, why the Castro? They came into our neighborhood because we’re still not good enough, we’re not worthy of respect, we are immoral and wrong and in need of their salvation, and their compassionate, Christian beliefs somehow prevented them from questioning the wisdom of their timing, in such a neighborhood.
And it comes as no surprise that after our backlash, after we’ve chased them out of our neighborhood, after we’ve gathered at their temples, and marched around their churches, after we’ve made public the already-public record of their campaign contributions, they wring their hands and cry to the cameras that we are the intolerant ones, we are the hostile ones, we are the ones denying them their simple human rights.
What’s surprising to me is that we waited so long to chase them out of the Castro. That we haven’t chased them out a thousand times. What’s surprising to me is how tolerant we’ve been, for so many years.
Let me put it blunty. We’ve taken their abuse, and we’ve taken it some more, and then, just when we thought we’d taken enough, we took some more.
I’ve read on more than one gay blog that our anger is a dangerous emotion, that we shouldn’t act on it, that we should just ignore it. But if a bunch of drag queens hadn’t gotten pissed off and thrown some bricks nearly forty years ago, none of us would even have a gay blog. They’d put up with the scorn and the violence and the police raids for so many years, and something that night put them over the edge. Instead of meekly surrendering to yet another raid, something that night pushed them in a new and exhilarating direction. The first to fight back were the drag queens, hustlers, butch dykes, and street kids, who threw pennies, bottles, and bricks from a nearby construction site. The same types that some of us still want to push to the margins and keep from television cameras.
Just like some of us want to pretend that we can only reach our goals by acting like Ghandi.
The anger of the crowd at Stonewall swelled and turned, over the following weeks, into an urgency for broader activism. Within two years there were gay rights groups in every major American city. We’ve continued their work but grown complacent, and overestimated our so-called assimilation.
But Prop 8 is our flashpoint. For the first time we had a right taken away, one that we had enjoyed and honored for five short months. After 18,000 weddings a simple majority of Californians, preached to by their church elders, persuaded by deceitful commercials funded in part by non-Californians, stripped us of that right.
Lately, the conventional wisdom in the Castro said that the neighborhood was changing, losing its character, its gay essence. Too many straight people were moving in, with their children and their double-wide strollers. And really, wasn’t that to be expected? As we were more widely “accepted,” as we were assimilated into society, our neighborhoods were bound to change. To disappear.
Friday night reminded some of us, at least, how important our neighborhoods still are, and that we all have our flashpoints.
In a perfect world we could walk down the streets of the Castro and pass the preachers with only a glance, and continue on our way, and let them sing and worship and maybe even convert a desperate soul or two. In a perfect world we could all sit down at a table and talk peacefully and reach some diplomatic compromise. We could work with the communities and the religious representatives that have opposed us, and come to a better understanding of each other, and reach our common goals.
I’ve never seen that world, and I never will.
Sometimes it takes anger, along with diplomacy. Sometimes a few drag queens need to throw a few bricks for things to finally change, or for things to at least begin to change.
We are human, with human emotions, and one of those emotions is anger.
And sometimes we need to fight back before others begin to see that maybe we’re stronger than we appear, and maybe they need to back off, and question their methods. We need our anger. We need our outrage. We need to fight back. Our anger could take us farther, in the next few months, than we’ve gone in the last few years.
Most of the time, when we live in the gay ghetto, our oppressors are abstract: a flickering image on a television, a cluster of words in the newspaper. Rarely do we get to see them face-to-face, as some of us did that night in the Castro.
I still wrestle with my conscience. I don’t know what I recommend. I don’t know what, exactly, is the surest road to our goals. There is a part of me, maybe the larger part, that feels only relief that I missed out, the part of me that knows that what happened was ugly and divisive, the part that questions if our backlash served our goals.
But it’s the other part of me that’s writing this, the other part of me that scares myself, the part I want to let loose, if only in words, to give it room to stomp around and fume. The part of me that looks back over the history of civil rights, to search out what role anger played.
That part of me wishes that I had been there, that night in the Castro, to have, for a few minutes at least, real, flesh-and blood examples of our oppressors, to feel the rage ignite within me, and around me, to watch in both surprise and elation my peers shake themselves out of that quiet place of resignation, to watch everyone around me cross the line that we’ve kept ourselves behind for so many decades, despite what the world keeps handing us. For one night, for a few short minutes, to chase our enemies from our home, and watch them flee, flanked by cops in riot gear, until they disappear from view, and we can turn back to each other and celebrate.