The Sanctity of Queer
Marriages, Mortgages, Kids—Remember When Being Queer Wasn’t About Becoming Like Everybody Else?
I always used to have company out on the porch waxing polemic about how I was never going repeat my parents’ mistakes—by skipping becoming a parent in the first place. My queer cohorts and I would toast our bourbon and Bohs to a stress-free childlessness and try not to think about any other future bullets we might have to dodge. Ah, the good old days.
I don’t know what happened. Suddenly the queerest people I knew started talking about getting knocked up and how cute baby clothes are. I expected all this reproduction from my straight friends. I definitely expected it from Elise, my first girlfriend. She was one of those women who had named her many children to come while still in high school. This was one of the early warnings that our relationship—great as it was—had a clearly marked expiration date. She, like a large number of those “queer” friends from college, wound up in straight relationships. First came love, then came marriage, and then—you know the rest.
Don’t get me wrong—I know some amazing kids and parents. But these shining examples are few and far between. By and large I’ve never been able to relate to children at all. Even when I was a child, I found other children boorish, simple, and impossible to talk to. Clearly, I’d make a terrible parent, and I have been pretty certain until recently that most of my queer cohorts didn’t want to be parents either. I’m sure that many of these people will make fine parents, but you can never be sure whether the angel you’re going to unleash on the world will be from heaven or hell.
Right before we broke up in 1993, Elise said to me something on the order of, “I just realized that no matter what you do, you’re always going to be queer.” Yes, this sentence telegraphed her straight future, but she meant it to be a compliment. She observed that my gender complicates my sexual orientation. I’m a tranny—a “transgendered individual”—and I’ve never been extremely interested in hiding this fact. She recognized that no matter how my future partners might identify—male, female, gay, straight—I was going to queer that identity for them. This also meant that it was not going to be a particularly easy road, especially because, at the time, it felt like I was traveling it completely alone.
I came of age in the queer community in the late 1980s. I witnessed the power of ACT UP responding to the decimation of HIV, even though I was a little young, paranoid, and too far removed from major urban centers to be as directly hit. Since I was not a gay man, and most lesbians wouldn’t have anything to do with me either, I also found myself in a pretty low-risk category for HIV transmission. Nevertheless, I felt the urgency of the times and found my first foothold in Queer Nation and, later, the Lesbian Avengers.
The transgendered community then was virtually nonexistent. There was no vast internet-based network of information sharing. There were medical and psychiatric professionals willing to help so long as you could afford them. The established gay organizations were barely cognizant of trannies; many of them were still discussing whether or not bisexuals had a voice in the community. The stars of the queer academy were just beginning to rise, but podunk California desert schools like mine weren’t yet getting Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. My immediate community was of the lesbian-feminist variety, but the policies were crystal clear: It didn’t matter that my politics were fueled by Sonia Johnson, Valerie Solanas, and Shulamith Firestone. It didn’t really matter that my heart was that of the biggest harpy dyke since Joan of Arc. For the most part, second-wave feminism had no place for me and my tranny-flavored feminism until I took my junk to the junkman. Until then, my junk made me a jerk. But even surgeries could not cure me from being suspect in some circles.
I had nothing resembling a community that I could call my own until Queer Nation came on the scene. You remember Queer Nation—the early-’90s radical political action group that gave us, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” Even then I didn’t live in a major urban center, so my contact with them largely consisted of neon green fuck your gender stickers that I kept in hidden places to remind me that somewhere out there were people I could relate to.
“Queer” meant complicated. It identified the indefinable gray areas without being too specific. It is and has been the only place I feel comfortable in this world. It is by definition not a safe place, but that doesn’t make it a bad place. “Queer” is my home, and it’s the only concept I have of home. If you have a home, perhaps you can imagine how I feel about “queer.”
Jump ahead a few years and I found myself working in the Santa Cruz, Calif., LGBT community center, trying to do the queer community work by the book. I did workshops. I did college lectures. I got elected to a board of directors. I wrote grants. I tried to untangle the cold spaghetti of identity politics to figure out how to cure racism and classism within the mainstream gay community and failed miserably. I found out what “thanklessness” and “martyrdom” really mean.
While this was going on, I suddenly found that both “queer” and “transgendered” were somehow finding their way into the common parlance of the gay community. And the cultural changes we have seen in the last decade have been awesome. The fact that everyone in America has an opinion about gay marriage blows my mind. Ten years ago I never could have believed that a movie like Transamerica could be distributed so extensively, and with such positive attention. These are amazing changes; this is progress. But progress always comes at a cost.
For example: My old community center was among the first in the country to add both “bisexual” and “transgendered” to its mission statement and corporate name. When the dust settled from that two-year fracas, one of the transwomen who was key in winning the battle was so deeply wounded that she left town never to return.
And it’s this kind of fragmentation that I worry about, even in the light of the cultural progress we’ve made. Most reality television shows bank on their ability to identify and dispose of those who are found to be expendable. In these politically divisive times, these cultural conditions should give us plenty to worry about.
Up until a couple of years ago the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which is arguably the nation’s largest LGBT political lobbying organization, was under pressure to change its position on the embattled Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). It was refusing to support a version of ENDA that contained language that included protections for transgendered and other gender variant people. Instead, it was more concerned with getting the bill passed to protect us on the basis of sexual orientation. This sounds like a lot of hair-splitting, and it is, but that’s law for you.
After a great deal of pressure, HRC finally decided to change its position: It was going to support protections for us gender variant types. Considering that HRC’s corporate logo is a big yellow “equal” sign, it seemed like a really smart move on its part. But even this move was met with controversy.
In August 2004, Chris Crain of the Washington Blade—a gay newspaper—published a signed editorial excoriating the HRC decision to support us trannies as “downright immoral.” He also said that the decision was wrong legally and politically, but any first-year law school dropout can tell you that legal and political are really just opinions. Crain invoked morality, which is pretty dangerous ground for a professional gay guy to be treading upon, especially considering the employment bill his editorial was concerned with.
This is old news, of course, but what sticks with me is that this was the first time in recent memory that I’ve seen this type of “morality” argument used as a lever between segments of the queer population, and as the dust begins to settle around the issue of gay marriage I can’t help but wonder when it will be invoked again to further divide our community.
I have every confidence that we’re going to see the gay marriage question settled in our favor eventually, and I think this for a couple of reasons—first because, by and large, people love weddings. They love believing in love and forever-ever and the idea that people want to make commitments to each other. People love to dress up, and us queers really like dressing up.
Second, because in my short lifetime we’ve gone from the Stonewall riots, during which time queers could be hauled off to jail because they weren’t wearing the required amount of gender-specific clothing, to a time when “civil disobedience” consisted of going to the courthouse to get married. And in the meantime we’ve seen the syndication of Will and Grace and the U.S. Supreme Court striking down sodomy laws on a national level. In my early activist days we were concerned with visibility, and now everyone you meet has something to say about whether gays should get married or how they should have made Brokeback Mountain. The hardest work has already been done.
But I can’t shake the feeling that when that day comes we’re going to be left with a community that is more fragmented than ever. It’s always seemed to me that the purpose of the nuclear family has been to isolate and separate us—especially us queers. In the old days we were supposed to keep our sexuality to ourselves in order to minimize the potential family shame. I’d like to think that under a culture that incorporates gay marriage this politic would be dismissed, but I’m doubtful. Even under gay marriage, families will manage to find new and interesting ways to shame and isolate their own members. After all, dysfunctional family movies remain so popular for a reason—our families are all full of deeply flawed people.
I’ve never been a big fan of marriage for anyone, and my favorite straight people, even when they do pair off into their little domestic dyads, scoff at the institution. From my early feminist days it was clear to me that marriage is often used as a way to divide and control people, particularly women. Obviously, not all marriages are about control. Some of them are about love and happiness, and I am all for that. I just wish there was more of it to go around.
I have faith that we will skip this silliness over the proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage, which is really quite an enormous waste of money in a time when we collectively might want to be more concerned about the price of our power and water. I have faith that when the institution that has kept queers employed as wedding planners for eons actually does manage to become legal for us we can move on to more important discussions. I definitely support the notion that us queers should be permitted to make the same shortsighted and wrongheaded decisions as everyone else. And as a dyed-in-the-flannel feminist, I am absolutely in favor of women—as well as female-to-male transgendered men—being in charge of their reproductive decisions, up to and including having their own little Rosemary’s Baby.
But I’m not baby-sitting.
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