A view of the culture wars from a member of the “silent generation”
Squeezed between boomers and millennials, gen exers are often — and wrongly — left out of the current debate despite many years in the trenches
Catholic University circa 1985.
I’m splayed out on a double bed in a dorm room in Monroe Hall watching as my fellow theatre major Matt Carper, clad only in his underpants, a swimmer’s cap, and nose plug marched around the room to music blaring from a boombox, singing out in falsetto “Gay rights! GAY RIGHTS!!!”
I’m laughing in that way that only certain people can make you laugh. Laughing so hard I feared I’d pee in my pants. A noiseless and painful laughter.
Next came his finale.
Music welling into a crescendo, Matt spun around towards the edge of the bed, hoisted himself into the air, threw his arms over his head like Nadia Comenici at the ’76 Olympics and dived into the center of the sagging mattress.
Matt was as gay a blade as there ever was. He was openly and authentically a flamer. He marched, sang, danced and did back handsprings all over the campus Catholic University in Washington, DC, among the most conservative in the region.
We met as freshmen and were instant soulmates — not lovers, just amazing friends.
Back then, I walked around campus with an attitude, often dressed in a bubble mini skirt, dog collar, and combat boots. With closely cropped hair, I stood out on purpose, belying my roots as the (straight) daughter of Jack Maddux, a distinguished State Department diplomat, himself the son of aviation pioneers (founders of Maddux Airlines in 1927), and speechwriter to then-World Bank president Robert S. McNamara.
Matt was a very good-looking young man, with a slim, muscular build and piercing brown eyes that often twinkled mischievously. He relieved my sense of alienation, granting me permission to let my freak flag fly.
He was gay without apology. And — unlike today — without militancy. He was simply comfortably in his own skin.
To me, it was no big deal for anyone to be an openly gay person, or to have openly gay friends, or to go to my high school prom with a gay guy as my date in the 1980s. They were my friends, with whom I shared many obsessive passions, and that was the end of it.
And, looking back, despite the innate conservatism of The Catholic University of America (its official name), Matt never endured or even quietly whispered about any form of discrimination, social isolation, hate speech or anything remotely like that. In fact, he was quite popular and was either accepted as an openly gay man or just ignored and left to live as he saw fit.
I am speaking for him because the one assault he did face not long after college was the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Matt would not live to celebrate reaching the age of 30, succumbing to the complications of his HIV infection in 1993 in San Francisco, where he had moved to care for his older brother, Michael, who would also become an AIDS casualty.
From Stonewall to identity politics
Having survived the 80s, 90s and early to mid-aughts, I find the narrative around gay rights (all civil rights) somewhat incoherent — and I’m sure my dear Matt would be tempted to reprise his satirical dorm room dance in his tighty whities.
Advocacy and activism, liberalism, open-mindedness, protest movements, Gloria Steinem, Larry Kramer, et al: I am all for all of this. Always have been.
In today’s parlance, I was born “woke.”
What so disturbs me is the militancy of leftist identity politics. Its zeitgeist of “you aren’t gay/black/trans/Latino/poor/working class so you cannot march alongside us” is antithetical to what I thought was the underlying principle of all the social and legal trench warfare — that is, inclusion and fairness.
Personally, it is deeply offensive to me.
I am a straight, white woman, born of two intellectually-minded and socially concerned professionals. I grew up in the then-very white suburbs of DC. I have lived in a cloak of white privilege, and I have always known that thanks to my parents.
Gen-exers like myself have fought the good fight for social justice way back when. And we have the scars to prove it. Try going to one funeral after another as your friends dropped dead of HIV in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Or walking around seeing droves of once healthy men, hollowed out, painfully thin, dazed, scared and waiting for something — anything — to treat their awful symptoms.
How about all the sex discrimination and sexual harassment I withstood as I began my career? We learned to fight for ourselves, to decipher what was simply lunkhead behavior and what was downright degrading and predatory, and whether or not to report it up the chain.
Some of us (me) decided to do just that — without a #MeToo movement providing a bulwark of protection.
Further, it was understood that while injustices continued unabated, living in a liberal democracy meant putting up with those whose politics or point of view was beyond distasteful. Like many Catholic U students did when confronted with overtly gay guys like Matt, you just ignored it.
The university administration invited many ultra-conservatives to speak on campus. Deplatforming was unthinkable. Indulging ourselves with cries of fragility and the need for “safe spaces” was laughable. We just said to ourselves “ugh,” and moved on, implicitly understanding that we were damn lucky to be in college, where we were exposed to a wide range of ideas. It was the accepted price of our collective freedom to adopt a kind of “live and let live” attitude. And if you really couldn’t bear it, you majored in poly-sci and hoped to change the world.
To all the social justice warriors who wish to exclude me, I have this message:
My privilege never robbed me of my compassion or empathy for the plight of others. It hasn’t dented my innate delight and passion for those who are courageous, authentic and willing to march around in their underwear shouting “GAY RIGHTS” for a serious giggle.
Maybe that’s what we all could use these days. That is, less social justice “warrioring” and “othering” and “cancel-culturing,” and a lot more levity.