This past weekend I witnessed the extremes of queer life. I attended the wedding of friends, who were surrounded by love and warmth and acceptance from their family and friends… and it was beautiful and good. But, unfortunately, this event was juxtaposed with the reports of the shooting in Orlando. One hundred wounded or dead comrades, taken by an act of homophobic terrorism — home grown in America. It is difficult to wrap my head around these extremes… beauty so closely juxtaposed with such violence.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but when these moments of extreme violence happen (and they seem to happen all too frequently), my mind goes in a million different directions. I don’t know if it’s an effort to seek answers, to find connection, or maybe it’s just to find somewhere to hide. This time I kept remembering the moments of anti-gay violence I’ve witnessed over my life. Maybe I was trying to remind myself — amid the frantic racist attempts to shift the narrative to radical islamic terrorism or the very sensible call to strengthen our gun control laws — that Orlando was an inevitable consequence of hate, nurtured over the decades through words and laws and passive disregard, hate that we’ve allowed to fester and bloat and erupt into a spray of bullets and blood and death.
One of those memories was of something that happened when I was a freshman at UT Austin over 30 years ago in 1985. I was 19, had just come out, and had joined a group called GLSA (Gay Lesbian Student Association). Now the GLSA was mostly a social group — a place to meet other gay kids, and a safe space to share our anxieties about the emerging plague that was to come into even sharper focus for us over the next few years. One day, however, in spite of being young, it being the mid-80s in Ronald Reagan’s America, and our school being in the middle of Texas, we all seem to have gay liberation on our minds. We decided we should try to participate in the University’s “Round Up” Parade — a celebration of school spirit made up of mostly Fraternities and other student organizations. At first there was some debate over whether it was a good idea to try to participate, or whether we could even be in the parade. But we figured, since this was a parade for student organizations, and the GLSA was a student organization, why not try? After some challenging negotiations with the parade organizers, who couldn’t figure out how to keep us out, we were allowed to have our float at the very end of the parade. Our “float” turned out to be a long white convertible with the top down, draped with a banner of some sort listing the name of our group. If I remember correctly, we ended up with about 6 or 7 in the car.
The route of the parade took it down Guadalupe St., also known as “The Drag”, to MLK Blvd. Along the way we passed in front of large crowds of students and the numerous shops and student-focused businesses lining the drag. One of these was a student dorm called the “Goodall-Wooten”, which if I recall is most notable for the affordable barbershop on the ground floor. The first part of the parade was uneventful… the crowd was filled with excitement and school spirit.
As we approach the Goodall-Wooten, things changed dramatically. As our convertible passed in front of the dorm, a sudden barrage of beer cans rained down from above, thrown by the students lining the balconies. From the sidewalk along the side of the road, members of one the school’s spirit organizations, known as The Texas Cowboys, assisted the Wooten boys by throwing even more cans at our car, adding in beer bottles as well. The crowd cheered them on. One of our group was hit in the head with a bottle. All we could do was dodge, duck, and try to speed past the onslaught as quickly as possible. We ended the parade bruised, scared, and really really angry.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much we could do.
An especially troubling part part of all this happened when we reported the incident to the Austin Police Department. Mark Blazek, my boyfriend at the time, and a sometimes freelance magazine writer/photographer, had been following our float the entire route taking pictures (Mark died of AIDS in the ‘90s). It turned out that one of his pictures captured the incident while it was happening. It was quite an image — it showed one of the Texas Cowboys with a bottle just leaving his hand, hurling in our direction. Mark provided the APD with the photo. Unfortunately, nothing came of the report: no one was charged with assault, no one was suspended from school. The incident did find its way into the GLSA archives, but justice was never served.
Now 30 years later… LGBT people can now celebrate our love for one another — I am legally married to my husband and we are proud parents of our now almost 14-year-old son. There are laws in many states and towns that protect us from discrimination. We can serve openly in the military. We are being represented in many positive ways on television, movies, and by some of the media. Many faith communities embrace us as their own. Still, we continue to live in community where anti-LGBTQ hate is nurtured by a culture of heterosexism and toxic masculinity, where some lawmakers continue to preach intolerance and get (re)elected, where some clergy preach sermons intended to shame and even harm the LGBTQ community, where some school boards force publishers to remove references to LGBTQ lives from textbooks, where bullies harass and harm LGBTQ and allied kids in the hallways of our schools, and where some parents, teachers and administrators still allow that harm to happen. And as for those affirming laws… with the success of the marriage equality movement, it’s easy to forget that only half the states in the US offer employment protection based on sexual orientation and even fewer based on gender identity. Efforts continue to try to limit or reverse the marriage equality rulings. Lawmakers continue to argue over whether transmen and transwomen can use public restrooms!
So clearly, the homophobic hate I experienced 30-years ago as a 19-year-old continues: in our schools, on the street, from our elected leaders and political candidates, in homophobic laws, and in the violence they inspire. We also see it in the need of so many to attempt to shift the conversation about the Orlando tragedy from a discussion of homophobic terrorism to rants about Radical Islam.
I know more now than I knew when I was just coming out at 19. But I’m not sure i know what the answer is to this. The recent events makes that answer seem far away. But I guess, in spite of now being middle aged, it being 2016 in Barack Obama’s America, and living in New York State, I really think we need to keep LGBTQ liberation on our minds. I think we have to keep marching (and dancing, and kissing, and loving each other), while dodging and ducking those bottles and cans (and God, even bullets when they come) …
Yours in Pride!