Manuel Betancourt

“Why do gay people alienate themselves so much?” Or How I take on a friend’s question and run with it

August 6, 2013 · in Queer

Have you heard of this rainbow crosswalk recently unveiled in Vancouver, BC? As a former VanCity resident, it makes me happy to know that Davie St is even more colorful now. I shared news of the crosswalk with some friends this past weekend while at brunch. One of them responded with something that made me uncharacteristically angry. And trust me, you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry. Upon hearing about the pride-ful crosswalk, this friend of mine uttered the following:

“A rainbow crosswalk? Why do gay people have to be so alienating? I mean, if I were a straight guy, I wouldn’t feel welcome in that street. I just don’t get why gay people self-ghettoize themselves doing stuff like that.” (I’m paraphrasing, of course.)

The remark was less surprising for its frankness than for its familiarity. This was an educated self-identified gay man speaking; I couldn’t help but fire back. Actually, that’s probably an understatement. I don’t think my friend had seen me that worked up ever. We’ve been friends for almost a decade now and while I have been known to snarkily comment on his right-leaning political views, I had never quite engaged him with such force or passion as I did last Sunday. In sum, I wasn’t going to let a comment like that stand especially because implicit in it were so many of the rhetorical and political tools of a twenty-first century gay conservative movement that I find so destructive. And yet, here was someone who was willing to spout them off off-handedly and expected people around him to nod and move on to the next topic of conversation, without any further thought to the numerous assumptions about privilege and visibility embedded in it.

“Why do gays alienate themselves so much?” — this is the question he returned to time and time again. At first it turned out he had misunderstood me. “Oh, it’s just a crosswalk? I thought you meant it was a full street.” I didn’t understand why that made a difference. “Well, I don’t know… an entire street?” The point was clear: a crosswalk was tolerable, but an entire street was much too alienating (yes, the irony of one rainbow street in one of the largest Canadian cities alienating a hypothetical straight guy was even too much even for me to pause and respond to). Pressed to explain himself further, he argued that since Vancouver is already such a gay-friendly city, there really was no need for something like this crosswalk. “Why would you insist on positioning yourself as different putting rainbow flags everywhere like that?” Here was the insidious rhetoric of privilege filtered through gay conservativism. We have accomplished enough. We are already equal in the eyes of the law (if maybe not our neighbor), why continue flouting difference when the end-goal should be a world that sees none? Gay people really only harm themselves when they self-ghettoize. “I mean [and here I wish I were exaggerating] people wouldn’t get killed in the West Village for being gay if so many of them didn’t choose to live here.”

I think that’s about the point where I totally lost it. My throat is still sore from the endless tirade I went on. If I’m jotting some of these thoughts down and sharing them here, it is because I know that my friend is not the only out there who thinks this way. And so I thought I’d spend a couple of minutes trying to paraphrase the arguments I put forth to my friend who, other than being bewildered at my zeal, seemed still unable to grasp why I found his arguments so objectionable (if not outright insulting). As we kept talking, it became clear that he had no idea of the history behind these self-imposed “gay ghettos” nor the purpose behind symbols such as the rainbow flag. For him they represent antagonism to the straight community and a way to self-alienate a community. Why be visible when what decades of work has earned is invisibility? That that very invisibility is racially, gender and class-coded seemed not only lost on him, but was actually immaterial.

At the heart of my friend’s argument was the conviction that a) the end-goal of identity-driven politics was the very erasure of the differences that fuel them, and that b) the fight for same-sex equality is pretty much over and thus any “loud” visibility such as the rainbow crosswalk in Vancouver is not only unnecessary but antagonistic. We’re better off living as if we were “virtually normal” and doing little to draw attention to our differences. It’s post-gay rhetoric married with the type or privacy of the individual conservatives have made so central to late-century capitalism. These arguments make me bristle because they at once uproot themselves from historical and cultural context (hey, have we really reached a point where we truly believe the LGBT movement has gained everything it sought out to do?) while also betraying the implicit assumption that difference is something to be corrected; something to be tolerated at most — something we overcome rather than something we value. And therein is my biggest problem with these arguments: they begin from a place of privilege that is able to imagine this “post-gay world” as both an ideal place but also as one that already exists. It’s not just complacency but a willing blindness to the material conditions that day to day gay and queer individuals live in. The LGBT movement is not without flaw. In a way, we could say that the very normalizing tone that recent same-sex marriage discourse has appropriated only encourages arguments like those of my friend — so, maybe I shouldn’t take conservatives to task as much seeing as left-leaning individuals and movements can be just as blind to the ways they participate in hegemonic cultural discourses that have ways of systematically erasing difference to continue the seemingly benign status quo. What I should have done is given my friend an entire semester’s worth of queer studies. Here, have some Warner (Fear of a Queer Planet), read up on some Butler (Bodies that Matter), polish up some Altman (Homosexual; Oppression and Liberation), some Halperin (Gay Shame, How to be Gay — seriously, if you haven’t read it, order it now!) and come back and we can discuss the shortcomings and successes of the LGBT plight. But all I could hear in my head, as I still have Audre Lorde in mind, were her three-decades old words which as it turns out, are as urgent as ever:

Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such an economy, we have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals. As a result, those differences have been misnamed and misused in the service of separation and confusion.

I don’t presume my tirade made any difference to my friend; but it made a difference for me. I found out on Sunday how deeply I feel about these issues and how viscerally they affect me. I shed a tear when I first read of the Windsor v USA decision, but that necessarily came with the anger I felt upon reading the Fisher v Texas, the Shelby County v Holder, and the Adoptive Couple v Baby Girl decisions, all of which ideologically followed similar thought processes as my friend’s initial arguments, disregarding and at times doing away with ways of protecting and creating social justice for minorities, because hey! we’ve come so far, right?

Oh that that were true. Until then though, I’ll continue to plan a future trip to Vancouver to see the rainbow crosswalk for myself, not worrying whether that alienates me or some hypothetical straight guy.