On the first day of Pride Month, I woke up, checked my phone, and saw the thing that terrified me the most throughout my teens and twenties turned into pancakes and used to perpetuate global brand awareness. Which, I think, proves that the arc of social justice is long, and it bends towards ridiculousness.
This is a weird time to be alive and gay. It’s gone mainstream enough that it apparently doesn’t even register in terms of diversity, but it’s still not so mainstream that I can donate my blood. It’s a time when at least 75% of the people in my home city wouldn’t even consider my relationship to be anything unusual, while 75% of the people in my home state voted to make it so that I could never be married there.
It’s also a time when one of the most promising candidates for President of the United States happens to be gay, and two of the most frequent criticisms of him are that America’s just “not ready” for a gay President, and also that as a white man he can’t win the progressive vote against women and people of color. So apparently it’s true that you can’t be too gay and also that you can’t be too gay.
Considering how much of my life I spent wanting desperately to be normal, then being in a society that doesn’t think “gay” is all that interesting anymore — at least until it becomes politically useful to discriminate against, of course — could seem like I finally got what I always wanted. Instead, it’s just made me realize that I’ve spent my whole life overly preoccupied with “normal” in one form or another.
Here’s something I learned within the past couple of years: the people behind the original Pride celebration chose the word “pride” because pride is the opposite of shame.
I wish I’d learned that sooner! I’d never heard it explained so simply and directly. For years, I’d thought it was another example of activists choosing a world loaded with negative connotations and so easily misconstrued and misinterpreted. (For a fun time, ask me sometime how I don’t like it when people use “privileges” to refer to basic social injustices and inequalities). At worst, it’s associated with arrogance, or the seven deadly sins. At best, it suggests an accomplishment, which at least in my case felt undeserved.
But refusing to be ashamed for things that aren’t shameful: that’s a pretty great thing to celebrate.
Usually, I take Pride festivals and “National Coming Out Day” as an opportunity to do a status check. I look back on when I came out (15 years ago!) and compare my life and my mindset now to the way it was before. And when I look back now, it feels like my preoccupation with what’s “normal” has made me just swap one brand of unnecessary guilt for another. I wasted so many of my adolescent and young adult years feeling ashamed because I wan’t “normal,” but instead of shedding all of that when I came out, I’ve spent the last several years feeling like I had to make excuses for being “too” normal.
It could seem odd to celebrate a lack of shame in 2019, considering that the country is currently being violated by a bunch of people whose only qualification for public office is that they’re actually literally incapable of shame. And it could come across as tone deaf (at best) to assert pride for all aspects of my own identity — not just the gay part — in an environment where the media and the internet is obsessed with giving a microphone to every kind of idiot spouting bullshit about white nationalism, “men’s rights” assholery, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, or simply the disingenuous claim that liberal activism is all about being “racist against white people.” After all, we’ve seen how easily a bunch of chuckleheads could corrupt a simple and powerful message of “Black Lives Matter” into the spectacularly selfish and insultingly clueless whine that “All Lives Matter,” from people terrified that the national conversation isn’t about them for even one second.
But the key part of trying to live with integrity is that it’s got to be the same whether you’re surrounded by enlightened people or you’re surrounded by assholes. You have to stay alert, be aware of your own blind spots, show some humility, do what you can to help people and be sympathetic to what they’re going through, and trust people not to misinterpret or misrepresent what you’re talking about.
As I was growing up, I developed a whole suite of self-deprecating jokes or distractions or obfuscations to explain away any uncomfortable questions. Like why I didn’t have a girlfriend, or why I wasn’t interested in the usual stuff that young men in the south were “supposed” to like, or why I had so many posters of Han Solo. Once I came out, I finally got rid of all that, but then I went and replaced them with a new suite of self-deprecating jokes and pre-emptively defensive explanations to cover years of internalized white liberal guilt. So I’ll make fun of myself for being “not gay enough” or “too white” or “just another white man with an opinion.” It probably started to show some humility and empathy, but repeat it enough time and it turns into bullshit that’s not useful to anybody. Instead of conforming to somebody else’s idea of “normal” as good, it’s just conforming to somebody else’s idea of “normal” as bad.
Which reminds me of another word loaded with connotations: “queer.”
The podcast The Allusionist by Helen Zalzman did an episode about the history of the word, with interviews with various people describing why they do or don’t identify with it. I recommend it to anyone, since it stays pretty free of judgment, and people who’ve had a contentious relationship with the word get their say, too.
I don’t use the word to identify myself, and the reasons have changed over the years since I came out. At first, it was simply because it was used for so long as a slur, and I’ve never been a fan of the idea of “taking back” words, since it can make someone feel shitty unless they’re not 100% in sync with the context in which you’re using it.
But at this point, it’s been used in a positive way for so long that the idea of using it as a slur seems almost like a quaint anachronism. Like Mr. Roper on Three’s Company making a limp-wristed gesture; it’s not even offensive anymore so much as weird, and so dated that you even feel a little bad for him.
So many people love it as this big inclusive, unifying term, which is great, and something that would’ve been useful for me to understand years ago. When I first knew someone who came out as transgender, I tried to be as supportive as I could but still feel like I could’ve done better. I was too focused on the fact that I don’t know what it’s like, and worried that I’d say the wrong thing. I think I’d do a better job now, since I finally “get” that I may not know what it’s like to be transgender, but I do know what it’s like to feel “othered” and have to go through the experience of coming out and being obligated to make parts of your personal life public. It emphasizes a shared experience.
But still, I don’t use it for myself. It’s not a value judgment, because I love that so many people see it as inclusive. My reservations are about the literal meaning of the word and the significance of its meaning. (Even more than “less” vs “fewer.”) For “queer” to make sense for me, it has to be contrasted against “normal.” For some people, that revolves around sexual orientation and gender identity; for others, it’s a celebration of individuality with no “requirements” for inclusion; for others, it’s rejection of an abstract notion of “normal.”
This year in particular, I’m pledging to get over my preoccupation with “normal,” and that doesn’t matter whether I’m making excuses for not being normal enough, or whether I’m making excuses for being too normal. If I’m constantly feeling the need to acknowledge that I came out in about the least hostile environment possible, or feel the need to acknowledge that my experience is mostly white American middle-class male as if that somehow renders me devoid of empathy for anyone else, then I’m celebrating Pride with an asterisk. Which seems to miss the point entirely. I’ll acknowledge that there are plenty of people who seem to be able to navigate all of this with no problem. But I spent so many years feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere, that I can’t help but be depressed whenever someone uses any aspect of my identity to try and diminish or dismiss me.
We all have more in common than not. And empathy, kindness, and compassion aren’t in limited supply. Anyone who acts as if humanity is a zero-sum game, and that promoting one group means demoting another, has either lost the message or never had it in the first place.