A Canadian gay man my age wrote to ask if I felt we had lost something special because of the progress we’ve made in our movement.
He liked the feeling of the community he had 40 years ago when gay bars were about the only places we could meet to talk and dance together. Now that we’ve assimilated, the bars in the town where he lives have disappeared. It’s not just the gay bars across North America, but also gay bookstores and newspapers that are harder to find.
There was a sense of excitement that accompanied the fear and caution of maneuvering beneath the radar in the early 1970s. We were kids, meeting in dimly lit, unmarked, Mafia-owned bars, going home with strangers to engage in illegal activity. With the dawning of the “Gay is Good” movement, we became the first generation of young warriors who dared to march in large numbers in the daylight, who boldly put our names on “Letters to the Editor,” who dramatically, in front of television cameras, poured orange juice into the sewer after our loss in Dade county, and who rallied in strong numbers in support of pro-gay straight politicians. Those who died of AIDS were fallen heroes, and we were the families who cared for and buried them.
Yes, for those of us who came of age at that time, standing on the shoulders of the handful of pre-Stonewall heroes, there can be a nostalgic sense of loss of identity as members of a struggling family. Sharing “war stories” with other LGBT seniors can be very satisfying and lots of fun, but they’re lost on kids who grew up with Gay-Straight Alliances in their high schools. That’s not to suggest that coming out today is easy for anyone. Transgender young adults are currently the main target of social conservatives. Nor should we assume that younger queer people feel no sense of family, or of community. They often rely on it for safety, but it’s different from the urgency we felt.
That said, I wouldn’t want to go back to the days when we waited nervously to see how the local newspaper was going to report on our Gay Pride parade. In the 1970s, they sent straight reporters and straight photographers to cover us. Now, the journalists are openly gay or transgender. So are the dentists, lawyers, therapists, realtors, financial planners, cruise directors, cops, and politicians we run into on a daily basis.
I’m grateful that the top-notch pain doctor that Ray and I see regularly is not just an out and proud gay man, but his entire staff is so gay-positive you forget that most of them are straight. I always smile with satisfaction when I see copies of the local gay newspaper stacked outside the elevator in Dr. Neel Amin’s office, and the South Florida Gay News calendar on the countertop at check-in. We have indeed assimilated, as there are as many straight people sitting in the waiting room as gay, and how sweet it is that we don’t, and they don’t, give sexual orientation a second thought at that moment.
It wasn’t our assimilation that eliminated our gay bookstores. Yes, the financial success of our LGBT books expanded the size of the gay and transgender section at Borders, but it was the ease of shopping there, at Barnes and Noble, and then at Amazon on the Internet, that made it a challenge for gay bookstores to turn a profit. Newspapers, both gay and straight, have disappeared because of the availability of electronic news, and due to the ability of gay advertisers to reach a bigger audience through social media.
Those of us who learned how to endure and survive the blatant bullying by organized religion and the state in the early 1970s and 1980s now enjoy the benefits of learning for ourselves the true meaning of faith and love. Many young LGBT people today have multiple means of connecting and socializing with their peers, openly having crushes just like their straight friends, and seeing themselves thoughtfully portrayed on television programs and in movies. They can listen to popular, openly gay and Christian musicians sing lyrics that honestly reflect their reality. They can also cheer gay and transgender athletes in high school and college. Gay teenagers can have sex without it being a crime, and have their legal marriages blessed by most mainline Christian and Jewish ministers.
I treasure my memories of actively participating in the liberation of LGBT people. My soul swells with the great satisfaction of seeing, hearing, and feeling the ever-increasing successes we have had in changing hearts and minds at all levels, unimaginable 50 years ago, from the boardrooms of the world’s largest and most influential corporations to the papacy itself. While there are still many battles to be fought and won, nothing compares to the camaraderie experienced in locked arms as we proudly, though fearfully, marched in our Pride parades past screaming homophobes, us never trusting the police would step in on our behalf. Today, LGBT police officers, firefighters, and veterans march with us.
I envy the ease with which many LGBT people grow up today, but I’d not give back the significant lessons I learned by confronting adversity in order to be in their more comfortable shoes. So, “yes,” I feel that our successes in winning acceptance have cost younger people something that is dear to me, but the same could be said by every generation that has witnessed significant changes in their lives. My folks felt their children didn’t understand the value of money, because Mom and Dad grew up with much less financial security than we did. But, my grandparents survived the Great Depression, and had an even more intense experience of pulling together as a family than did their adult children. And so it goes.
It would be interesting to listen to today’s teenagers talk 50 years from now about how the youth of the future don’t know and understand what it once meant to be gay and transgender. They, too, will undoubtedly say that something was lost as a result of the progress made.
Two Guys and A Dog is a semi-regular column from Brian McNaught, who has been a leading educator on LGBTQ issues globally since 1974. Visit Brian-McNaught.com to access his books and DVDs for free. “No one has done a better job of chronicling what it is like to be gay in America.” – Former U.S. Congressman Barney Frank.