My legendary friend, Elaine Noble, the first openly gay person elected to a State House (1974), was quoted this morning in a coffee discussion with two friends on the challenges facing some older gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people today.
“They eat their own.”
Elaine was referring to the behavior of some community members towards others. Her comments at the time resonated with me, coming out as I did as an upper middle class, white, male, gay Catholic the same year she won her seat in the Massachusetts House.
It sounds like cannibalism, which it figuratively is. Marginalized groups can victimize their own members, especially those who are judged as being in the way of progress. Instead of working together to defeat an identifiable foe outside the group, knives can be sharpened to cut away that which causes “dis-ease” among some in the collective body.
This has been true in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer communities for as long as I’ve been involved. The same community that makes me exceedingly proud because of its extraordinary inclusiveness, is also the source of deep disappointment and sadness when I see how perceived “enemies” within it can be poorly handled. From personal experience, I know that it hurts most when the criticism is coming from your own tribe. The criticism can be for any number of factors including your sex, race, age, gender identity, mannerisms, education, wealth, political persuasion, and religion.
A couple of years ago, while on a cruise with 50 others interested in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer filmmaking, I commented on the morning we were to focus on transgender issues that I had just learned of the tragic murder of yet another transgender person. A young, non-binary person in the group objected strongly to a cis-gender person such as myself being the one to bring the news to the attention of the group. The facilitator, and members of the audience who knew of my years as an educator on transgender issues in the workplace, were embarrassed and concerned for me. It took me a while to process my feelings about what was said, and by whom. I gave a lot of thought to their point, and then reminded myself to celebrate their youthful energy and involvement.
My dear friend, Warren Blumenfeld, who has been a pioneering gay activist since Stonewall, and is a prolific writer and LGBT educator, was invited to speak on a college campus, and then disinvited when a member of the college student group objected to the waste of time it would be to listen to “an old, gay, white, male Jew.” My friend Eric Marcus, another pioneering gay writer, historian, and creator of the highly successful podcast “Making Gay History,” was told by an LGBT college group that they wouldn’t be using their interview with him because his values didn’t match their own. Specifically, he gently pushed back on their story that the Stonewall riots happened primarily because of transgender people. Eric had noted that there were also young gay and lesbian people at the scene fighting back against the police.
In these days of much-needed national soul searching on the impact of institutionalized racism and sexism, older gay white cis-gender men can be seen by some people as a major stumbling block to the LGBT community being a good example of responsible multicultural representation. Purity of purpose has caused the collapse of some community organizations that have done much of the heavy lifting for 50 years, such as the Boston Pride organization. The more confident a marginalized group becomes in its successes, the greater ease it can feel in the sacrifice of its longtime leaders and donors in achieving its ideological goals. This story is as old as civilization.
Every older gay and transgender person, and ally I know, who has been in a leadership position, has a story to tell of how they have been singled out for representing what others consider to be oppressive behaviors, thinking, or history. While some of us once succeeded by being the right person, in the right place, at the right time, we now experience ourselves as being the wrong person, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. National and local LGBT organizations want and need the money of senior, white, gay men, lesbians, and transgender people, but many no longer want them as the primary face and focus of their group.
It’s not just community members who are insisting on broader representation on staff, and on boards of directors. Funding organizations demand it before they consider grant applications. While it’s very necessary for us to better represent the total community, it’s not always easy, nor is it always done graciously and thoughtfully. I remember 45 years ago when Dignity, the gay Catholic organization, felt enormous pressure to have male and female co-chairs of every chapter, but often couldn’t comply because there were no women members in some cities. With most LGBT organizations expecting board members to give or get a certain amount of money as part of their commitment to their service, many young, non-binary, transgender, and lesbian candidates of color don’t have the financial means or the connections to meet that requirement.
I applaud and fully support focusing our time, attention, and financial resources on the intersectionality of orientation, gender identity, sex, race, ethnicity, faith, age, physical characteristics, income, and education in our communities. Our organizations, our outreach, our programs and services need to reflect the entire LGBT communities. My concern here, though, is with both the challenges faced in creating representative boards and staff, and in the manner in which it’s achieved. We needn’t “eat our own” in order to look and feel relevant. We can honor the sacrifices made in the past and present by senior gay and transgender men and women, and, at the same time, make allies out of them in our efforts to become more diversified in our organizational focus and structure. Appealing to young, multicultural LGBT people doesn’t require dismissive treatment toward people who are thought to be privileged relics of the past who are holding up progress by maintaining their place at the table.
One of the topics of discussion at our morning meeting today was how to attract both older and younger people to an organization’s annual fundraiser. The question, as has been true for many years, was not just how to get major donors to show up, many of whom felt donor burnout prior to COVID containment, but also how to appeal to a younger, more diversified crowd. How do you get Black and Latino queer-identified youth to want to attend a fundraising event sponsored by an organization that is perceived as being focused on older gay, lesbian, and transgender people? And if the shift in the organization’s focus on intersectionality, and the needs of younger people, is not thoughtfully done, how do you keep the interest and support of older gay, lesbian, and transgender people?
This is a huge challenge in not just the LGBT communities, but in those of every marginalized group. Older, straight, Black longtime champions of the Civil Rights Movement can feel poorly treated by younger Black people, eager to have their movement be more relevant to their lives. Pioneering champions of women’s rights, and of those for Native Americans, Latinos, and people with disabilities can find themselves ungraciously put on a shelf by young warriors in their communities. It’s an age-old problem. For some, if your age is old, it’s a problem.
Rather than cry out to the Universe about the way we feel we’re being dissed and dismissed, seasoned leaders in the LGBT and other communities of marginalized people should remember that feeling put on a shelf is an experience as old as time. It is part of the circle of life. We need not personalize it, and we ought to stay involved in this new challenge to have our movement be fully and equally representational and focused.
We might also consider channeling our energies to the challenges faced by our peers in the aging process. Instead of feeling resentful for the lack of respect and appreciation we might be experiencing, why not regroup and refocus on the issues we’re uniquely qualified to address, which are the obstacles to feeling safe and valued in a world whose tilt favors young, straight, white, cis-gender, able-bodied, Christian people? There’s plenty of important work still left to be done in this area.
I’ve learned to step out of harm’s way, meaning I don’t put myself in situations in which I anticipate feeling unwanted, and I try very hard not to allow the feelings of others to be about me. I work to listen with an open mind, without the need to counter, and not to internalize what’s being said.
The young non-binary person who didn’t want me to talk about a transgender person’s death did so not to call attention to my cis-gender presence, but rather to their own unique identity. I understand and support them in their efforts, if not their means. We’re all pulling on the same rope, and need to do so as a team.
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.