The memory is indelible. A handful of gay Pride marchers in 1982 yelled out to me that I was a “Tom” for standing with police Lieutenant Don Devine on the street corner as they walked past.
I was, at the time, the Mayor of Boston’s Liaison to the Gay and Lesbian Community. (The BT&Q were added later.) I was there to guarantee their safety.
Lt. Devine was a 50-something straight, Irish Catholic man with a wife and kids. I had lobbied Mayor Kevin White and Police Commissioner Joe Jordan to create the position of Police Liaison to the Gay and Lesbian Community. The tall, imposing, but kindly police lieutenant was comfortable enough in his identity that he readily accepted the assignment, despite the teasing he knew he’d receive from his fellow officers. His job, like mine, was to guarantee that gay and lesbian citizens had full and equal access to city services.
A couple of years before, anti-gay people threw cherry bombs into our parade as we marched past the golden dome of the State House. We depended on the police to protect us, and I was comforted by the sight of them standing post at each street intersection.
I knew they were uncomfortable.
Homosexuality, then, was far less understood and accepted in the U.S. than it is today. But, the officers chased down the hecklers and stopped them from further attempts at intimidating us. They also kept at bay the Fundamentalist Christians and their massive banners proclaiming “God Hates Fags.”
When gay and lesbian police officers started marching as a group in the Boston Gay Pride parade, it made me feel very proud of, and grateful to them. Because of my time training police recruits on LGBT issues, I knew how intimidating it was to come out in the police or fire departments. You literally risked your life if your fellow officers chose not to back you up in a threatening situation because they were turned off by your “lifestyle choice.”
I feel the same pride today, as I did decades ago, when I see Pride marchers in Roman collars, military, police, and fire department uniforms, and under corporate banners. While the sight of these individuals marching in a Pride parade might upset some people, I believe they confirm for us, and for the rest of the world, that we lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people come from every walk of life. Their bold presence also states clearly that we’re secure enough in ourselves that we’re willing to take whatever pushback we get from straight people. But, we don’t expect pushback from our own community.
While it hurt my feelings, and made me angry to be so harshly judged by the handful of Fag Rag marchers in 1982, particularly since I had devoted my life to the health and safety of my tribe, I understood that they interpreted my standing with Lt. Devine as my endorsement of the bad behavior of all police officers. These same people distrusted me because I was a member of Dignity, the gay Catholic group. They interpreted my faith as an endorsement of everything bad the Catholic Church had ever done.
I’ve come to understand that we can’t control, or sometimes even comprehend, why people react to us the way they do. Everyone has a story that, if told, helps us understand, though not excuse their behavior toward us. Some LGBT people, because of their commitment to non-violence, strongly opposed efforts to open the military to gay and transgender service members. Some of these same individuals, and others, opposed working for marriage equality, as they saw it affirming the outdated heterosexual form of control, and of patriarchy. I get it. I disagree, but I get it.
I also get why some lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and other people hate seeing corporate banners in our Pride parades. They feel we’ve been co-opted, that our defiant marches in the cause of liberation have been co-opted as huge, free advertisements for oppressive institutions.
Having worked for 30-plus years with LGBT employees, I have a different perspective on the corporate banners in our parades. I see them as grand affirmations of the hard work that has been done in each of the participating companies to raise consciousness on the discrimination we face, and on the unique value that we bring to the table. The LGBT employee Pride marchers are the front-line veterans of the battles fought and won in corporate America to create safe workplaces in which they and others could come out without fearing harassment, or loss of employment opportunities. Many of them made great personal sacrifices to get the attention and support of their CEOs.
In my first Pride parade in Detroit in 1974, we had so few marchers that we had to stay on the sidewalks, and wait for the green light to cross the street. As we grew in numbers in Boston, we chanted, “Off the sidewalks and into the street.” We wanted all of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people who stood on the sidelines watching the parade to join us in the march, and to feel the power of self-affirmation and community inclusion.
Today, across the country, hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life have boldly stepped off the sidewalk and into the street to participate in their own liberation. I can remember from my first few marches the fear, the excitement, the sense of belonging I had in a new life, in a new community, but also of no longer feeling I belonged in my old life when I stepped into the street. Once a person finds the courage and strength to make such a leap of faith, I believe they ought to always feel safe and at home there. No one should call them “Tom,” and no one should say they’re no longer welcome to march because of their religion, their politics, their job, their past, or their comfort level with every component of the LGBT community.
One of the things that makes me most proud of my tribe is our long history of inclusiveness. We have always worked hard at being a family for everyone.
Oftentimes, we have had to stretch beyond our comfort zone to embrace that which we didn’t fully understand. We did so because of our trial-by-fire awareness of how it feels to be left out, unwelcome, unfairly judged, and misunderstood. That doesn’t mean we all have to become friends, or agree on every issue. It just means there’s plenty of room on the street for us all.
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.