in honour of Toronto Pride Week 2012
I’ve had people ask me before, “Why do gay people get their own parade? Straight people don’t. Why do they have to make such a big thing of it?”
The answer is twofold: because it’s harder to discriminate against somebody you know, and because spirit in the face of oppression needs to be celebrated.
The first part is simple to understand if you’ve ever been exposed to stereotypes about any group. If you know somebody who’s unlike the stereotype, your experience teaches you to disbelieve it, and to be more skeptical about stereotypes when you next encounter one. If you have a good neighbour, a conscientious colleague, or a friendly acquaintance who is gay, you are less likely to buy into naysayers’ assertions that “all gays are x“.
To be sure, some LGBT folks are probably jerks. Nobody can serve as a twenty-four-hour ambassador for an entire group. But there are people out there who want you to believe that literally every gay person is inherently irresponsible, unfaithful, immoral, and hedonistic . . . and that assertion just doesn’t stand up in the face of all those gay people who love their families and pay their taxes and don’t cheat at cards (or relationships).
But only if we know they’re out there.
And that’s where celebrating courage in the face of oppression becomes important. Gay people of the past had to fight for the opportunity to be visible in a way that would help the rest of us understand they’re not that different and scary. Their courage is the forerunner of the Pride Parades we know now.
Think it’s overkill to call gay people’s fight to create honest, authentic lives a “struggle against oppression”? Consider the following tidbits from the history of homosexuality in North America:
- Until 1973, same-sex desire was classified as a sociopathic personality disturbance within the American Psychiatric Association. Got that? Every gay person you have ever heard of was automatically considered a sociopath because they weren’t exclusively attracted to the opposite sex. Hospitalization and lobotomies were popular treatments. (Lesbians also got subjected to cosmetics and fashion lessons.)
- Needless to say, the police all wanted these sociopaths off the street; same-sex lovers could be arrested for holding hands in view of the public. If you called on the police as the victim of a crime as a homosexual, you had to watch what you said: you could end up being the one tossed in prison.
- Early sex-offender registries primarily consisted of people who were prosecuted for consensual, adults-only interactions with same-sex partners, setting up the later myth (still active today in some circles) that all gay men are pedophiles. Many people even supported branding such “sex offenders” with identifiable marks for public protection.
- Suspected homosexuality was considered a completely legitimate reason to fire someone. The person fired had no recourse for appeal under the law; they were just finished. During the McCarthy era, conservatives complained that the government wasn’t trying hard enough to make sure all homosexuals in government positions got fired.
- In other realms of employment, you might not get fired, but you weren’t accepted either. 1970s baseball player Glenn Burke was open enough about being gay that the GM of his team offered him a bonus to get married to a woman. Burke later took early retirement rather than continue to endure homophobic hassling in the clubhouse.
- The FBI kept a list of persons known to have engaged in homosexual activity (then termed “overt acts of perversion”), as well as all their friends and family, because being gay or caring about a gay person made you “prone to blackmail” and therefore likely to turn traitor under pressure. (For some reason no one thought ending the stigma was a good way to deal with that.)
- The Post Office kept a similar list, just in case any of those folks were receiving anything gay in the mail. If they found that you had received obscene or illegal items – i.e. gay stuff – they would call the police and have you arrested.
- At one time the only gay bars in existence – even in a cosmopolitan place like New York City! – operated illegally under the auspices of organized crime; a gay person had to make an association with some pretty unsavory types just to go dancing. No matter how thoroughly the mob paid off the cops, these gay speakeasies got raided on a monthly basis.
- Lots of people know that homosexuality was persecuted by the Nazis. But did you know that even in post-war Germany and the occupied territories, many gay people suffered continued imprisonment or ostracization from their families because of their experience? Germany finally recognized and acknowledged this persecution at the turn of the century.
- In the late 1980s, journalist Randy Shilts’ best-seller And the Band Played On demonstrated that officials in government and public health let the AIDS crisis spread because they were neglecting the gay community.
- The Defense of Marriage Act, stating that no state is required to treat any same-sex couple as married even if that’s their legal status, got signed into law in 1996.
It’s a bit like Women’s or Black History months, or Holocaust Museums. We have to remember the ugliness of the past to know how far we’ve come.
And more power to the gay community if they decide to do it with glitter and rainbows.
Coming up later this week, or possibly on the weekend: a shiny, sparkly, Pride-themed reading list in honour of Toronto Pride.