Swimming in the Mainstream
March has been a big gay month in this little city. It began with a rainbow flourish that included the first annual Frostbite ME weekend and the annual Equality Maine awards dinner.
I attended the Equality Maine dinner, like I do every year, because in my line of work (gay-for-pay), to not attend would be the social equivalent of missing your senior prom. Although sadly lacking in corsages and taffeta, it’s a prime opportunity for what is called either “networking” or “gossiping,” depending on whether you’re getting paid to do it or not. I had some small but notable moments, like when Chellie Pingree came to our table to campaign and then veered off abruptly at the sight of half a dozen Ethan Strimling stickers gracing the chests of the diners. And when a suit-wearing dyke’s parents told me how incredibly proud they were to be at the dinner supporting her.
Like every year, the prime rib was a little tough and the speeches a little long, but it was generally a non-offensive and pleasant evening. I even had a babysitter, so I went out afterward for my semi-annual visit to the gay dance club, where I got to see EQME Executive Director Betsy Smith leaning at the bar, though I left before she had the chance to start dancing.
I don’t always agree with Equality Maine’s strategies, but I have to admire their amazing work getting an LGBT civil rights bill passed in Maine. My feelings for the organization are similar to those I might have for an older aunt, the type who gives you the kind of sweaters you wore 20 years ago: a clench-jawed fondness tempered by a long history and a long future together.
I avoided the oddly conceived Frostbite ME weekend. If Equality Maine is an unfashionable aunt, Frostbite ME is an immaculately groomed lesbian dressed in L.L. Bean separates who drinks bottled water and goes skiing every weekend.
Designed to convince LGBT tourists to visit Maine, Frostbite was also billed as a way to build community. But as the weekend approached, I vacillated between indifference and disgust.
At first, I was mostly indifferent. It was hard to find information (I later found out this was because Frostbite was primarily marketed in Boston), and most of the events were geared toward those in a higher tax bracket than my single-mom subsistence income inhabits. Then, as the designated weekend got closer, my internal pendulum swung closer to disgust. It began with my skepticism about consumer activism and the mainstreaming of queer culture, and ended — perhaps unfairly – with my conclusion that Frostbite ME represents everything I dislike about the way the national debate over LGBT issues is progressing.
We’re just like straight people, the main thrust of that argument goes. And we want the same things straight people want, like marriage, and kids, and lots of consumer goods. Oh, and civil rights, too.
That might be true for a lot of people, but I fear this argument is, at best, a glossing of the truth of most queer people’s lives and, at worst, a homogenization and erasing of that truth.
I don’t feel “just like a straight person.” Every aspect of my life is affected by my difference, from a visit to the video store (where, if I’m lucky, there might be a small section of movies that represents my experience), to my relationship with my parents (strained), to the way I walk down the street (aware of the possibility of violence and harassment). Like many members of minority populations, I have keenly felt my disenfranchisement from the majority, and have paid for it in a thousand ways.
But, also like other minority populations, this separation has led to the formation of a distinct and vibrant culture. The tight-knit micro-communities that develop around bars and leather clubs and drag scenes and lesbian childcare cooperatives are all positive responses to an unwelcoming mainstream culture. They are special ways the queer community at large takes care of itself and its members.
It strikes me as hopelessly American that the message getting through to the voting public is one of assimilation. If it were leather daddies or drag queens who were appearing on primetime TV demanding “full equality” in the form of marriage, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t be having this debate today. But when smiling, white, middle-class couples declare they want to get married, people listen.
The dangerous part of this homogenization of our culture was demonstrated in the ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act) debacle, in which an important piece of civil rights legislation was altered to exclude the less mainstream, less assimilated — and, therefore, most vulnerable — people in order to make it more likely to pass.
OK, that’s all a long way from a weekend of speed-friending and skiing and museums. But listen: we are more than our consuming power and we can ask for more than to blend in. We could, for example, ask for folks to take a look at marriage as an institution and come up with a system that works better for everyone. We could use what we’ve learned while building our communities to inform new ways to include and honor difference. We could, and we must, do these things and more if we are to actually have a non-euphemistic “full equality.”
There’s plenty of room for older aunts and L.L. Bean lesbians, as well as for stone butches and gender performers and swishers and queers. We just have to make it.
Jen Hodsdon loves drag queens and dyke moms and bears – oh my!