June 2008

First Published at 365gay.com in June 2008.

“Is he your brother?”

It’s a simple question, but it startled me. My partner Mark and I were outside planting flowers, and Mark had gone to the garage to fetch the lawnmower. Across the street, a landscaper and his young son tended to a neighbor’s yard. It was the son–a boy of about fourteen–who asked me the question.

“What did you say?” I responded. His dad, distracted by his Hedge-o-matic, seemed oblivious to the exchange.

“That guy you’re working in the garden with–is he your brother?” he repeated. And I paused. It was a brief pause, but it was long enough for me to scan the following thoughts:

1. Mark’s Filipino; I’m white. Do we look like brothers?

2. No, he’s my husband. We’re gay. Can’t you tell by the flowers we’re planting?

3. If I tell a fourteen-year-old boy that I’m gay, will his father think I’m a pedophile?

4. If I tell a fourteen-year old boy that I’m gay, will either he or his father retaliate somehow? They both know where we live, after all.

“Nope – not brothers,” I responded tersely, and then returned quickly to my planting.

I hate moments like this. If Mark were female, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to say, “No, that’s my wife.” But he’s not my wife – or even, technically, my husband, thanks to Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage. He’s my “partner.” And not everyone gets that, much less approves of it.

What made the situation worse was that the exchange happened on our local Pride celebration day. “Some pride you’ve got,” I muttered to myself. “You’re afraid even to be honest with a fourteen-year-old.” I kept digging, annoyed with my evasiveness.

The truth is that I was afraid. Not afraid that I couldn’t defend myself verbally – I travel the country doing that in debates and lectures. And not of simple disapproval, which I’m used to. Partly I was afraid of being suspected a pedophile: “What did you just tell my boy?” I could hear the father asking me. Partly I was afraid of finding my house pelted with eggs the next day. (It’s never happened to me, thankfully, but it’s happened to people I know.)

Beyond those fears, I wanted to avoid the simple awkwardness that comes from defying people’s expectations. To tell the neighbor’s landscaper that Mark’s my partner could involve correcting a worldview in which such things don’t happen–at least not in children’s view. People don’t like being corrected by strangers, especially strangers they perceive as deviant.

Layered on top of these complications were racial issues. We live in Detroit, an 85% African-American city in a largely segregated metropolitan region. Mark’s Asian; I’m white; the landscaper and his son were black. Our respective cultures tend to approach homosexuality differently, and dialogue is challenging under the best of circumstances. I’m in favor of such dialogue, but this didn’t seem the right time, place, or interlocutor.

And yet all of these hesitations conflict with a constant theme in my work: there’s nothing wrong with being gay. Nothing. On the contrary, our relationships are as valuable as anyone else’s. The more we treat our gayness as a “non-issue,” the more the rest of society will learn to do so as well. It won’t be easy at times – indeed, it may occasionally get downright ugly – but such is the way of social progress.

That’s my moral ideal. Whether it was weakness or prudence that led to my half-answer that day, I’m still not sure.

I comfort myself with the thought that at least I didn’t lie and call Mark my “friend.” Aside from failing to help our progress, such outright distortions make it too easy to start lying about other things. But to say that I could have handled the situation worse doesn’t mean that I couldn’t have handled it better.

I also might have been dead wrong in my fears and assumptions. For all I know, the kid could have gay uncles of whom he’s exceedingly fond. Or he might be gay himself. “Is that your brother?” could have been his way of fishing for something else – something I didn’t provide.

We never made it to Pride that afternoon – literally. The lawnmower shot a pebble into Mark’s eye, and I rushed him to the emergency room. (It was a minor abrasion, and he’s fine now.) Anyone could have done that for Mark, but there’s something special about having a domestic partner – a husband – in such situations: someone whose job it is to drop everything for you, and vice-versa, in moments of need. Few other relationships can provide that sense of security.

He’s not my brother. He’s not my friend. He’s my husband – whatever the law and society say. Next time, perhaps I’ll say it myself.

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First published at 365gay.com on June 9, 2008

June brings pride parades, which brings out drag queens in bright sunlight.

I don’t envy anyone wearing pancake makeup, a wig, heels and pantyhose in 90-degree weather. I particularly don’t envy drag queens, who—like other gender non-conformists in our society—suffer more than their share of unfair criticism.

A reader named Clyde writes, “I think drag is comparable to blackface minstrelsy. Whether it’s men performing as women, or whites performing in blackface, caricaturing and making fun of groups of people perpetuates stereotypes.”

There are at least two critical claims here. One is that drag caricatures—and thus makes fun of—groups of people, and the other is that drag perpetuates stereotypes. Let’s consider each in turn.

While it’s possible for a drag performance to make fun of women, misogyny is not essential to, or even typical of, drag. True, drag often involves exaggerated personas, but the point doesn’t seem to be to mock women, but rather to revel in a particular kind of feminine glamour. For that reason, the analogy to minstrelsy falls short.

But what about the “bitchy” personalities adopted by some drag queens? Again, intentions and context matter. If the point is cruelty, then it’s wrong. But mockery, and even bitchiness, can have its place in entertainment. Unless one objects to Joan Rivers-type humor altogether, it’s difficult to make the case for objecting to it in drag performances.

The other part of Clyde’s objection is related: it’s that drag perpetuates stereotypes. There are multiple potential stereotypes at work here: that gay men are effeminate, that gay men want to be women, that gay men are bitchy, that gay men are excessively concerned about their appearance, that women are bitchy, that women are excessively concerned about their appearance, or that gay and transgender are the same thing.

A stereotype is an overgeneralization about a group. It may be negative, but it needn’t be (consider “All Asians are good at math.”)

I don’t doubt that drag contributes to stereotypes. But I don’t think the appropriate response to the problem is to reject drag queens. They’re not responsible for others’ ignorance, and in particular, for others’ tendency to generalize from a sample of drag queens to most gay men (or most women).

Certainly, it’s important to portray our community—indeed, our overlapping communities—accurately and fairly. And historically, the majority of media images portraying the GLBT community have focused on an unrepresentative minority of that community.

As someone who came out in the late 1980’s, growing up in a rather straitlaced suburb, I’m especially sensitive to that problem. At the time, there were few if any images of the GLBT community that I could relate to, and so I convinced myself that I wasn’t one of “them.”

But the way to combat this distortion is not to silence the divas among us. The way to combat it is for the rest of us “plain” homosexuals to make our presence known.

As for drag queens: if someone wants to don a sequined gown and lip-synch to “Over the Rainbow,” far be it from me to stand in her way. (I use the feminine pronoun deliberately.) If other people think that her behavior says something about me or about gays in general, it’s my job (not hers) to correct them. And I will correct those people, not because there’s something wrong with the drag queen, but because she’s who she is and I’m who I am. She speaks for herself, and I for myself.

If I were a drag queen, I might break into a La Cage aux Folles number right now. Instead, I want to conclude on a note of gratitude—to a particular drag queen whose name I’ve long forgotten.

I was quite young when I ventured into my first gay bar. I was clearly out of my element. Noticing my nervousness as I stood alone against the wall, a drag queen approached me. “How old are you, honey?”

“Nineteen,” I replied sheepishly.

“Honey, there are hairpieces in this bar that are older than that!” she quipped back.

She made me laugh, and so I began to relax. Then she introduced me to several other patrons—including other young nervous preppy boys like me. I’m sure she realized I could relate to them more easily than to her. It was a simple act of kindness, and I recall it warmly.

Ironically, it was a drag diva who helped this “plain” homosexual find his voice. Wherever you are, thanks.

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