21 May 2014

Life During Wartime (Part One)

This Ain't No Party . . .


Christ, The Gay Martyr will cease being an active blog soon. Before that happens, I'd like to put some final thoughts on record.

On Super Bowl Sunday 2010, the CBS network telecast the big game. The commercials that ran between plays are worth taking note of: CBS reversed a long-standing ban on issue-advocacy commercials and aired an explicit anti-abortion message from Focus On The Family. Most Gay people should know Focus On The Family as a vicious anti-Gay propaganda organization which portrays us as child predators and funds "ex-Gay" movements. CBS had worked extensively with the group to refine the ad and finesse its ideological message, At the same time, the network rejected an ad from a Gay couples matchmaking website. In its place ran a highly offensive commercial featuring two effeminate men engaged in "b*tch slaps".

I take three lessons from these facts. 1) That CBS has no respect for its Gay viewers. 2) That CBS respects and wants to court Right Wing viewers. 3) That if I respect myself, I must never watch the CBS network again.

I grew up with the network of "The Evening News with Walter Cronkite," "The Ed Sullivan Show", "Perry Mason" and "I Love Lucy". It is now as much a part of my past as those shows are!  This is an action I must take for the sake of maintaining my dignity as a Gay man.

Some would accuse me of overreacting, of being "politically correct." Well, if my politics aren't correct, what's the point of me engaging in the political process? LGBT Americans need to draw a line in the sand, and incidents of brazen disrespect are where we should draw it. I'm not OK with disrespect! Are you? If so, why? Nobody should be OK with disrespect, especially the kind that fuels ignorance, misogyny and heterosexism! We've got to start taking disrespect seriously! When it's intense enough, disrespect can escalate into disturbing problems like vilification, disenfranchisement, violence and genocide. Don't look now, but that's already happened! It's been happening for a long time.

If you're Gay, you can be legally deprived of housing and employment in most parts of the United States. The international picture is even more grave. You can be executed in Iran. You can be murdered in México. You can be flogged in Nigeria. You can be fined in Burundi, banned in Cuba, detained in China, imprisoned in Malawi, denounced in Poland and censored in Lithuania. You can be chased by mobs in Kenya, stoned by mobs in Jamaica, beaten up by police in Russia, and tortured to death by Muslim extremists in Iraq. You're sure to be legislated against in Uganda, rounded up in Egypt, deported from the United Arab Emirates, and sent to a labor camp in North Korea. Your human rights are protested in Spain, Zimbabwe, and India, and your existence is criminalized in more foreign countries than I can count; not to mention escalating rates of anti-Gay violence in the United States. And believe me, horrific things can happen to you anywhere if you're Transsexual! Very few countries in the world are safe for you to live in. Check out this State Department report.

Among the many issues important to LGBT folk, there are none that need be prioritized over others. They're all pressing concerns, and they demand acting on simultaneously. Each Gay, Pansexual or Transsexual person prioritizes issues according to his or her own personal needs. That's the way it should be; I've always said so.

However, I do believe there is one overarching issue that unites us all, regardless of ideology, gender, class, color, or national origin: Safety! The right to be secure in your LGBT person. The right to live, work, study and play without being beaten up, raped or killed! Freedom from endless threats and taunts. Freedom from hearing yourself denounced as a menace to society. Freedom from pressure to marry, produce children, identify as male or female, dress in a certain way, or join an "ex-Gay" program. Freedom from the indignity of seeing your citizenship downgraded to second-class! In other words, we need a world in which our basic humanity is respected. In most of the world, even large parts of the United States, such respect does not exist! Everything we do as activists, no matter which issues we prioritize, must somehow be connected to the goal of expanding our safe space.

Knowing how hazardous it usually is to live as a perceptibly LGBT person outside the western world, it infuriates me to see how frivolously and recklessly American Gay people behave! For too many of us, equality goals pale in comparison to the next circuit party, the next steamy porn video, the next over-the-top Pride parade, or the next personal appearance by Lady Gaga. We totally take for granted the relative freedom we enjoy, and seem clueless about how quickly it could be taken away. It happened before, in Weimar Germany during the 1930s. It could easily happen again! All that's necessary is a combination of grave economic times and angry, demoralized masses. Hello! Under such circumstances, citizens are quick to embrace reactionary agendas. We'd better be watching our backs! What do you bet that when our power-hungry Bible bigot enemies see us acting out, they don't also see the word "scapegoat" written across our Pride banners in huge letters?

Some of us believe that humor is the best weapon to use against Right Wingers. The security value of clowning has been greatly exaggerated; Michael Musto can go on cable TV and dress up in Sarah Palin drag as many times as he likes, but she'll never be intimidated by him! Mind you, humor can be a weapon against bigotry, but it's not the best one. The best way to fight any form of ignorance is with education. Behavior that reinforces perceptions of Gay people as celebrity-worshipping, trash-talking, party-hopping, outrageously attired (or barely attired), sex-and-drug-crazed exhibitionists doesn't educate anybody; it leaves ignorance intact!

I've been labeled a "drama queen", and I'm often told to "lighten up" with my criticism of so-called Gay culture. Lighten up, my Black Gay Christian ass! Taking our condition too lightly is precisely the problem! A world where Matthew Shepard, Brandon Teena and Lateisha Green weren't allowed to live and where untold numbers of Gay and Transsexual children are driven to consider suicide isn't a world where LGBT folk can afford to act stereotypically "light in the loafers"! David Byrne and Talking Heads said it best on their 1979 cult hit "Life During Wartime": This ain't no party/this ain't no Disco/This ain't no foolin' around!*

At the end of 2009, I listened to TV and radio pundits sum up the year in issues. The only ones who said anything about Gay issues were Gay pundits! We are not taken seriously by the mainstream media. Why should we be, given how the media portrays us? Remember that Gay matchmaking ad I spoke about, the one that CBS rejected? I got a chance to see it online. It played same-gender love for belly laughs, like an outtake from "Saturday Night Live". This kind of burlesque imagery was barely an improvement over the "b*tchy queens" ad that did air. When the Right-leaning Straight media makes LGBT folk out to be freaks and clowns, Left-leaning Gay media should be trying to undo the damage. Instead, it damages us more, eagerly adding its own slanderous, demeaning characterizations to the mix!

It aggressively promotes a lexicon of disrespect. Pundits, journalists and talk show hosts work overtime at "reclaiming" heterosexist insults for casual use: "Queer", "gender queer", "queen", "homo", "f*g", "d*ke", "tr*nny". Suddenly, you can find this ugly terminology everywhere! Now progressive educators who want to validate LGBT students see nothing wrong with mounting "Queer Day" celebrations on campus. One of these misguided events took place last year in Chico, California. Lord deliver me! How much more difficult does going to school need to be for Gay kids?

And how likely is it that a prominent LesBiGay professional like Anderson Cooper, Robin Roberts or Steve Osunsami would want to come and speak to a "Queer Day" assembly? Why does Gay media want to make it harder for role models to leave the closet? Do they really think popularizing slurs won't have negative consequences? There's a heavy price to be paid for identifying your own minority group with sneering put-downs. That price is credibility!

Let me illustrate the importance of credibility in another way. Mexican-American actor Gilbert Roland, one of the stars of Hollywood's Golden Age, was a Pansexual man. In the late 1940s, he briefly took over the role of the Cisco Kid, and in such films as The Gay Cavalier (1946) and King Of The Bandits (1948), he dared to give the character a subtly bisexual edge. A scene where Cisco and another man suggestively smoke cigarettes together is amazing! So is another where Cisco kisses his faithful companion, Pancho, full on the lips. The scene is not comedic; the two of them are about to be executed. Gilbert Roland was definitely not your father's Cisco Kid! But his interpretation of the character was more than just sexually groundbreaking. Roland's Cisco was suave, worldly-wise, artistically inclined and smartly dressed in high Mexican charro style. Duncan Renaldo had already played the role, and he would later put a definitive stamp on it; but audiences still respond strongly to Gilbert Roland's rich portrayal. He brought a pride and dignity to Cisco that was impossible to ignore!

Near the end of his life, Roland spoke of his desire to dignify the screen image of Latinos. "I refuse roles that picture Mexicans as ridiculous, quaint, or foolish", he stated firmly. "I (always) wanted to be sure the Mexican was not portrayed as (a) clown." Why would this be a concern to him? It's because early American cinema was rife with various Frito Bandido stereotypes which insulted both Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. At this time, Latinos suffered social discrimination similar to that Black people faced. Like Sidney Poitier and other socially-conscious stars who followed in his wake, Gilbert Roland understood how uplifting positive media representations are for a downtrodden community. Had he ever portrayed an explicitly Gay or Pansexual character, I’m sure he would’ve made that role as classy as he made the Cisco Kid. I’m also sure he would find the cartoonish, one-dimensional images of LGBT folk that populate today’s entertainment media repulsive!

Positive media images do more than just lift the spirits of a despised minority group. They help increase that minority group's credibility with the power structure. We tend to forget what being in the minority means: that we aren’t plentiful in number! This is especially true of the LGBT population. While we may actually be more plentiful than other groups, it isn't apparent because so many of us are still closeted. Also, don't forget about the Fundie hate machine that cranks out anti-Gay propaganda every Sunday morning! There's still a high number of Straight people who don't know much about us other than the negative stuff they hear in church.

All too often, media images provide heterosexual folk with their only known exposure to openly LGBT persons. The majority’s impression of who and what we are is largely formed by what they see of us on screen. If they see dignified faces, they get the impression that we are a dignified group. On the other hand, if the faces they see are foolish, they get the opposite impression. That’s the difference between what Gilbert Roland did in the 1940s and what Sacha Baron Cohen (Brüno) does today! When are we finally going to move beyond our version of the Frito Bandido stereotype?