On a Night Out
I have a story I want to tell you about pride and the queer community. A little over a week ago my partner and I were on a patio at a gay bar in Seattle. We were enjoying time with our friends and had plans to grab a late dinner afterwards. Our friend is Black, so is my partner and while I can pass for White, I am actually Chicano. My partner called to our friend that we were hungry and ready to leave. Now he was not shouting very loud and certainly not any louder than anyone else on the bar patio. So it surprised us when someone started shouting at my partner and his friend to be quiet.
At first my partner, my friend, and I thought the guy was joking. But he continued to shout at my partner and our friend saying they were too loud. We noticed that of the 20 or so loud people on the patio, this guy barked his complaint at the two men to color. Some arguing took place. The fact that he was a white man telling the only men of color on the patio to be quiet was brought up. He then told my partner to get out of his country (not that it should matter but my partner, my friend, and I all happen to be American.) More shouting went on, some threats of violence got made, some scuffling took place and in the end the drunk White guy saying racist things took himself way from the patio.
We left and got dinner and we spent the evening upset. Not because of the ignorant things the man had said to my partner and friend, we have all dealt with racism before and likely will again. Racism isn’t new in the gay community and it isn’t uncommon. Just ask anyone who was following the Philly inclusive gay pride flag debate. We were upset because on that patio were at least two people who we considered friends. They heard him tell my partner to get out of the country and heard the threats the guy made but were silent, yet observant. Of these friends, one identifies as white and the other, like me, can pass for white. Both claim to be advocates against racism in the queer community. But when they had the chance to say something, they did not. To put that in a broader context, when three members of their community who they claim to care about were met with intolerance and hate, they chose to allow it.
Putting Words in Your Mouth
It is clear that no one person speaks for the whole of the U.S. but this guy tried to do just that. As an American, he chose to speak for all of us who consider ourselves American and on our behalf told someone to get out of the country for challenging his racism. If we assume that he was speaking as a White person then he was speaking on behalf of all White people. If we remember that he was a White gay American then we need to remember that he was representing all of us who share part or all of that intersectional identity. In any case, he did not bother to ask anyone if he had their permission to speak for them. He just did it. And if you identify with any of those categories, he spoke for you. He put words into your mouth.
Now if you were not there, you could not have corrected this. But if you were, if you saw it, if you heard the comments and saw the whole thing happen and said nothing then you sent a message. You let those of us hurt by that moment know that you are okay with it. Maybe you disapproved silently but your silence gave a lot of space for very vocal bigotry to exclude us. If you saw this and said nothing the you gave your consent to it.
This is About Pride as History and Pride as Action
For those who do not know, June is Pride month because it commemorates the Stonewall Riots. Early on June 28th in 1969 New York Police raided the Stonewall Inn located in Greenwich village. These raids were not uncommon in the 1950s and 60s in the US when gay sexuality was effectively made illegal by its association with wide ranging sodomy laws. Gay Bars were (and often still are) spaces where people could be themselves and live out loud without too much fear of arrest or homophobic violence. These spaces attracted people from very different racial, ethnic, and culture backgrounds. While they were refuges however, not safe havens. Police would regularly raid gay bars, Stonewall included, and charge them with solicitation of homosexual relations, a crime at the time. Police would also arrest men dressed in clothing they considered to be non-gender conforming with gender.
On June 28th however, a Black trans woman named Martha P. Johnson refused this kind of homophobia and threw a shot glass as NYPD attempted to check the gender of the patrons of the Stonewall Inn. Inspired by the act of resistance, the diverse group at Stonewall began to resist as a group. This act of resistance attracted the attention of those people near Stonewall and Greenwich Village. A lot of those people were also queer and had similar experiences and were happy to join the uprising. The riot lasted for three days and were the first major coalition of queer activism in the 20th century. There’s a really great Drunk History episode about this.
Community is a Queer Value
Now I said I wanted to tell this story because it was Pride month. I am not asking for another Stonewall Riot over the drunk racist comments of some ignorant guy at the bar, but the stand that Marsha took that night are important to think about this year’s Pride season. LGBTQ people are not strangers to the feelings of alienation and exclusion. When Marsha threw that shot glass she made unity and the celebration of differences the bases for the Stonewall Riots and the footing upon which the queer community is built. But community doesn’t just happen. It has to be made and requires work.
Community is a promise. For some of us, coming out meant losing family relationships, losing friends. For some it might have meant losing job opportunities or even being fired. That isolation and those risks are things that the gay community understands and often works to heal. Our community’s support allows us to love ourselves. To love who we chose. To thrive personally and professionally. That support has driven massive advancement of LGBTQ rights.
That community was the promise that gave me the courage to come out back when I was 16. A promise that even if things went badly for me, somewhere out there were people who would accept and even love me. I thought of it as stable ground for me to land on if all my safety nets failed. When those people chose to stay silent and allow that man to be racist toward a member of their own community, it was like finding that the ground had fallen away under our feet.
What can We Do?
The queer community knows what it feels like to be excluded just like Bradlee Lewis wrote a few days ago. We take pride in the fact that we fight back against the bigotry, ignorance, and hate that exclude and commit ourselves to a community that catches us when others knock us down. That is what Pride means. When anybody harms our community it is your job to do something. You don’t need to hurl a shot glass but at least speak up. Make it clear that racism and hate are not welcome in our community. When someone puts words in your mouth like this guy did spit them out and correct the record. Go see if the person experiencing the hate is okay. Hate hurts and it will mean a lot to them to know that you’re there. Whatever you do, make it clear that hate and ignorance are not welcome in a community based on unity and understanding. Is it uncomfortable? Maybe. But if we forget the promise of Pride then we are nothing more that group of isolated victims. United in Pride, we are a fierce, diverse, and beautiful community remaking the world with love and support.