We Are Not the Same as Everyone Else: Queer Space, Media and the Reteaching of Our History

For our histories and struggles to be passed on, we must all engage in their teaching.

Recently, one of the precious few queer clubs in my area of the state closed, unable to continue paying the rent for their space. This came two years after a historic gay bar in the same city, one which had been a center of queer activity for generations, went out of business for many of the same reasons. The result of these closings has been a serious decline in the queer nightlife of our area, with the number of available hangouts dwindling to a limited amount of clubs and bars, not many of which can house a population as varied as ours, and at which not all people feel comfortable and safe. The mass closings of queer spaces in recent years–many of them historic, and many of them supporting largely brown, poor and working-class populations–has been noted by numerous communities and activists, with different reasons being cited. That economic recessions like the current one hit those who are already struggling the hardest cannot be denied, nor can the lack of support being offered to community organizations which represent queers, people of color, and the economically oppressed–by the private and public sectors alike. Yet another factor, just as real as the others, is the changing understanding of what it means to be queer by a new generation of young TLBG people.

When I came out as a fourteen year old high school student, I had few images or resources by which to measure and model my identity. While this was scary and at times frustrating, it was also liberating. As a young man, a Black person, and a person of color, I was used to the barrage of codes, icons and tests which instructed me on how to be properly each, and brutally reminded me when I was failing. Coming out was the first time in which I proclaimed an identity for myself to which no one around me could lay claim, and to which I had no media to tell me how to dress or move or act to be properly queer. Though it took me many years (in truth, I am not finished), constructing my queer identity was entirely up to me. To do it, I had to actively find mentors from older generations to guide and teach me. I had to seek out the communities and spaces in which I might find other folks with similar backgrounds asking similar questions, and struggling against similar systems. This led me to many places and people which have become a core part of who I am, and which I may have never found without the need to connect with other queers of color: first to the ballroom scene, the sex positive community, amongst queer artists and writers, and most recently communities of activists, organizers and educators. The formation of my identity required that I break out of the spaces I was expected to inhabit, and meet up with other queers in real time in the spaces built by us outside of the mainstream. This is a value I sometimes feel is being lost by new generations, when it need not be.

“Acceptance” is one of those loosely-defined terms which has resided at the core of many historically queer battles–a fact which I think is important to remember. Struggling to feel safe, protected and respected in whatever circles we enter into, to have voice in the conversations and debates which matter to us, is necessary. Fighting for the love of our partners, our families, our communities and ourselves is equally powerful and important. But what acceptance has slowly come to represent in the eyes of much of queer activism, mainstream media, and for many young queers is the idea that society has transformed so fundamentally–with proof existing in the form of corporate marketing, news coverage and out TV show characters–that being queer is no longer a significant or threatening identity. Until very recently, I had never heard it expressed so often by queers and non-queers alike that, in this day and age, homophobia is passe, only for the bigoted and backward, and no longer a real issue (transphobia, coincidentally, is almost never mentioned). The idea that we are safe–both from attack and disenfranchisement, but also to participate in the systems which have long attacked and disenfranchised us–is detrimental to the struggles which our communities have born since their creation. It shifts acceptance away from community and from activism, and towards the idea of our identities as politically insignificant, born directly from mainstream representation rather than opposing the mainstream with representation of our own. The loss of our spaces and of a commitment to maintaining them is not just about the loss of important cultural cornerstones, but of the sites of radical political and community organizing, the places in which we gather to find each other and make our voices heard. This is not something we should allow to happen without a fight, a fight which we need young queers to understand their stake in if we are to win it collectively.

The significance of understanding the distinction between community and mainstream acceptance is not to critique or criticize young queer culture–for as it is with any generation of young people, they have as much to teach their existing community as the other way around, and young queers are radically redefining themselves and their communities every day. Rather, the point is to think collectively about the changing state of our communities, and the role that all generations have in maintaining and reimagining their commitments to justice. It is to fight actively to understand the radical histories which our identities inherently bear, and to take on the responsibility of passing on struggles between all generations of our community. It is to remember to claim and to take back space, to define ourselves and our communities for ourselves. To understand why and how we do this, queer history has to be taught, involving the entire community as it is retold, reshaped, amended and reinterpreted by each of us. This, to me, is one of the most important commitments of all, and the next step which must be taken to preserve and reaffirm our opposition to all systems of oppression, and our alignment with all disenfranchised people.

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