Recently, I came to the realization that growing up, there were queer people everywhere. On TV, in music, in politics, in our communities — everywhere. We were learning about them, watching them, even living among them.
Yet, we didn’t know. The issue was, for so many of us, we couldn’t see them.
For me, I was 18 — not even a week out of high school — when the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage. While I had identified as bisexual for some time, I knew nothing beyond surface knowledge about our history of LGBTQ people — I hadn’t even been to my first Pride yet. I had seen Milk (2008), but that was pretty much it.
So I went out, read and learned. I learned how much our people fought, and struggled, and pushed to get to where we were at that point in 2015. I learned about what led to the Stonewall Riots (which where less than a year after the most pivotal point in the Civil Rights movement), and how Pride was a form of protest. I got retroactively angry.
Over time, I took that anger, and channeled it toward pride. I stopped hiding parts of who I am. I stopped accepting shame for being outside of the heterosexual convention. I started holding my head up higher in the face of adversity. Over that time, I still held that anger, but channeled it into pride, like I imagine the people at Stonewall, the first ever Pride, and the many other pivotal crossroads in the queer movement were doing as well.
When people hear anger, they assume it can only be expressed as a pedestrian emotion, through violence or hatred or lunacy. Once you become familiar enough with humanity, especially that of living under America, you learn that anger is a state — a state that is communicable, but also inarticulate at times.
One of Black gay author James Baldwin’s most recognized quotes is that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” As a Black and bisexual man, that rage constantly preoccupies me. In 2020, we were still protesting much of the same things our predecessors have over all this time.
Things had changed. But, they also hadn’t changed.
Before and during 2020, communities of marginalized identities had their anger ignored or subsidized by society in the Trump Presidency, while America fomented in hate. During that time, many of the inequalities these various communities had been fighting against for decades — if not centuries — became intensified. From more rampant and visual police brutality to continuously stripping of rights for transgender and gender non-conforming people to migrants being deported at extreme numbers or held in inhumane conditions by ICE. The hatred for these people, even when aged or clearly immoral, have been clung to by our society and government for the last four years.
In the spring and summer, when the extrajudicial killings of Black people (including trans man Tony McDade) received mainstream outrage, in addition to the coronavirus pandemic — and the indifference of much of America to both — that rage boiled over, and became more blatant than ever. Since then, America has been forced to at least face its self-inflicted pain.
Something that is expressed throughout Baldwin’s work (and explored, throughout his life in print and in public profile) is that rage is not expressed in a singular uniform. Another quote of Baldwin’s, from the essays in The Fire Next Time (1963), reads: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
In the last year, those that held on to hate clung to it even more, because they don’t want to deal with the pain. Instead, it was those that were simply existing or trying to survive that have had to deal with it. We’ve witnessed it from the very occupant of the White House, and many others all the way down and out in America.
For LGBTQ people, our lives are at risk, even more than before. The progress we made since the Stonewall Riots and the first Pride celebration wasn’t enough to save Tony McDade’s life, among many, many, many other victims of America’s rage that came before him. Too many.
It has been over 50 years since Stonewall, and we’re following a year where another viral infection caused so much death, pain, and misery, while the systems and power in place did little to help us. It’s just a few months since members of the Supreme Court made it clear they wish to end our right to marry as granted in Obergefell, and weeks since an anti-LGBTQ person who thinks our community and existence is completely lifestyle “preference” was added to the bench next to them. Yet, the same issues that plagued our community over that time — Police brutality, ostracization, harassment, persecution, and division — are still affecting us, in addition to so many other marginalized communities.
Just because these issues are visible does not mean the conditions have actually improved, they just look different.
It is time, now more than ever, to adjust the objectives of queer activism for not just visibility, but change. We need to stand up and do something now, working to finish the fight that Pride represented at its origin. Not just through reform, but actual decolonization and removal of the sources of our rage, bigotry, or both. Like the people from half a century ago that we hail as heroes, we cannot hope that those in authority have the courage to do the right thing.
So eventually, we can lay the foundation for our anger to translate into pride, instead of having to be translated into rage.
We fought to be part of society — whether mainstream society was willing to “accept” us or not. Now, the first few generations of collectively out LGBTQ elders live on and we are working toward providing adequate care for them. LGBTQ spaces are openly operating and diversifying. HIV is no longer a death sentence. We’re no longer just a group that politicians get to “support” or “oppose.” Our history is now becoming a growing part of education curricula around the country.
As a community, we have survived, then thrived, through so much.
Now, 2021 is our opportunity to stand up, in defense of others and ourselves, and decide what kind of society we will have. We all need to confront — and heal — the pain we carry. That’s a part of the eventual solution for all of us to contribute to.
Another part is the need to share knowledge — working toward actually educating all of society on our LGBTQ history, and who we are as queer people. Knowledge is where I want to contribute, so that eventually, the onus isn’t solely on us as individuals to understand how the past brought us to this point in the present, and how that contextualizes the future.
So eventually, youth like me won’t have to wait until near-adulthood to know what heritage comes with their identities, their communities.