[23 November 2010]
On a lonely selection far out in the West
An old woman works all the day without rest,
And she croons, as she toils ’neath the sky’s glassy dome,
‘Sure I’ll keep the ould place till the childer come home.’
- “When the Children Come Home”, Henry Lawson
At StarbaseQ in Louisville, Kentuck on 3 October 2010, the music is pumping, the bartenders are churning out drinks as quickly as they can, and the crowd is loud and boisterous. In the back room, a magnificent buffet is spread out. Two strippers, looking bored, half-heartedly work the throng of people. The crowd cheers as old pictures flash across the TV screens, and every other minute, a couple of people run up and hug like old friends who haven’t seen each other in years, maybe decades. They haven’t, actually. It’s not a typical bar scene for a Sunday afternoon.
It’s a gathering of men and women who loved, lived, and played together “back in the day”, more specifically, during the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Despite the large turn-out and the fact that a considerable amount of money was raised to benefit the Louisville AIDS Walk, you probably won’t be reading about this get-together in the society pages of your fave queer magazine. Hell, even the local paper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, didn’t cover the event, but that’s not surprising, considering that their coverage of gay pride festivities consists of a few paragraphs buried in the Metro section.
Make no mistake, though, this was a momentous event, one deserving of recognition. It all started on Facebook. A few guys from the old days found each other on the popular networking site, then checked out each other’s Friends’ list and wound up connecting with more old friends. Soon, there were hundreds of them, reconnecting after all these years, recalling (endlessly, I must add) all the old times and playing the “remember when?” game.
Within no time, someone suggested that they all get together, a reunion of the soldiers of the old guard. At first, it was going to be at someone’s house, then the club space was rented. Tony Alllison took charge and made arrangements. Then, someone had a Mickey Rooney - Judy Garland moment and said, “Hey, let’s put on a show!” Thus, the idea to reunite all the old drag queens from yesterday developed, and Tony started make arrangements for a drag show.
What’s more, the drag queens showed up, some obvious patrons of the plastic surgeon’s talents. Old and young, StarbaseQ was dripping in female impersonators, with gay men stopping them repeatedly to comment, “Miss Thing, you look fabulous!” Reva Devareaux, Robbi Lynn and CeCe Davenport were a few of those there, all of them dolled up old school, with hair and make-up that would make Linda Evans and Joan Collins proud. Many of them, like many in the audience, traveled from states far away to be here.
Sounds, so far, like a bunch of older queens and dykes getting together to kvetch and reminisce, but it was more than that. I wasn’t a part of this family, but I was fortunate enough to attend on the arm of my partner Jim. I must admit that my initial reaction was, “Oh, yea! This is going to be like going to someone else’s family reunion.” Still, I put on my happy face and went; within seconds of walking in the door, Jim grabbed someone and they hugged, then another someone and another. It’s wasn’t just the old gang, it was history makers reliving the days they taught the nation what it means to be gay.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, when Americans were looking at out and proud individuals for the first time, it was these men and women they were looking at. During the ‘80s, when AIDS ravaged our community and robbed us of tens of thousands of our brothers and sisters, it was these individuals who fed, bathed, and cradled the sick, then held them as they died. That a gay community exists at all today is largely due to these very men and women: the warriors. Their hair is shorter and gray, their facial lines deeper, and the waistlines broader, but their spirit hasn’t diminished one bit.
However, this wasn’t the only group of LGBT men and women and their supporters who gathered on this Sunday. Seven hundred and fifty miles away, another such group was huddled together, in the cool night air, bonded for a much more somber reason. Only days before, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi had jumped off a bridge to his death, and this candlelight vigil sought to make sense of that which is senseless. Tyler is one of several gay youths who has committed suicide recently, and one of tens of thousands who, over the years, have chosen death over the fear and persecution they experience as LGBT individuals in their societies—wherever that may be. As gratifying as it is to have the sudden media attention focused on the issue, it’s tragic that Tyler, Seth Walsh, Asher Walker, Billy Lucas and Justin Aaberg, to name just a few, had to reach the point of ultimate despair and kill themselves, especially since gay advocates have been screaming about the tragedy of teen suicide for years.
The details of Tyler’s last few days have been played out extensively in the media, adding to the public knowledge of his personal sex life that drove him to jump. Most people don’t know that 13-year-old Seth Walsh was on life support for nine days before dying, the result of hanging himself from a tree. He had been bullied most of his school life for being gay. Billy Lucas, also 13, and Raymond Chase, a college freshman, also hung themselves; Justin Aaberg was 13 when he came out, but he too hung himself, at the age of 15. Like the others, Asher Walker suffered extensive bullying and taunting; he shot himself.
The majority of us don’t know the stories of most LGBT youth who have committed suicide, as it hasn’t been an epidemic for the front pages—until now. Still, countless are the studies done in the past decade that have shown with empirical evidence that LGBT youth are far more likely to commit suicide and that for every one that is successful, there are dozens more who have attempted it.
These suicides have been featured on all the news channels and programs, the subject of talk shows, the plot of TV shows, and the cause célèbre. The most notable response has been the “It Gets Better Project” on YouTube, where the message for LGBT youth is simple: hang in there, it gets better. Countless celebrities, gay (Jake Shears, Chris Colfer, Tim Gunn) and straight (President Obama, Jewel and husband Ty Murray, Ke$ha, Joel Madden, Eve, Ciara and La La, AJ McLean, Rob Thomas), have uploaded videos imploring LGBT youth to seek help, to persevere in the face of bullying and bigotry, and to know that there is love for these distressed teens that is unwavering. The videos are undoubtedly moving and heart-warming, but far more important are the videos and stories of LGBT adults who share their own stories of persecution and detailing the strength it takes to overcome and emerge from the hell of adolescence with a sense of purpose and dignity.
We can’t help but be grateful for the attention, in the hope that young people will be spared from bullying, can find acceptance, and have the strength to save their own lives. Apparently, schools are responding, taking steps to educate students about the potential harms of bullying.
It’s stating the obvious that our cultural attention span is short, so soon the media and its stars will move on to some other cause or tragedy. Thus, it is important that this moment is seized, and that young men and women, like Tyler Clementi and Seth Walsh, aren’t quickly forgotten.
Back in Louisville, the focus was on life and living. Still, Tyler was remembered. “Did you hear about the kid who killed himself?” someone asked me. I don’t recall what I said, but I’m pretty certain it was banal and in no way fully expressed the loss I felt. He just let out a low sigh and shook his head. Too many. He has seen too many. We weren’t the only ones talking about Tyler, that day.
To lose another member of the family is particularly painful to these men and women, because they survived. They survived police raids, gay-bashing, prosecutorial indifference, and a president who allowed tens of thousands of gay men to die before publicly acknowledging that an epidemic existed. They have seen too many of their friends and family suffer and die.
There was a time in my life when it was a regular occurrence to see friends and acquaintances with black eyes, broken bones, deep bruises, or missing teeth—victims of a beat-down from homophobic individuals or mobs. I’ve attended more funerals for AIDS victims than I have blood relatives, and I can’t count the number of funerals I missed because they were in another state or I couldn’t get out of work that day. I remember vividly my disgust when a Dallas judge sentenced two young men to light prison terms for murder, because their victims had been queers, and really, the sentiment seemed, who can argue with getting rid of “those people”?
Going to the only gay bar in Waco, Texas, where I attended college, was akin to attending a top secret meeting: the club had no signs outside indicating it was a business of any kind, and upon entry, patrons found themselves in a small room where a man behind a glass partition sized them up, made them show ID, questioned them, and then required them to buy a membership to the club. It was the only way to keep the club’s patrons safe from the pervasive homophobia in this southern town.
The men and women at StarbaseQ could all share similar stories and will happily relate what it took to get out of bed every day in a culture that viewed them as pariahs, as evil forces of depravity bent on corrupting America’s youth. Many who had resigned themselves to never seeing gay marriage or hate crime legislation for LGBT persons now have hope, a belief that the landscape has changed to the point where most of society accepts us. There is a certain deserved pride they have in knowing that, just by being themselves, they helped to make that happen. Yet, our young people are still killing themselves.
Just as they have done for decades, these soldiers wait with open arms and hearts, ready to cradle and nurse those who are dying a slow death. However, the killer today is not AIDS—well, not as much as it once was—but the crushing weight of cruelty, individual and societal. The community of out and proud LGBT individuals that they formed is a refuge for those who are, in AIDS activist Mary Fisher’s words, “sheltering a flickering candle from the cold wind of (their) family’s rejection.”
Videos and public service announcements raise awareness and provide hope. Still, they can’t offer the healing touch of a hug, a sofa to sleep on when there is nowhere else to go, or a role model to look up to. That is what LGBT pioneers offer, and have offered for over 50 years, in America. LGBT youth would be wise to seek this family out when others turn away from them, whether they are seasoned warriors or brave new ones. There are so many resources to help. Talk to those who have been there, and you will discover a community of love. There, you will find home.
Judge Virginia Phillips
Cheers, Queers to Judge Virginia Phillips, who ruled Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell violates both the First and Fifth Amendments. The fifth states that persons cannot be compelled to be a witness against himself, which those who are honest about their sexual orientation are required to do to uphold the military’s honor code. No doubt, some will label Judge Phillips as one of those damn “activist judges”, but logic would note that a true activist judge is one who would ignore the Constitution to uphold an unjust policy.
Here’s Mud in Your Eye to President Obama, who allowed the Justice Department to appeal the decision. Hey, Prez, don’t come knocking on the LGBT community’s door come 2012—we won’t be home. We’ll be marching to gain the rights that you are so obviously hesitant to grant us.