Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Dana Rudolph: The Educational Challenge of Attaining Gay Visibility

Dana Rudolph has an interesting piece in yesterday’s 365Gay news ( It’s about the continuing need for gay folks to involve ourselves with our allies in an educational process about our lives as gay citizens.

Rudolph notes that she had a conversation last week with the straight parents of her son. These are straight allies of the gay community, who have LGBT friends and support gay rights. Since tax season is upon us, Rudolph happened to mention the hassle she and her partner go through every year as they file separate tax returns, and the penalties they incur as a result.

The straight couple were astonished. They had no idea that gay couples—including married ones—have to file separate “single” tax returns which economically penalize gay couples, and make the challenge of raising children more difficult. And Rudolph, in turn, was astonished—by what even straight allies of LGBT people continue not to know about our everyday, nitty-gritty lives, about what we are sometimes put through as we make our way in the world, trying to carry on and do the best we can with the cards dealt to us.

Rudolph calls on the gay community to continue educating our allies about our lives. As she notes, we necessarily spend a lot of our time and energy combating those who try to make our lives living hell. But even among those who love and support us, while they do not live in skin like ours, there are still misperceptions and large information gaps.

Rudolph notes,

As important as it is to challenge those biased against LGBT families, it is equally important to work towards strengthening our allies. It is not enough that they agree with the need for equality, though that is a start. We must help them understand the specifics of how inequality hurts us and the fact that it still does so, even as marriage equality continues to spread.

We must also make sure to convey that LGBT rights don’t begin and end with marriage equality, but extend to employment protections, anti-hate crimes and anti-bullying legislation, adoption rights, transgender rights, and more.

I agree. I’m not sure I would choose the word “education” for the process of back-and-forth communication that I think needs to occur between the gay community and well-disposed folks at the center. I think I myself might choose the word “dialogue,” since it avoids possible misunderstandings of the word “education” as “talking down to.” But, regardless of what term we use, Rudolph's point is well-taken and important.

One of my goals with this blog is to try to spur such dialogue. In my experience, it’s sorely needed. What people don’t know about the experiences of “ordinary” gay and lesbian citizens would fill many books. I can recall my surprise several years ago when I was challenged by the president of a college at which I worked to talk frankly with a co-worker she had placed in authority over me, who seemed intent on targeting me and several other openly gay men at our workplace.

This administrator succeeded in having two of the men fired on grounds that seemed murky to me. When I protested both firings, she turned her ire on me. The president wanted us to talk to see if we could find common ground.

This co-worker happened to be an African-American woman—a well-educated one with a doctorate from an ivy-league university. When we met and shared our experiences about struggling with discrimination, I was very surprised to find that this well-educated woman had no idea—not a clue—that I had no legal right to visit my partner if he happened to be hospitalized. She had no idea in the world that I or any other gay person anywhere in the U.S. might go to a hospital, ask to see a sick partner, and be forbidden that right.

She did not know that, if I were violently assaulted solely for being gay, I could not turn to federal hate-crime laws for protection. She did not know that I had no legal protection from being fired simply because I was gay.

I’m not sure that our conversation resulted in a great deal of education. There are times, I have concluded, when people simply do not want to know—to know better. People sometimes do not want to know better, because knowing implicates them. It challenges them to confront their own prejudices and misperceptions. It nudges them to widen their sympathy to include those they may have dismissed as the demeaned other.

On this blog, I keep hammering at the center—I keep trying to spur dialogue with the folks who occupy the center—because I have the strong sense that those who occupy the center-liberal area of the public forum are not strongly committed to gay rights. Or to open, honest conversation about gay issues. Or to the kind of dialogue that might open their own eyes and the eyes of others about gay lives.

Some of the ignorance at the center is willful ignorance. It’s the kind of ignorance with which we allow ourselves to live when we don’t want to listen, to see, to understand our own complicity in what happens to others. Some of it is due to liberal unwillingness to stand in solidarity with those on the margins. Liberalism is a political philosophy of calculation rather than of solidarity—a political stance we take when we want to try to guess which way the wind will blow so that we can blow with the wind and end up on the right side.

There is a fascinating story about this dynamic on a number of blog sites today, including Joe.My.God's blog ( Now that a final list of those who contributed to the battle to pass prop 8 (and ban gay marriage) in California has been released, one of the surprising names that people have found on this list is that of artist Maureen Mullarkey. Mullarkey has painted drag queens and depictions of gay pride parades that are considered iconic.

According to Joe.My.God, on her website, Mullarkey states that gay parades are a "marvelous spectacle" and "assertion of solidarity." She characterizes gay pride parades as follows: "It is an erotic celebration loosed for a day to keep us all mindful that Dionysus is alive, powerful and under our own porch.”

Mullarkey donated $1000 to the cause to ban gay marriage in California.

Fascinating: on the one hand, an artist benefits from the gay community through depictions of members of that community, and she praises that community for putting on great shows. On the other hand, she wants to prevent members of that same community so adept at Dionysian celebration from marrying.

What’s going on here? As I thought earlier today about the dynamic underlying this seemingly conflicting set of impulses—what some Methodist friends of mine refer to as the hug-slap dynamic of their church vis-à-vis gay folks—I remembered a conversation I once overheard my uncle having during the Civil Rights struggle of the late 1950s.

My uncle prided himself on being a good old boy who enjoyed the company of other good old boys. Those old boys included black as well as white co-workers and friends (or, perhaps "friends" is more accurate, in the case of his black co-workers). On the occasion that has lodged in my memory, my uncle and several family members were talking about their (fatuous and self-serving) hope to keep their “friendships” with African Americans alive while resisting the civil rights for which said friends were fighting.

Here’s how my uncle put it:

“I have black friends. Lots of them. Good ones.”

“But they know their place and they stay in it.”

And that, dear ones, is, I fear, the message that Maureen Mullarkey and many other of our “allies” and “friends” want to give us. You’re fine as long as you entertain me and make me pretty. Please do keep dressing hair, arranging flowers, decorating my house, dancing and singing. Make me feel sexy with your decadent celebrations, which remind me that there is more to life than paying bills and shlepping to the grocery store.

But please don’t ask to enter “normal” professions like teaching, ministry, the law, politics, or just about any and every vocation found outside the ghetto we’ve set up for your confinement. Don’t expect to have power. Or a voice. Or to be listened to, even when you have credentials that should command respect, and are living a “normal” life with a spouse to whom you’re faithful.

There is an assumption—a huge, determinative one—in the minds of many center-liberal straight “allies” of the gay community that gay people exist to provide some color to the drabness of “normal” heterosexual everyday life. We are the flamingly pretty (but stationary and mute) potted plant on the stage of history, the stage on which they themselves, the normal and powerful, prance and talk and act.

We will be tolerated so long as we know our place and stick to it.

We will be tolerated only so long as we willingly submit our real lives, real stories, and real forces to be painted over with the exotic Dionysian designs preferred by our "friends" and "allies."

This is not a new dynamic. It is one with which people of color have long coped. It is one with which all stigmatized others who are tolerated only insofar as they are content to remain confined in the ghetto provided for them by the “tolerant” center must always cope: tolerated as exotic, repudiated as normal.

There’s the dynamic that has—somehow—to be exposed and overcome, if we are to engage in fruitful dialogue with our allies. And it can be overcome only when those at the center open their conversation up so that our real voices can be heard and our real faces can be seen, not the bowdlerized ornamental voices and faces we’ve been forced to adopt as we remain in our places.