Thursday, October 21, 2010

Heterophobia?

It’s quiet after the gays go home.

Early Sunday morning finds me at work at my job as a waiter in a small “family” run 24-hour diner in the heart of San Francisco’s famous Castro district, a position I have held long enough to see the neighborhood slowly evolve from being 100 percent gay male to being what it is now, a historic district and tourist destination as well as the home of a few long term gay residents and many more newly arrived, young, privileged, white, mostly heterosexual couples with strollers and children. My first table this Sunday morning is a couple, a black man and a white woman, both young, they sport a hip look, he with short cropped dread-locks, her wearing crystals and amulets along with her diaphanous silk pastels. Approaching their table, I great them with my standard, “Good morning, how are you today?” The man looks at me, smiles broadly, and replies, “Great, I love Sunday mornings, it’s always so quiet after all the gays go home.”

Now, I am sure I am not “straight acting,” to use the parlance of homosexuals who seek a certain “type” of masculine male. I, who sport a shaved head, a full grown long beard, a rather large septum piercing, three-quarter inch earplugs, and always wear a kilt or skirt and a phallic crystal around my neck, could never be mistaken for an assimilationist nor, I think, a heterosexual. I just do not pass. And I do consider “the Castro” my home, having migrated here over three decades ago in an attempt to locate a Queer community, a Queer safe space I could call home. This man’s statement, then, as to why he loved Sunday mornings so much sent me off into an exploration a series of events which occurred over the course of the previous few weeks, events which by themselves had caused me some caution, some reflection, some despair.

Being called a faggot in my own neighborhood

One of the people I have become since my migration to the Castro is a nudist activist. As a nudist, I believe that our bodies are gifts, aspects of our humanness, which we have managed to lose touch with, not something to be seen as obscene or shameful. Our bodies are our primal connection to nature and an important aspect of what should be part of our social dialogue with all of nature, with the living biosphere, which we have managed to shut ourselves away from with the compulsive wearing of clothing. To be ashamed of our bodies, to insist on the mandatory covering of our bodies, is the height of self-hatred. So I have begun to go about naked, as there is no law in San Francisco banning public nudity. When the weather is nice, I will remove my clothing when leaving work and walk home naked, or when I have errands to run in the neighborhood, I will do them naked. I, and others like me, have managed to overcome initial police resistance and seem to have managed to educate them to the fact that being naked is not illegal and, in fact, a citation will not result in a prosecution by the district attorney’s office. Of course I receive a wide range of reactions when I go about naked, most of which I am happy to say are positive. It is the negative that always stand out, however.

I was walking home from work on the Saturday prior to hearing this black man’s statement about why he loved Sunday mornings so much, naked, when I heard “Faggot,” yelled at me from a car traveling down Castro Street. As I reached the corner, a gay man walked by me and exclaimed, “That’s disgusting.” I think I am safe in assuming a heterosexual yelled, “faggot”. I have encountered this reaction in the past. Initially I thought how funny that simple nudity would be a signifier of gayness for some heterosexual body-phobic. On further examination I arrived at the conclusion that in actuality what was being addressed with the epithet “faggot” was my deviation from the perceived normative path. By walking down the street naked, I was queering what it meant to be a citizen in public on the sidewalk. Nevertheless, the violence inherent in the epithet did not go unnoticed. But the remark from the gay man saddened me in a way the violence of the word “faggot” could not. For a gay man to be so challenged by Queerness speaks volumes to the state of disarray I perceive in the LGBTQ community today.

Queer bashing in the news

That week’s news had been filled with articles stressing the grief, horror, and outrage over the recent spate of teen suicides by LGBTQ youth as a direct result of bullying and heterosexist attacks. I use the term heterosexist rather than homophobic, as a phobia is defined as an irrational fear of something. I do not believe these attacks and violence are motivated by irrational fear as much as by disgust as well as being a method of policing behaviors. Following these reports come news of a man beaten during a heterosexist attack in the restroom of the Stonewall Inn by two men and finally, nine men kidnap, torture, and sodomize three men because they assume they are gay. As much as I empathize with the pain and the outrage being felt over these deaths and attacks, the historian in me must articulate the long history of LGBTQ youth bullying, violence, and suicide which has been largely ignored by the media until now and I must ask myself why? Where was the concern, the media attention before?

Media coverage, media outrage springs from acceptance

An indifferent media was not the only problem in the past. An indifferent police force existed as well. We have witnessed a very gradual, decades long shift of police tactics away from raiding LGBTQ spaces to one of responding to violence directed at LGBTQ people. This shift in the institutional treatment of LGBTQ people came about only after resistance from LGTBQ people along with a demand for acceptance by LGTBQ people, a resistance and demand that are still occurring. Along with this resistance and demanding came visibility and knowing. Heterosexuals came to know LGBTQ people, and with that knowing came gradual acceptance, and progress. Over the past few decades, there is no question that much progress has been made for LGBTQ people.

But it is an acceptance that is gained on heteronormative terms. An acceptance which demands what Lisa Duggan refers to in her book, The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack On Democracy, as “homonormativity, . . . a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them.” It is a homonormativity which demands gay men tell me my naked public body is disgusting; which demands all gays and lesbians support the political movement du jour, marriage and the military; which demands LGBTQ folks become consumers of a corporatized market seemingly tailored for them but which in actuality seeks to reshape the LGBTQ community to a malleable corporate citizen which does not question corporate capitalist violence. It is a homonormativity that has rendered Queer space invisible; destroying once vibrant Queer neighborhoods in favor of bland, touristy neighborhoods of “historical significance” inhabited by young, urban, wealthy, and predominantly white heterosexuals and homonormative homosexuals.

I have witnessed this shift occur in the place I call home, the place which had been my safe Queer space. It has become less tolerant, less a safe space in which to be Queer while it has instituted a capitalist led program of redefining what that space is in an attempt to lure tourist and consumer dollars. Daily sweeps of the new Castro Commons, soon to become the “Jane Warner Plaza,” named after a special patrol officer much beloved by the merchants who was known for bullying Queer homeless youth, clear any persons of questionable desirability from using the tables and chairs placed there for public consumption. A constant struggle is maintained between traditional LGBTQ stores’ rights to display erotic wares in their windows and parents desire to keep such images from their children's sight. The Castro neighborhood has become a “destination” for teenage shoppers with the introduction of corporate anchor stores such as Diesel, Pottery Barn, Levi’s and Sunglass Hut, teenage shoppers who feel the necessity to assert their heterosexuality in the gay Castro with public displays of affection not usually seen in most mainstream malls or shopping districts. These heterosexual youth and adults come to our LGBTQ neighborhood asserting their heterosexual privilege, unaware of its meaning, unaware of the fact that while they are free to assert their sexuality wherever they please, we, as LGBTQ folks, are still not able to do the same.

Accused of heterophobia

I, in the course of my work, find myself waiting on these shopping teens more and more. Some are perfectly fine and friendly, but I have come to be able to identify the ones who seem to not be aware of their privilege. The males usually are silent, sullen, unable to look me in the face, the females overly compensate for the males sullen attitude by being over friendly, smiling, answering for the male. They cling to each other, and usually as soon as my back turns they begin petting and hugging and kissing while making quick glances around the diner to see how they are being received.

Two weekends prior to waiting on the table who “liked the Castro after the gays went home,” I waited on such a couple, the sullen man and over eager women. This couple were in their mid to late twenties. The man never did speak to me, nor look at me. As soon as I left them they began the usual routine of displaying their affection. This is a difficult position for me, as I am not one to discourage displays of affection or sexuality. I do not relish the thought of thinking that I can second-guess someone’s motivations either. Perhaps they feel more freedom to do this in Queer space because we have done the work of making Queer space a safe space for such displays. I would truly like to believe this. When I witness it, however, I always end up feeling robbed, feeling like my space is being subverted, taken over, and compromised. Well, this day I had had enough. I went back to this couple and suggested that they should leave and come back when they learned how to treat me like a human being. They asked me what I meant. I replied that they came in here, the man could not even look at me let alone talk to me or answer my questions, and then they have the nerve to shove their heterosexuality in my face. Yes, I had lost it. Years of suppressing my feelings welled up and were vented on this couple, who got up and left the restaurant.

Not surprisingly, I received a phone call from my boss the following day wanting to know what had happened. Apparently the woman had filled a complaint with him, threatening to sue the restaurant for discrimination and heterophobia. I explained as best I could. My boss wanted to know what I thought we should do about it, how in fact, I could explain my actions to this woman. As it turned out, I did not have to, as he never heard anything more from her. I was frightened, by her reaction, by my reaction, but mostly by my confusion and inability to sort and make sense of my feelings. Am I heterophobic? Many young Queer folk have told me over the years that Queer space must be accessible to everyone, that the days of gay bars inhabited by only gay men and lesbian bars inhabited only by women are an anachronism, that the very idea of a gay neighborhood is a thing of the past.

A professor once said something about Black people that rang true for me. “The reason that Black people don’t want white people in their spaces,” she told us, “is not because Black people hate white people, it’s because when ever they let white people in, the white people try to take it over and make it about them.” This is how I feel about heterosexual people invading Queer space. Heterosexuals move into Queer space expecting it to be modified for their comfort. As Sandra Bernhard once said when Times Square was in the process of being made “kid safe,” “Don’t they have the rest of the country?” As the homonormative push for acceptance stresses homosexual acceptability, Queers are expected to become homogenized and accept the status quo, no matter the cost to individuality. I became excited two years ago when I heard a “kiss-in” was being planned for Union Square. I went with very high hopes, fondly dreaming of past days of Queer Nation actions. There might have been a half a dozen LGBT people there, none of which would kiss me (I was too old). One very cute young guy was there offering kisses for a donation to St. James Infirmary. Most of the men said they couldn’t kiss him as they were “married” and their boyfriends wouldn’t like it. Is this what we have “progressed” to? In spite of this homogenization, this acceptance of heteronormative behaviors, we still are being beaten and harassed to the point of killing ourselves. Our president makes promises and then orders his promises to be fought against in courts of law.

And I feel old, and I feel beaten. And I smiled and I served the black man and his white female companion at my job in the “historic gay Castro neighborhood” and they were happy because all the gays had gone home and it was quiet.