Martin Luther King Jr had a dream, a dream of freedom and equality that energized millions. In some ways that dream was realized – diners and bus seats are no longer segregated. In others it was not. Had Dr King lived longer, would he have considered the results of his dream so far to be worth the fight?
That question plagues me at this time of year. Our climate moves from frostbite to mosquito bite, the chirping of returning birds is drowned out by the clangour of returning construction, and Pride – in days, weeks or months – becomes the celebration du jour. At Pride there is often lip service paid to dreams for queer equality. I say lip service, as the few moments devoted to queer politics are virtually unnoticeable in competition with nearly naked bodies, crowded bars and enough rainbow merchandise to sink a gay cruise ship.
For those of us who remember queer history and politics either from having lived them or from having cared enough to learn about our communities when we discovered their existence, change is undeniable. Freedom, equality and tolerance; we have far more than we did in the ’70s when we fought for basic human rights. Or the ’80s when we fought for AIDS medications. Or the ’90s when we fought for Charter recognition. Or even last year, when marriage was still somewhat contested. (And to the lobby groupie who phoned 15 minutes after the bill passed asking for even more money to shepherd it through the Senate: Please… consider getting a real job.)
We needed those changes, but… For blacks in the USA, desegregation came at the high cost of losing some of the black-only institutions that fostered education and economic growth. To paraphrase Bella Abzug, we have not won when black (or gay) Einsteins get promoted, but when black (or gay) schlemiels get as quickly promoted as straight white schlemiels. By that measure, Dr King’s dream is not yet anywhere near realized.
In comparison, queers are doing well. Lesbians join the military as easily as straight women; gay men rise to corporate and political leadership with no more struggle than straight men; and more institutions are giving equal – possibly even equitable – treatment to transgendered, transsexual, two spirited, bisexual and otherwise queer folk across Canada. Now we can with federal imprimatur (likely by the end of the month) legally wed our significant other of gender of choice.
Little triangular slots appear everywhere from kindergartens to funeral homes and queers can slide happily into mainstream society without experiencing the round peg’s traditionally uneasy fit into the square hole of convention. So, why is it that I can’t get Peggy Lee’s song “Is That All There Is?” out of my head. Is this all there is to a social revolution?
Is this what I signed up for? I believed we could obtain equal rights – and sufficient day-to-day acceptance to avoid being beaten up – without changing ourselves. “They” were supposed to accept our differences, not adopt or co-opt them. We were out to change the world – and we did – but I forgot to calculate the impact of the new world on queerdom.
“Be careful of what you wish for!” is not a cliché because lamp rubbing works. General Pyrrhus attached his name to “Pyrrhic victories” by remarking, “Another such victory and I shall be ruined.” Experience – at high cost – can teach us all that even non-magical wishes are dangerous.
Despite, or maybe because of, being mixed race, I have never seen miscegenation as the solution to racism. Some theorize that it would be good if races blended. They have a vision of intermarriage leading to a heavenly planet covered with cute cafe-au-lait-coloured inhabitants devoid of racial intolerance. I, on the other hand, envision such a world as so bland, boring and beige that it depopulates due to the inhabitants’ lack of interest in each other. If I were given a magical melanin ray that would bring on such a racism-free world, I would not use it.
Likewise I would never solve homophobia by suggesting that queers become straight. Or straights become queer, either – I’m much happier knowing I’ll never run into Elsie Wayne at a dyke bar. Yet I’m left with the fear that for queers the opposite of segregation is not integration, it’s assimilation. Such a large part of the identities of we queers over 25 was formed by our experiences of intolerance – what will queers be when they start growing up without that? Is there a queer identity beyond the oppositional?
I feel like a cliff-top pine tree, Tom Thomsoned by the wind, overlooking sheltered tree farms. I do not wish upon the youngsters the rigours that queered my shape. At the same time I wonder whether without it there is any queerness left.
When asked, many queers base their difference from straight peers or family on their experience of oppression more than on their sexuality or gender identity. If, except for the experience of oppression, we are the same as straights, will a few tolerant generations rid our communities of their raison d’être? More than that, if we are the same as straights – except for the small matter of whom we choose to boink or marry – then remind me, please, what exactly we’re so proud about.