2 min

History is so five minutes ago

Gay liberation has always been about questioning the rules

I’ve heard that the human body replaces its own cells at such a rate that every seven years we are all, quite literally, completely different beings.

I can believe it. Forget reincarnation – I have come to understand that, during the course of my one short life, I have been several different people.

Not long ago, I was flipping through some old photographs of AIDS activist demonstrations. I was marveling at the otherworldliness of the chicanery – animated, anarchic street theatre – when I came upon a photo of myself at a demonstration.

I could not recall being that person. Oh sure, with a little effort, I could summon the precise coordinates of the place and time. But I could not bring back the temper of the times – the anger, the sense of common purpose and urgency and agency to affect change.

I was bowled over by how disconnected I am from my own past.

I think the gay community has a particular will to forget our history, something akin to a collective repressed memory syndrome. Let’s face it – our history’s not pretty. It can be depressing to ponder: death, physical and psychological torture and constant battles.

It’s psychically burdensome to be always fighting. It’s exhausting to be constantly despised and misunderstood and angry. In many ways, we’ve made big gains in recent years, and I can relate to those of us who want to avoid looking back – to move on and move up.

But our history is also about inspiring transformation. Without it, we lose sight of our potential.

Last year, the Pride committee assisted police in arresting nudists on Pride Day. In our environment of collective amnesia, I can understand the committee’s timidity: The tiny group of volunteers felt no choice but to cooperate with a giant municipal institution when it wanted to hold an event in the city.

But with a little historical background, it’s a reprehensible development. Toronto Pride celebrations, at least in their current incarnation, began as a resistance to police brutality. Our history shows us that long ago, when we were fewer in numbers and resources and smaller in influence, we fought these same institutions. And we won.

Ditto for the Bijou raids. We could say – and some gay people do – that Bijou patrons were breaking the law and the charges are justified. A little context, please. The role of the police is one of broad social control and not to lay charges for every conceivable offense – otherwise we’d all be in and out of jail, all the time. If we accepted the charges against gay men in 1981 bathhouse raids – and they were technically legitimate charges – we would not have a gay community as we know it today, and Toronto might be a rotten police state.

In our particular era, ignorance of history means we are losing touch with the spirit of gay liberation. The quest for freedom and its associated experimentation and inquisitiveness are being lost to thoughtless acceptance of law and order, and subtler impediments to human fulfillment like shame and conformity.

Answers to basic questions are assumed: Public nudity and public sex are wrong. Laws should always be obeyed and enforced. We should respond to mainstream acceptance with respect for authority.

History says: Oh really?