I first began to understand that I was gay and what that meant in the late sixties. I was around nine or ten. There was a Mike Wallace report called The Homosexuals in 1967. I can’t imagine that my parents would have let me see this at nine years old, but this is what was out there. This is how the world thought in 1967. I do remember reading at least one article in The Reader’s Digest and one or two others in Time Magazine. The image presented of homosexuals was one of a diseased deviate incapable of carrying on a relationship. Needless to say, as a teenager I had a bleak view of what was to become of me.
When I was nineteen, Anita Bryant was big news. Her fight against an anti-discrimination law in Dade County, Florida—a fight she won, keeping an anti-discrimination law off their books for twenty years—was in the newspapers, on the nightly news and on magazine covers. But she didn’t just garner a lot of attention for herself. She also brought to the forefront gay activists. Gay people who boycotted orange juice—for which Bryant was a spokesperson—and campaigned on the slogan “Anita Bryant Sucks Oranges.” They were the ones who caught my attention.
Of course, I was a kid so I don’t remember having the conscious thought, “We can fight back.” And, I certainly wouldn’t have known how to fight back in a small town in Upstate New York. But knowing that there were people out there, embracing the term gay, claiming it, fighting for it, defining it, made things just a little bit easier for me and I began slowly, friend by friend, to come out. To say, “I’m gay.”
In the late 70s, more than two thirds of Americans had a negative view of homosexuality. Today that number is down to around a third. Remarkable progress in less than forty years. So, how did it happen? Did straight people randomly wake up and think, “You know, gay is okay”? No, what happened was someone close to them, a family member, a friend, a parent, a child, a teacher, a co-worker, someone came out to them. Someone stood up and embraced the label “gay” and changed their minds. So, without those millions of people coming out we would not be where we are today. And believe me, coming out and claiming a label are the same thing. You can’t do one without the other.
This morning on Facebook there was a meme attributed to the actor Josh Hutcherson that said, “I’m so sick of saying the words gay and lesbian. Can we just—people. I’m so tired of that. One day I want my son to come home from school and be like, I found this guy and I love him. And I’m gonna be like yes, you do, and that’s okay.” I don’t dispute that Hutcherson is a wonderful ally to the gay community, and I can’t argue that it isn’t a lovely sentiment that we might live in a world were it wouldn’t matter. I do, however, find statements like this one, which happen all the time, problematic.
Rejecting labels, whether it’s done by a straight ally—who, granted may be weary of our constant struggle to find inclusive words or acronyms that actually make all people feel included**—or a young celebrity who doesn’t want to label themselves and so attacks the idea of labels—which is quite likely a marketing ploy meant to keep a gay audience without losing a straight one—these acts, these statements erase the millions of people who stood up and claimed their label. These statements erase the very people upon whose shoulders we stand on.
It is vitally important that we all remember our history. Today didn’t just happen; it’s result of all our yesterdays. So, if you’re a straight person who wants to be an ally, it’s okay to do that because people labeled themselves. If you’re a straight person who wants to write about gay people, it’s okay to do that because of the gay people who took that label. If you’re a gay person and struggling to come out, as hard as it can still be, it is easier because of the people who came out before you—we’re still out there, ask for help if you need it. If you’re a gay celebrity, don’t crap on labels to make a buck—be honest or don’t be honest, up to you, but stop dissing labels. And to gay celebrities who come out after twenty years in the business, don’t let people rush to label you a hero, the real heroes are the people who embraced their labels and by doing so gave up an acting career, a music career, a career in journalism, or sports, or whatever else they were denied because they were honest about who they are—you can become a hero, but you do not get to start there.
Labeling matters. It’s how we got to where we are. I’m gay. That’s my label.
**In the ’70s and ’80s the word gay was used inclusively. Given the historical nature of much of the blog, I decided to use the word gay in that inclusive way, rather than use the QUILTBAG or the word queer. Since each can be as divisive as they are inclusive.