Growing up in southern New Jersey in the 1960's, I knew two things: I liked girls and I wanted to be a writer and poet. I thought I was a mutant: I didn't know there were people like me in life or in books, and I had no idea that some of the writers, whose work I loved, were queer. Back then, I only knew (from the demeaning tone in which it was uttered) that the word "queer" was an insult, and that nice people wouldn't want to be "queer."
Today, 43 years after some brave drag queens fought back against brutal cops at the Stonewall Inn in June 1969, queer is a pejorative term that many of us who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender have proudly reclaimed. Queer theory is studied in graduate schools, "Modern Family," a show featuring a gay couple with a child (in the process of adopting another child) is the most popular TV show in the United States. Nearly every celeb supports marriage equality, and in recent years so many public figures have come out (from Ricky Martin to, gasp, even some Republican politicos), that I sometimes (jokingly) wonder: who isn't queer?
Thankfully, over the years, I've been bedazzled, moved, amused and surprised by the work of a plethora of gay and lesbian writers, poets and playwrights from Frank O'Hara to May Sarton to Marilyn Hacker to Michael Cunningham to Larry Kramer. That's not counting writers and poets such as E.M. Forster who weren't out in their lifetime.
Queer writer Virginia Woolf, whose groundbreaking novel Mrs. Dalloway takes place during a day in London in June in the 1920's, wrote about "moments of being."
There are no more apt words for what it's like to be LGBT now. Ten minutes ago, hearing President Obama affirm again his support for same-sex marriage on the TV show "The View," I felt as if, for the first time, I (along with my queer brothers and sisters) was viewed as a full, equal human being. My spirits soared higher as I heard all of the co-hosts of the show (conservative and liberal) echo Obama's endorsement of marriage equality. What's more Newsweek had just proclaimed Obama the "first gay president." How far we'd come, I thought, in such a (in historical terms) short time, since Stonewall!
Until, I remembered that North Carolina just passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and Colorado rejected legislation that would have approved civil unions among gays and lesbians. Yet, in a New York minute, I was elated again. Sure, we had a long way to go, I told myself, but most young people are so attuned to same-sex marriage that they don't even consider it an issue.
I was all set to begin this piece from this perspective until the news on the radio got my attention. I've just heard that the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and two other Washington, D.C. gay rights groups have received bomb threats. Thankfully, no one was harmed, and law enforcement took the threats seriously. (That was a wonderful turn of events from the time before the Stonewall rebellion when cops not only wouldn't have acted against intimidation of gay rights groups, but routinely harassed gays and lesbians.) As Dickens would say, being queer in the age of the first gay president, is the best and the worst of times!
There are indeed many shades of being gay.
We who are LGBT come in all flavors – from lawyers, drag queens, doctors, racing car drivers, baseball players, dancers, cops to teachers, actors, construction workers, airline pilots, dancers, bus conductors and farmers.
I note this because it's easy for many of us (moi included) to forget that all gay people aren't middle-class, couples with kids, rich politicos, hairdressers, fashionistas or artists. I'm single, sans kids, and anyone will tell you, not a fashiionista. Some of us are having exotic, kinky sex, but many of us are no more sexy, horny or unsexy than our hetero pals. Yet, some of our straight, well-meaning, loving family members, friends and colleagues still think that we're from another planet – creatures from the black lagoon. "When did you first know that you were like that?" one of my cousins, who I consider to be a friend, asked me (not meaning to be demeaning) the other day.
Once, when I was in a poetry workshop, the teacher told me, "you should have warned the reader that there was same-sex attraction in this poem. Without foreshadowing, it's too much to handle."
Fortunately, such warnings have been rare in my writing life. Generally, I've found most poets and writings to be supportive of LGBT people – even when they don't quite feel entirely comfortable with, say, poetry that's more than obliquely queer (in terms of having a gay sensibility or sexuality). I'd wager, most hetero creative artists, like most straight people, know people in their families or workplace that are gay or lesbian, and there are more openly queer writers and poets than ever before.
The late Maurice Sendak didn't come out as gay until he was 80, a few months after his partner of fifty years died. Being openly queer would have hurt his career as a children's book writer he said in a 2008 interview with the "New York Times." "I wanted to be straight to make my parents happy," he told the Times, "they never, never, never knew."
Today, gay and lesbian artists, poets, novelists and playwrights and others in the arts can (if they choose) be open about their sexuality. From Mark Doty to Kay Ryan they can create without having to hide an important aspect of themselves.
In the midst of all of the homophobia that still exists, that's something to be proud of. Making art is our legacy to all artists who are young and queer.