On Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Visibility

According to a survey of middle managers conducted by Industry Week magazine (March 15, 1993), “by far the most heavily discriminated against group is the gay population.”  This is news?  But I suppose it must roll over some folks like a Boulder (Colorado).  The article continues:  “The survey reveals that the level of bias increases with the level of responsibility and public contact that the position in question entails.”  How visible do you have to be before you’re discriminated against?  Survey says:  you get the shaft from 34% of managers if it’s a production-line job with virtually no visibility; 52% said they wouldn’t hire a homosexual for a management or sales position.  “The survey thus strongly indicates that it is more acceptable to discriminate against admitted gays than against women or minorities.”  What surprising statistics. 

Add this to the testimony we heard the other day [April 1993] before the Senate Armed Services Committee.  You know.  The bit about the study the Pentagon never published and ordered destroyed.  The study which concluded that homosexuals posed no problems in discipline or unit cohesion, and that in fact the researchers could find no empirical evidence to support the military’s anti-gay policy and recommended it be abolished.  Unfortunately for the brass, not all of the copies of the report were shredded.  Where is Oliver North when they really need him?  Anyway, it was later suggested to the august Senators that, especially in view of this lack of difficulty, the problem would never arise in the first place if lesbian and gay servicemembers would just stay in the closet. 

Then there’s the op-ed item in the April 6, 1993 San Francisco Chronicle.  Even the Morning Fishwrap advises:  “Don’t Render Gays Invisible.”  Writer Michael Bettinger:  “What people really are asking is that lesbians and gays remain invisible.”  You’ve got to be kidding.  Invisible?  With this waistline? 

So what was I doing reading a paper I can’t stand, you ask?  Easy.  Their sole redeeming qualities are Herb Caen’s column and the comics page, which carries “Calvin & Hobbes” and Lynn Johnston’s wonderful “For Better or For Worse” which is presently vying with “Doonesbury” for the title of “Comic Strip Least Often Printed In Peoria.”  You see, the [April 1993] storyline in Ms. Johnston’s strip is about a teenager, Lawrence, who is a neighbor and friend of Michael, another teenager and one of the main characters.  Lawrence is gay ... and the story deals with his coming out, first to Michael and then to his family.  Johnston deals with this hot-button topic with the sensitivity and humor which are her hallmarks.  Of course there are a number of less-enlightened newspapers which are refusing to run the strip.  The visibility thing, don’t you know.

Why, according to the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Hardwick decision, it’s possible to be indecently visible in the “privacy” of one’s home.  Mr. Hardwick was in his bedroom engaged in his private affairs when another member of the household admitted a police officer, there on an unrelated matter, to the boudoir.  Hardwick was prosecuted and convicted under Georgia’s sodomy law, and the Supreme Court turned a deaf ear to the argument that a citizen has a constitutional right to privacy as regards consensual behavior in one’s own home. 

There are certainly those gays and lesbians who work very hard to keep their nervous neighbors happy.  These are the folks who write letters to the editor decrying flamboyant drag queens, painfully diverse and colorful pride celebrations, and the raucous behavior of many civil-rights and AIDS activists who are tired of waiting for justice to be served to them on a silver platter.  The reasoning is that if lesbian and gay people would just try to act more like straight people, we would more easily find acceptance.  One wonders whether people who think this way would suggest that African-American people could avoid the impact of racism by acting white.  Keeping Kwanzaa behind closed doors, putting away those Africa medallions, and eschewing any clothing that might look a bit too “tribal.”  One thinks that one would rather not be there if that suggestion were made. 

The real root of the problem, of course, is that people are uncomfortable with what they don’t understand.  This is the basis for virtually all prejudice.  A class of people are different from the majority of their neighbors.  The majority observes that there is a difference, but doesn’t really know why the difference is there.  Differing customs and ways of life add to the discomfort, especially when religious beliefs are involved.  Witness the persecution of the Jews in predominantly Christian countries.  Or the religious wars between the Christians and Muslims.  Muslims and Hindus.  You want a jihad?  Put zealous believers of two different One True Faiths in the same room.  For best results, exclude any who happen to have a secular education.  They might start thinking non-dogmatically, which could put a damper on religious fervor.  And do take care that the carpeting in that room is stain-resistant.  Blood is so difficult to get out. 

Sincere religious belief has been used as license to kill or enslave since time immemorial.  As recently as the 19th century, theologians argued that African peoples were of a different order of creation and that the Bible sanctioned slavery.  (Which it does.  Read Leviticus.)  And in many places at many times, people have been killed for professing the wrong faith.  Therefore, it should surprise no one that the leading excuse for hating lesbian and gay people is religion.  One wonders when as many theologians will be as appalled by this thinking as by the premise that God wants black folks to be slaves to white folks. 

So what was it that sparked the change in people’s thinking about slavery which eventually compelled those theologians to go back to their Bibles and re-interpret Leviticus?  In a word, visibility.  African-Americans who, one way or another, achieved their freedom began to be visible to their neighbors outside a slave/master relationship.  A few managed to acquire an education and in turn began to educate the majority about the plight of their fellow humans.  It is the activism of these brave souls, from Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who were not content to “stay in their place,” which made the truth about African-American people visible to the majority.  As more of the majority came to know individual African-Americans, they learned that despite cultural differences, we have much in common.  In turn, they helped educate their neighbors and some became activists for the abolition first of slavery and later of any racial discrimination.  Visibility increased understanding and reduced discomfort and fear. 

In the same way, lesbian and gay people (as well as bisexual and transgender people) are making themselves more visible in society today.  In-your-face groups such as ACT/UP [N.B.—the original ACT/UP and not the latter-day thugs, like Bellefountaine & company, who have usurped and tarnished an honorable name] and Queer Nation get headlines which make issues like equal rights and AIDS research impossible to ignore, while more traditional activist groups like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign use their political savvy to work within the system for change. 

There’s no arguing that many heterosexual people are uncomfortable with the notion of living and working side by side with “out” people who happen not to be heterosexual.  It is certainly less stressful to conceal one’s sexuality and attempt to “pass,” just as it once was (and sometimes is) for light-skinned African-Americans.  But prejudice arises from ignorance, and people will remain ignorant until they can see that “different” does not mean “bad.”  For this reason, queer people will continue to promote visibility, to challenge homophobia wherever it appears, and to demand equality under the law.  The closet is no more a real option for queer people than Porcelana® fade cream is for people of color. 

Copyright © 1993, 2001 by Charles E. Galvin Jr.  All rights reserved.

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