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GAY PRIDE: A boomer's long, personal journey from shame

'The bridge from shame to pride is built of necessary anger and forgiveness'

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Photo credit: Georgia State University Library Exhibits
BUTTON: 'Gay and Proud.'

Atlanta Pride, the annual festival that commemorates the beginning of the American gay rights movement, takes place in October. This is the 50th anniversary of the celebration in Atlanta. The pandemic has caused the event, October 9-11, whose massive parade annually attracts 350,000 people, to move online where you can watch a cabaret, attend a symposium, buy stuff, and participate in a digital 5K race.

The history of the LGBTQ (lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans/queer) movement and Pride celebrations all over the world is a story that — like all liberation movements — is as personal as it is political, involving struggles not only with the dominant culture but within its own political factions and within the psyches of individuals. My purpose here is psychological — to share some personal experience of the devastating effects of the shame that makes the journey to pride so important.

Sometimes, especially when you belong to a particular movement, it’s easiest to see your struggle by analogy. Educators have, after all, done a spectacular job of turning the history of all oppressed minorities into footnotes, and the effect has been to create a very special American idiocy. Right now, the starkest example is groups like the Proud Boys, neo-Ku Klux Klanners who have traded their white sheets for Fred Perry polo shirts. They have taken it upon themselves to protect our streets and our president’s ass from the protests fomented by the police murder of George Floyd. Had they been taught the history of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and developed a willingness to learn from it, they’d know that when the people paid to protect you — the police and their employers — torture you and deprive you of redress (if you survive), they are eventually going to get paid back in their own violent terms. It’s a psychological inevitability, not a diabolical plot.

This dynamic is partly what launched Pride. On a summer night 51 years ago, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a mob-owned gay bar, for the umpteenth time. Something snapped that night, and the customers, especially the drag queens, drained their beer bottles and hurled them at the cops as they were arresting employees for illegally selling alcohol and male customers for illegally wearing women’s clothes. The riot, which went on for five more days, involved the same violence (minus murder) and fires that occurred in the race riots of the time and in the George Floyd protests of the last few months. It doesn’t matter whether the violence is the work of “outsiders.” Again, the psychological process, the power dynamics, demand the payback which will always find expression. That’s why Malcolm X was as important and inevitable as Martin Luther King Jr.

If you look even closer, you learn that the Stonewall Uprising was not actually the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. Eric Cervini argues in his new biography, The Deviant’s War, that it began with Frank Kameny, a federal employee, who was fired in 1957 for being gay (as were countless others). Kameny and cohorts in the oldest gay advocacy group, the Mattachine Society, were highly conventional, middle-class men and women who took it upon themselves to peacefully bring down the pillars of homophobia erected by the state, psychiatry, and religion. So, here again are two factions representing different psychological dynamics — the stoic Mattachine members and the mainly, poor noisy customers of the Stonewall Inn.

But wait. You can go back even further to Harry Hay, who co-founded the Mattachine Society in 1950. As a member of the Communist party and a labor rights activist, he was just too noisy for the Mattachines and left in 1953. He defied the assimilation, the inclusion, by the dominant culture that Frank Kameny sought, and in 1969 he allied himself with the new Gay Liberation Front, a separatist movement inspired by the Stonewall Uprising of that year. The GLF demanded alliance with the Black Power Movement, expanded its advocacy to the transgender and bisexual communities, and opposed capitalism. Atlanta’s first gay-rights rally in 1970 was under the sponsorship of the Georgia Gay Liberation Front. A mini-march limited to sidewalks was held the following year, but in 1972, people were allowed to walk down the middle of the street.

As time went on, the radical influence of the GLF faded — to say the least — into a generally assimilationist point of view, advocating exclusively for gay people. Then, slowly, we became more inclusive, ending up with an acronym, LGBTQ+, that signifies lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and just about anybody else who doesn’t identify with norms of gender and sexuality. Actual inclusion by the movement’s leaders didn’t — and doesn’t — come easily. There was constant bickering, for example, about whether to include trans people in movement objectives because they supposedly over-taxed the tolerance of people — especially lawmakers — who had become more accepting of gay people. The very “establishment” Human Rights Campaign Fund shamefully supported a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that excluded trans people for a decade. Even minus their inclusion, the bill was never adopted. So much for compromise that disguises “practical” capitulation.

About that ‘Q’ in LGBTQ: Many gay people still disapprovingly rant about use of the word “queer,” a long-time insult that was appropriated by the movement in the ’80s and ironically returned to its actual meaning of odd, different, nonconforming. In this way of thinking, even straight people can be queer. An entire postmodern academic movement, queer theory, developed around this perspective. Personally, I like the word “queer” because, like many other gay people, I love irony and I don’t like boxes. Queer people learn to break out of boxes of all sorts, frequently through the use of humor and “camp” parody.

But what does it mean — whether gay or queer — to have pride? Like many words, “pride” is virtually defined by its antonym — “shame.” That was certainly my state for the first 25 years of my life, a story that in all honesty still causes me a great deal of shame, and I think suggests that the bridge from shame to pride is built of necessary anger and forgiveness.

My mother took me to a psychologist when I was five years old. I clearly remember sitting in the sandbox where I had buried the mother and father figures. I looked down the hall to see my mother standing in front of the psychologist’s desk, holding her black shiny purse, and yelling in horror, “You mean my little boy is going to be a fairy?” That was the ultimate pejorative of the time. Instead of exploring ways for me to flourish as I was, she took it upon herself to man up the five-year-old me. I basically inhabited a Skinner box where she monitored every activity of every minute of my day, and, as a consequence, repeatedly shamed me. The absurdity was her own objection to social conventions. The woman sent me to first grade impersonating Christopher Robin in pinstripe shorts, a white shirt, Buster Brown shoes, and, yes, red knee socks! When I came home in tears, she told me it was my job to fight back — to become an advocate for red knee socks! Later, I understood that she was acting out of her own shame. That’s when mothers were blamed for their children’s homosexuality or any other deviation from the normal. Still, I remained angry with her for most of the rest of her life.

My mother’s constant attempts at behavioral modification resulted, not in a total change, but in total confusion about my sexual identity — at the cost of constant anxiety and depression. I was bullied in high school for “acting gay,” but I dated girls, and had nothing more than very fleeting sexual interest in other guys. Then, around the beginning of my junior year, I began regularly taking the bus downtown from our home in Sandy Springs. I would hole up in the main library near Five Points and read for hours. One day, shaking, I went to the tiny section that included a few books about homosexuality. I hid in a corner and read them. That, I believe, is when shame totally eclipsed me. I recognized myself as the sinner, criminal, and mentally ill person the books described. I burrowed deeper into denial and constantly feared loss of agency in every respect in my life.

Fast-forward to 1969. After years of bullying and finding no support at home, I found happiness and madness at William and Mary in the small community of hippies and New Left radicals. That’s not to say I “came out.” I quickly discovered my pals in SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) were homophobic and misogynistic. How crazy was I? I had a conservative girlfriend I smuggled into my dorm for regular sex. I also smoked endless amounts of hashish, frequently with a gay professor. I was a fucked-up mess. In fact, the following year I literally blew off a prestigious fellowship to Yale to study. It required I spend the summer teaching English literature to genius-level kids from the New Haven ghetto. But, there at Yale barely a few days, I panicked. I loved poetry and was immediately invited into a circle of poets hanging out in the group room of my dorm after making a few uninvited, humorous comments. I instantly bleeped on the “gaydar” of one guy, who made a flirtatious remark. I literally ran from the room, having a full-scale panic attack. The guy ran after me to try to calm me down. I pushed him away, crying. And I was back in Williamsburg in a few days, working in the state mental hospital — not exactly the best place for my own mental health. There was a group from the New York Opera Ballet living in my dormitory then. One of the women came into my room for sex nearly every night while her gay friends indirectly teased me about my sexuality. One night, I flew apart in a scene too complicated to explain, but I was soon permanently back in Atlanta, living with my parents, enrolled at Georgia State University. I told myself it was just for a semester, that I would fix things with William and Mary and Yale. I knew I wouldn’t.

Soon, I started dating a beautiful young Cuban woman. We fell in love; we got engaged. Then, in the Freudian way the repressed always returns, my gay sexual impulses surged full force. For the first time, at 19 years of age, I allowed myself to go through sex with a man, and all I can say is that it explained everything. It also terrified me. I knew that the right thing to do was tell my fiancée that I couldn’t marry her. The shame was overwhelming, but I knew I had to do it.

That Thanksgiving we drove to Milledgeville, where one of her family’s friends was working at Central State Hospital, at one time the world’s largest insane asylum that housed up to 12,000 patients. The friend, a physician and Cuban refugee, was working there temporarily to get an American medical license. He decided to give us a tour of the hospital, which had attracted a lot of negative attention that year. We visited one of the rumored horrors — a huge, dimly lit space with cagelike walls, housing countless patients who were lying on the floor barely moving, like slugs on concrete. It was an indelible horror, but things got worse for me.

At the end of the tour, we were visiting the intake area and someone started screaming. People were trying to open the door to an isolation room. The doctor ran over and peered through the peephole. Half-smiling, he waved us over to take a look. In the room was a beautiful man a few years older than me. He was blonde, pale, and crying hysterically. He had somehow jammed the door shut. He had thrown one shoe to the ceiling to shatter a light bulb, and he was cutting himself with a shard. His tears and blood dripped to the floor.

The doctor laughed softly. He said the man was there because he was homosexual. He said that when the police arrested gay men, they were either taken to jail or the mental hospital. He said most were “untreatable” and mentioned lobotomies — jokingly, I thought. I would later learn that of the 40,000 lobotomies performed in the U.S., many were to “cure” homosexuality.

The image of this man immediately began its lifetime haunting of me, producing so much anxiety, I could barely sleep for weeks. Shamefully, at 20, I decided to go through with the marriage. Not long after, I finished college and dragged my new wife to rural Georgia, where I worked for weekly newspapers for about five years, hiding from my sexual impulses, trying to live the normal life my mother prescribed. We divorced after four years, having separately come to the decision. I told myself that other concerns were foremost, but I lied. I have not seen her in the four decades since then. It remains my life’s most shameful act that I never explained myself or apologized. Of course, it’s not as though she didn’t know. Her own daughter by her second marriage actually came to a large party I hosted 20 years ago, but, even then, I could not initiate contact.

At the time of our divorce, we were living in Thomson, Georgia. I moved to Augusta, so I could explore my sexuality more openly. I started seeing a psychiatrist at the Medical College of Georgia. I did not like him, and after about five visits, I requested to see someone else. He contained himself until the last minutes of our final session and then flew into a rage about how he was the victim of my father complex because he refused to approve of my “immoral behavior.” I then began seeing a female intern who I liked very much. She, however, decided to blame my ex-wife for my “condition” and tried to convince me to have sex with her. I explained repeatedly to no avail that my sexual feelings preceded my marriage. My third try, an infamously rebellious intern, was a win. Psychiatry has now officially stopped classifying homosexuality as mental illness but, believe me, the notion persists.

My experience is not very different from that of many Baby Boomers. Those of us who occupied the closet came out of it with different feelings and ways of being. I was miserable for the first year, going to gay and straight clubs and sleeping with both genders. Soon, though, I acquired a lover I drove crazy. My shame was so intense that every time he touched me in the beginning, I had what I thought was an asthma attack caused by his stereotypical collection of colognes. These were panic attacks, of course. My moment of self-reckoning came in the oddest way. I was fucked up in an Atlanta club during a visit when a punk-rock drag queen, Lily White, appeared on stage, lip-synching the Flying Lizards’ version of “Summertime Blues.” In that moment I began growing out of “shame” into the antonym of “pride.” I was proud to receive the gift of being an outlaw. I had never been able to conform in any way and treating that fact like a gift — like so many gay people I came to know on the west coast — granted me unique perspective. It was a somewhat novel conversion back then. Now, it’s the message every drag queen on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” preaches.

I was openly gay in my writing when I moved back to Atlanta around 1978. I was repeatedly cited as the first openly gay person in Atlanta media, meaning I was comfortable writing truthfully in the first person — “not merely proud, but shameless,” as a friend said. Straight friends often questioned my wisdom, but I seriously thought nothing about it. Most of my generation then understandably wanted total acceptance, assimilation by the mainstream, including marriage, military service, and children. They were proud to be gay and they wanted the goods …. and they didn’t want anyone to advocate otherwise, such as the Gay Liberation Front, with which I identified. We weren’t very tolerant of one another and, by the ’90s, my disparaging of the assimilationist agenda in a biweekly column I wrote for seven years managed to enrage lots of other gay men. I’m talking endless angry voice mails, strangers at the door, and men reading me for filth in public. Despite all of this, I still never discussed being gay with my parents. They knew it. They read it. They never mentioned it. I think I would be lying if I didn’t admit, despite my public bravado, I still felt some shame.

But most of my shame had that self-conscious end, thanks to Lily White. When I returned full-time to Atlanta, I found the Pride festival in particular fun but its controversy became tedious. Every year for at least two decades, many gay people whined that the participation of half-naked leather boys and drag queens made us “look bad” to the general population. My partner Rick and I hosted two “Gay Shame Parties.” People were invited to dress up as outrageously offensive parodies of the stereotypes the assimilation-minded despised. Afterward, we adjourned to Piedmont Park where Rick passed out penis-shaped cookies. One year, the Pride committee banned a friend’s booth in the festival marketplace after they learned he was marketing his porn sites. That a festival in celebration of sexual difference would do that infuriated me. I wrote a public response and they reversed themselves. Would I feel differently now that thousands of people, mainly straight, are dragging their children in view of the arguably obscene? No.

I’m aware my story is old. It’s undoubtedly true that shame is not the issue it once was. Non-conforming youths are more accepted and have more outlets for support, like social media. I contacted 25-year-old writer, Tyler Scruggs, who writes a brilliant newsletter, ctrl/alt/del. I asked him how he perceived differences between older and younger gay people. I’ve picked the most annoying part of his response: “Sometimes I wonder whether wealthy but unhappy Boomer gays are truly frustrated at the bastardization of their gay heritage, or are simply bitter that younger generations have been afforded far greater space to explore their sexuality and gender than they could’ve dreamed. Again, not without compassion, but it’s similar to those who reject student debt forgiveness because they had to repay their loans. ‘If I had to suffer, you should suffer too, even if you don’t particularly have to anymore.’”

I’m not sure it’s necessary to qualify the complaining Boomers as wealthy or gay, for that matter, because that is definitely not a requirement for bitterness. I suppose, though, that if you’ve exploited capitalism to a wealthy advantage, you’ve adopted an ethic that requires you to objectify the young in terms of class. The interesting thing to me about Tyler’s response and much else I hear from the young — and pardon the cliché — is its familiarity. Complaining about capitalism and the judgmentalism of old people was certainly at the heart of my ’60s experience. Then most of my generation — mistakenly characterized as hippie humanists — went for the cash. My experience of aging Millennials truly is the same. Indeed, “queer” seems more like a marketing term than ever now. The corporate logos that are everywhere in Pride gatherings are pollution to my eyes but evidence of acceptance to others. Personally, I doubt you can tattoo a capitalist logo on LGBTQ consciousness without constricting, not expanding, the meaning of queerness.

But I am old. I’m not at the end of my shame, and I doubt gay people as a collective are, either. What it means to be proud remains debatable — can one feel proud without the experience of shame? I doubt it. Ask yourself where you fall on the spectrum of shame and pride and where you want to head.

Wondering exactly that of younger LGBTQ+ individuals, Bostock posed questions to Tyler Scruggs, cited above. Scruggs' responses may be found in "Queering everything." — ed.



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