There were 14 of us at the family dinner table, representing four generations. We were at my sister's house just outside of Victorville, part of a growing community in Southern California's high desert, about two hours east of Los Angeles. It was a little above 30 degrees outside, and the sky was a clear window on a million stars.
My sister and parents, as well as a number of my uncles and aunts, had moved here partly because of the affordable housing, partly because they are golfers and their neighborhood is built around a lovely golf course, and partly because it is the kind of quiet community that is the antithesis of the city none of them ever liked. They are endlessly satisfied with the distance they have put between themselves and Los Angeles. In most of these details, I am very different from my family.
Still, I come up to visit them often. They are my family, and I enjoy spending time with them. But they are also something else to me: They are my ground. A large part of the country is made up of people like them, people who do not often get involved in the political rhetoric I am used to—the rhetoric of the media, of academic debates, of the centers of power. People like my family, suburban, church-going people, are consumed with the day-to-day details of their lives and have little time for things like the big picture, the effect society has on individuals, the law. I have always been drawn to big-picture issues.
But in the small things, the family rituals, I share a great deal with them. My family is located squarely at the heart of the middle class, and so am I. In that way among others, I am much like them. And here among these people I loved, having one more in a lifetime of family dinners, I noticed something that struck a chord in me, not because it was unusual, but because it was so very usual that it went without any comment at all. As I looked around the table, I realized that of the 14 people busily loading their plates and talking, five of us were gay.
And no one cared.
The cast of characters was for the most part as familiar to me as the photographs on the walls of my apartment. My grandmother and parents were there, as were my sister and brother-in-law. Two of my seven uncles were with us: One sat next to his wife, while the other was there with his longtime male lover. My sister's stepson Rick had brought his girlfriend. Early in the evening Rick's brother had called to let us know he would be there too. When he arrived, he introduced us to the young man he had brought along as his date. Since in my family there is always enough food, my sister set another place at the table for the additional guest with little fuss. The fact that he and his date were the same sex was no big deal.
Just before dessert, my Aunt Ann and Uncle Fred dropped by. Even among my family—who, with rare exceptions, are conservative Republicans—these two have always been especially conservative. I have long been uneasy with both major parties, but I am a registered Democrat, and I sometimes espouse Democratic Party positions I don't wholly support so that Fred and I will have something to argue about. The never-ending political debates between Fred and me are a family tradition as predictable as turkey on Thanksgiving, and Ann is always there to chide me with some argument Fred might have forgotten. Our debates are usually loud and intense; whatever the details, we both care deeply about politics. Because of our political passions I have long felt a special kinship with Fred and Ann, and they have always felt close to me. Most of the rest of the family discusses politics only reluctantly.
In making her greetings to everyone, Ann, as usual, saved a special zeal for my uncle's lover. He is one of those people who came into the family's enthusiastic embrace easily. While my family generally accepts all comers, in the natural course of things some are more loved than others. My uncle's lover was a favorite from the start.
This domestic picture will be an affront to some people who are homosexual. I have long been aware that the family I come from is not like the families many lesbians and gay men were brought up in and had to escape, the families that the notorious Mad Pats at the Republican Convention thought they could use as a weapon against lesbians and gay men. While that strategy backfired badly, it remains true that because of the disquiet the Mad Pats exploit, many gay people are unable to have the kind of relationship with their families that I have.
That said, I bring my family up for a very specific reason. They are not alone. They and hundreds of thousands of families like them are too often absent in the discussion about gay rights—not as weapons against gay people, but as their imperfect allies. The public discussion of homosexuality tends to take place at the extremes; since the loudest objections come from radical conservatives, the opposition tends to be equally intense, equally extreme. While this makes for symmetry, the fervor on both sides sometimes excludes people like my family who have a more moderate interest in the issue. Those people, who are neither particularly articulate nor especially inflamed, feel as if they have no place in the ring.
I think these families and family members should be acknowledged. They are people of good faith who, while they are not champions of gay rights, have found a way to respect and accept their lesbian and gay relatives as well as they can. In some ways, that kind of unexpressed but lived support is more important than all the manifestos and blood-boiling demonstrations.
Those families and those children can have the relationships they have because the way was paved by giants, lesbians and gay men who took what for the time was a radical position in a wholly uncomprehending world: that they should be accepted in their entirety, regardless of their sexual orientation. The almost unbelievable bravery of Harry Hay and the other men and women who can be counted as founders of the gay rights movement helped to change the way we think about people who are homosexual.
New giants are in the making, younger ones: Roberta Achtenberg, the first open lesbian to serve in high government office; Michealangelo Signorile, the champion of "outing"; Rich Jennings of Hollywood Supports, continuing the work he began in the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation; and hundreds of others. They have stepped into the world their predecessors helped create, ready to carry on that work.
But there are different styles of activism. A number of high-profile lesbians and gay men now proudly call themselves Queer. This is particularly true in the gay press. Many have joined Signorile and given life to radical groups like Queer Nation; some seem to be most satisfied when they can make others most uncomfortable.
I am one of those who feels uncomfortable.
There is no shortage of lesbians and gay men who adopt this in-your-face attitude toward the world at large. But what is it supposed to accomplish?
In part, identifying as Queer is a way of disarming the epithet. When minorities embrace the words used against them, they mitigate, to some extent, the use of the words as weapons. But that strategy has never been fully successful. African-Americans once tried to defuse the word nigger in a similar way. But despite their best intentions, the word never lost its force as an epithet, as any member of the Ku Klux Klan can attest. Nigger still pierces, still causes harm.
A second reason for lesbians and gay men to identify themselves as Queer is to exercise some control over their position in the world. Rather than having a name imposed, the group chooses its own. Even if the group chooses a name that already exists, it is still a form of empowerment, or at least it feels that way. Whatever its value, though, this tactic has the potential to try the public's patience. Minority groups are not like nations or states; they do not have a unified government that can decide once and for all what the country and its people will be called. As group members debate, the jury is still out in editorial rooms across the country about whether to use African-American or black.
It is in this context that I have wrestled with myself over whether, as a gay man, I am Queer. I have decided that I am not. Queer is the word of the Other, of the Outsider. I do not feel like I am outside anything due to my sexual orientation.
The generations of lesbians and gay men who lived in the time leading up to the Stonewall riots in 1969 were radicals by definition. They said out loud what at the time was unsayable—that sexual orientation should not matter. While sexual orientation is obviously a difference among people, people are different in a multitude of ways. Hair color is a more obvious difference than sexual orientation, since it is immediately visible. But we did not create a systematic hierarchy of preferred over less-preferred and non-preferred hair color, granting blonds and brunettes rights that are unavailable to redheads, requiring people who choose to marry to find a mate whose hair color is different from theirs, or the same. Hair color is one of thousands of differences that can be noticed but carries no legal or normative weight.
Since the pioneering sex studies in Germany early in this century, those arguing for equality for lesbians and gay men have asserted that sexual orientation is not a sickness or a pathology, that it is another neutral difference that should be treated neutrally. For most of the century, mainstream society disagreed, saying that sexual orientation was a difference that mattered and would be treated by the law as if it mattered.
Since Stonewall, though, the law has made considerable strides toward neutrality. The ultimate goal was equality, the elimination of the laws that treated homosexuality and heterosexuality differently. Bit by bit that equality is being recognized. As Barney Frank has observed, recent movements like that in Colorado explicitly to deny equality to lesbians and gay men have arisen in part because of growing tolerance. Colorado for Family Values, which backed the Colorado initiative, wants to return to the inequality its members are comfortable with because it feels that inequality slipping away. If the gay-rights movement had not had its successes, CFV would not be necessary.
Like members of CFV, those who want to identify themselves as Queer are capitalizing on the significance of the difference between heterosexuals and homosexuals. Some have been outspoken in their focus on this difference.
But to say that lesbians and gay men are different from heterosexuals is no more than a tautology. The game of definitional difference can be played on a number of axes. In addition to being gay, I am also male, of Italian background, and Catholic; I practice law and write for a living, am reasonably well-educated, and 39 years old. To some extent, each of these is as important to my identity as my sexual orientation. Therefore, I could identify myself at any given moment as a gay man, a male, an Italian (or, more broadly, a Caucasian), a Catholic, a baby-boomer, a lawyer, or a writer, and I would be telling the truth.
By choosing one group, however, I would also be leaving out a great deal. I am no more male than I am Italian or Catholic or lawyer or writer or homosexual. All fit together in some way that adds up to me. Therefore, while I do claim membership in all of those groups, and while some are more important to me than others, it would be too easy to lose sight of the whole if I were to grant one group special status as the Group I identify with. Each is an adjective about me; none is me.
Each of us belongs to a lot of groups, many of which overlap. Any individual could draw a Venn diagram of the dozens or hundreds of groups he or she belongs in, and the intersection of all those circles would be a group of one. The poet Maya Angelou has made this point explicitly: "In my work, in everything I do, I mean to say that we human beings are more alike than we are unalike, and to use that statement to break down the walls we set between ourselves because we are different. I suggest that we should herald the differences, because the differences make us interesting, and also enrich and make us stronger. [But] the differences are minuscule compared to the similarities. That's what I mean to say."
Experiences of love and loss, trust, betrayal, jealousy, injustice, joy and pain, comfort, rage—all these are points at which we can touch one another as people because they are experiences every one of us shares. One of the jobs of the artist has been to explore those touching points, to bring us together from our varied and diverse particulars into a single place where we can recognize something we have in common.
Hamlet, for example, is a Dane, a heterosexual, and a male, but he is also the embodiment of something that transcends all human categories, the human problem of indecision. The particulars of his story are interesting and relevant, but in his very particular story we can also find something universal. Generations of individuals who have encountered this ambivalent hero have seen something of themselves on the stage. Anyone who has ever had to choose a restaurant or a video knows on a trivial level how hard it is to decide to act. And everyone knows how difficult the larger decisions are—what profession or job to enter, where to live, whom to trust or to love. Hamlet's truth about the difficulty of decision defies gender and race and sexual orientation and everything else.
Balancing our similarities and differences is the juggling act of identity. The current focus on the ways lesbians and gay men differ from heterosexuals simply reinforces the walls between us and leaves no gate. In this, lesbians and gay men dishonor the success of those whose work has so much changed the world.
A generation ago, I could not have had the dinner with my family that I did. What my family and I have in common would have been destroyed by a single difference. To maintain a relationship with them, the burden would have been on me to lie. In my family, those days are gone. The five gay men who were at that family table could be honest, and we were not penalized for our honesty. And the family as a whole benefited by remaining intact, by keeping all of the bonds between us alive. We could find some reassurance in our similarities while taking advantage of the differing viewpoints each brings to the family's dynamic.
That is only one measure of what the very loose phrase "gay rights" means. It is my understanding that the goal of the gay rights movement all along was to allow lesbians and gay men to live their lives irrespective of their sexual orientation, not superrespective of it. This was difficult to do when heterosexuals focused—sometimes obsessively—on homosexuality. Lesbians and gay men know their sexual orientation is a part of their makeup, but it isn't any more important to them than a heterosexual's sexual orientation is to him or her. Sex is certainly a part of an ordinary life, but most people—lesbians and gay men included—spend more time watching TV than doing the nasty.
By identifying as Queer, lesbians and gay men do exactly the same thing that the most virulent homophobes do: They make their sexual orientation hyper-important, more important than any single factor should be in a complex human personality. Equally important, by marking ourselves as outsiders, we deny what we have in common with others.
Lesbians and gay men in the past were radicals because they had no other choice. That is no longer true. Because of decades of radical work, millions of people are able to view homosexuality now within the context of ordinary human variations and, like my family, pay it no mind. This goal has clearly not been achieved everywhere, but we are far enough along the road that openly homosexual people can choose to avoid a radical identity.
Some lesbians and gay men may decide to follow the path of the sexual outlaws, determined to be the Outsider. This pose has long been a kick for the young, straight or gay. But in adopting that pose in today's world, lesbians and gay men are making a free choice. In that they will be less like the gay sexual outlaw John Rechy proclaimed himself to be and more like Madonna. Whatever else can be said about Madonna, she has made her own choices and not let anyone else dictate what part her sexuality plays within her identity. As a gay man in the '60s, Rechy did not have that choice.
Making an identity has always been difficult. The superficial advantage of group identification is that it offers a prefabricated self. Choosing an identity off the rack saves a great deal of time and hard emotional exploration. The downside, of course, is that an off-the-rack identity was designed for the mass market; it does not have the individual in mind. Thus, some people who are homosexual find that they are criticized for not being "gay enough," for departing from the party line in certain instances, for not wearing their gay identity properly. But that is because, unlike the tailor-made identity, one bought in the current department store of identities will only come close to the actual proportions of its wearer. The small gaps and sags may be tolerable, but the purchaser must know he or she is buying something manufactured for millions. And like all uniforms, it comes with expectations.
For the most part, homosexuality is no longer outside the law. While there are certainly laws that still need to be changed—some dramatically—the strategy for change may need to be rethought. Confrontations were required in the early days because a majority of people were simply dead to the problems faced by lesbians and gay men. Confrontations are less necessary now and in some cases are probably harmful.
That is because confrontation is a strategy for those who are not being heard. Lesbians and gay men do not want to argue with the heterosexual majority because we like arguing; the point is to persuade a majority that the law is unfair when it treats homosexuals differently from heterosexuals and to get those who disagree to change their minds. That is how the First Amendment is supposed to work. Confrontation is a last resort. It is dramatic, extreme, a battering ram to knock down a door that will not open. It is the antithesis of persuasion.
But in most cases, the doors of discussion are open. After all of the work that has been done, particularly in the last two or three decades, most people are aware that lesbians and gay men have a grievance and most people will listen, even though many will not agree. This progress can be seen in the way the recent March on Washington was covered by the media. A similar march in 1987—which drew, even by the conservative estimate of the National Park Service, about 300,000 people—was given cursory coverage in most media outlets and was initially ignored by some, including both Time and Newsweek. Six years later, the same kind of event, with God knows how many participants, was judged worthy of banner headlines, cover stories, ample air time, and considerable pre- and post-march attention. The task is no longer getting people to acknowledge that lesbians and gay men exist; the task is to change the minds that can be changed.
Radicals, however, continue to believe they are not being heard at all. They treat the world as if it were populated only by their polar opposites. This is as true of the religious radicals as it is of the gay radicals. Both sides hurl images out of their own personal horror movies into the debate. The campaigns in Colorado and Oregon were not so much about homosexuality and religion as they were about sado-masochism and the Spanish Inquisition. Grotesque images of chained and (barely) leather-garbed San Francisco parade participants were pitted against the sour faces of paranoid preachers and the bruised bodies of gay bashers' victims. No matter which side you talked to, the end of the world was imminent.
Supporters of the ban on open lesbians and gay men in the military use a similar strategy. The military's argument is a simple one: Removing the ban will destroy our armed forces. The prejudice against lesbians and gay men is so powerful, it is argued, that heterosexual service members will ignore their too-fragile military discipline, violence and chaos will be unstoppable, and the country will be left defenseless.
Most people are aware that such apocalyptic thinking is self-dramatization in a world that adores indulgence. There is no winning with the extremists. It should be clear by now that the Mad Pats of the world will never accept open homosexuality. But they do not need to. No political issue is ever settled finally. There are no public questions whose resolution will command 100 percent of the population. Politics takes place in the middle of the bell curve.
The people who can be persuaded are going to be like my family. Grand theories about justice and social change will not do the trick with them, and visions of the apocalypse leave them cold. They do not much care for theories. They respond to what is in front of them, to what they can see and feel. They are not interested in how lesbians and gay men are different from them—that much is obvious. They want to know about the common ground. Lives become connected not through difference but through similarity. Connected lives become interesting because of difference, but they do not initially connect at that level. Remember the first stages of love, where so much time is devoted to revelations such as, "Oh, you like Rocky and Bullwinkle too."
There are many more people yet to make those connections with. The task is finding where the connections can be made. Sexual orientation is no longer so all-important that it overrides everything else about a person. My family used to think that. They do not anymore. My gay uncle and his lover are just like the rest of my family, sexual orientation aside. The news is that sexual orientation can be set aside. Being gay makes my uncle and his lover interesting, but other things make them interesting too.
Some lesbians and gay men, especially the artists, may balk at the implication that in certain ways they are quite ordinary. To a generation brought up to worship individuality, this is anathema. But there are many things that make each of us unique. Sometimes it is very nice to share small and common things, to just watch TV with someone or talk about sports, or help a sister making cookies in the kitchen. It is on those ordinary battlefields that what is left of this war can be won.
It is a great burden to make your life always and everywhere extraordinary. Homosexuality used to be that kind of a burden. But homosexuality no longer makes anyone extraordinary by default. Perhaps the new radicals regret the loss of that sort of specialness and are trying to reconstruct it. But what lesbians and gay men have lost in forced distinctiveness, they have gained in options. They do not have to approach politics only from the outside; there are gay lobbyists and elected officials as well as street protesters.
The battle for gay rights has not left the streets and the books, but it is now being waged inside millions of private homes too. The assumption that heterosexuals are irretrievably opposed to gay rights is unfair, one more stereotype that hinders this debate. Heterosexuals of good faith have every right to find such an assumption as offensive as lesbians and gay men have ever found any stereotype about them, and for the same reasons.
I am not a Queer because I do not have to be one. I am not that different from most people in this country. As a gay man who is other things besides, I stand the best chance of finding a connection with someone, of starting a conversation, of changing a mind. That exposure is one of the fundamental principles of coming out: Reality undermines the fears that invisibility permits and opens the possibility of dialogue. It is in those plain and often tentative encounters that I and millions of others can make our contributions.
It is unfair that the burden is still on lesbians and gay men. Events like the March on Washington are still necessary; persuasion is a reality we cannot wish away. But this residue of injustice cannot be compared to the injustice those who came before us faced. The world is listening now because of what those pioneers did, and to assume anything less is to deny the achievements of my heroes, those men and women whose work in a hostile world gave me the gift of a family I love. Those men and women were radical so I would not have to be.
David Link is a writer in Los Angeles.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "I Am Not Queer".