Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,
Steven
unzeugmatic

Getting From There to Here

Yesterday I posted an entry about an enormous difference I see in the position of gay men in the culture between 1974 and 2008, as reflected in the picture windows of current gay bars. This change didn't just happen, like genetic drift. A lot of people in a lot of ways defied the shame and secrecy that being gay seemingly demanded. Perhaps the biggest reason I was so passionate about the lesbian and gay band movement was that I felt this movement was making a difference in the freedom to be public about who we are. A marching band does not hide behind painted windows, and a concert band has no life except in open public settings.

Since I live and die by the anecdote, I was thinking about something a member of Boston's band said in 1986 or so, when that band was pretty new. This gentleman -- I think in his early 40s -- had only recently come out, possibly within the previous year. He was a very nice man, a string player (viola? cello?). He actually taught himself to play the trombone so that he could play in the band, and not too badly. I think he must have felt that musical organizations were his comfort zone in general, as he'd been involved in orchestras his whole life.

A few months after joining the band he told us one night that his only previous experience with gay organizations had been with Dignity, the organization for gay and lesbian Catholics (which has since added bisexual and transgender to their mission). He said that when he attended his first Dignity meeting, people used their first names only and he was assured that he could use a false name if he wanted. He contrasted this to the first band practice he attended, when we handed him a package of materials that contained our roster -- which included not just full names but addresses and phone numbers. "Even work phone numbers", he pointed out. He said he was very pleased to see this, and that this is one of the things that made him want to be part of the organization.

Like the folks at Innuendo last weekend who probably wouldn't think consciously about the fact that they are visible to passersby in a gay bar, it had never occurred to any of us that including our full names and work phone numbers on our roster was in any way notable. This gentleman pointing this out helped at least me to see the significance of this.

I don't mean to be disparaging Boston Dignity circa 1985. Those folks were standing up to a lot of serious stuff, in particular the explicit disapproval (and worse) of the church that meant so much to them. They formed the organization precisely because the church meant so much to them. In fact, that's what I'm thinking about here: The position of the members of Dignity at the time.

Can you imagine that the desire to be part of a religious organization -- a mainstream religious organization -- would be something that would cause you to be wary of revealing your full name? Or your name at all? These folks were being neither paranoid nor unreasonable, or at least a good case could be made that they were not.

It's no wonder that even a quarter century later, in a world of Will and Grace and same-sex marriage in the public eye, it can still take decades for people to come out. There are still many many gay men who don't feel they are in a position to be public, or even to acknowledge who they are. It still seems to be a source of great soul-searching and trauma for many -- for people who I still meet all the time. I admit I often wonder how that could be, when gay bars have picture windows, but then I think about the fear of even saying your name within the confines of an association like Dignity -- and how recently this really was the default case -- and I understand a little bit more.
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