October makes me feel like a bad gay with its pumpkin spice items, the inevitable transphobic Cait Jenner costumes, and most of all: National Coming Out Day (NCOD).
However, October 11th wasn’t always the glittery fall day for which we mark our calendars. The occasion was created by Robert Eichberg, a psychologist and gay rights activist. He chose to establish NCOD on the anniversary of The Great March, or as the cishets (people who are both heterosexual and gender conforming) may know it, the (1987) Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
The march was a response to (A) the AIDS crisis and growing hostility to Reagan’s unwillingness to confront said crisis, and (B) the appalling Bowers v. Hardwick Supreme Court decision that upheld a Georgia sodomy law (which deemed consensual homosexual intercourse illegal). In response to these goings on, major LGBT leaders and activists began a series of organizing meetings that led to a set of clearly articulated goals:
1. The legal recognition of lesbian and gay relationships
2. The repeal of all laws that make sodomy between consenting adults a crime
3. A presidential order banning discrimination by the federal government
4. Passage of the congressional lesbian and gay civil rights bill
5. An end to discrimination against people with AIDS, ARC, HIV-positive status or those perceived to have AIDS. Massive increases in funding for AIDS education, research, and patient care. Money for AIDS, not for war.
6. Reproductive freedom, the right to control our own bodies, and an end to sexist oppression
7. An end to racism in this country and apartheid in South Africa
These seven goals solidified the politics of the march and its events, which spanned six days at the Capitol. Events included a mass wedding and a display of civil disobedience. In these early days of LGBT (Lesbian / Gay / Bisexual / Transgender) activism, before the QIA was added (Questioning / Intersex / Asexual), participants were engaged in a visible, transgressive queerness. Now, let’s fast forward 27 years to National Coming Out Day, 2014.
Last year’s events were carried out under the banner of “Coming Out Still Matters,” the year’s slogan, chosen by The National Human Rights Campaign (NHRC). Not a bad slogan NHRC, but a bit essentialist, isn’t it? As if ‘coming out’ matters (mattered) to every queer person. Much of queer activism displays a lack of intersectionality. As white queers can rely on their racial privileges, complaints often rise about their ever-centered narratives de-centering others’ narratives; white queer activism tends to dismiss the concerns of non-white queers, as a reflection of racial politics. Or perhaps it’s the “masc-queers” or “cis-queers” who can (and often do) rely upon their perceived ‘normalcy’ of gender presentation. These privileged groups, who tend to gravitate toward NCOD, create a more digestible form of queerness, distant from the clear-eyed politics of 1987’s Great March.
Consider the current clusterfuck surrounding Roland Emmerich’s film Stonewall, which is facing (completely justified) criticisms for its erasure of trans* people and non-white people. These changes are more destructive than a lack of representation, but a value judgement of what is allowed to be part of the gay rights story. In short, Emmerich participates in an American tradition of respectability politics, one that stretches back to writers like Booker T. Washington, who often chided Black Americans for their bad behaviors and linked those behaviors to rampant racism, poverty, and violence. Representation politics are dangerous because they shift the responsibility of social treatment to the mistreated, as if to say ‘just don’t wear a hoodie if you don’t want to get shot’ (re: Trayvon Martin), instead of ‘don’t shoot people’ (re: George Zimmerman). In this kind of political ideology, those who can fit themselves into a normative society are rewarded with visibility; this is where we begin to see the ideal black.
The same kind of politics emerge in representation and treatment, as Emmerich clearly demonstrates. He made a film about normative queers–more importantly–respectable queers. And how does one cast respectable queers? By casting two people of color out of fifteen possible speaking roles, in a narrative heavily involving people of color. But like the black respectability politic, the queer respectability politic is concerned with modifying queer appearances in order to make them more recognizable to a cishet audience. Though, Emmerich is not acting alone. These political moves can be found in President Obama’s comments regarding recent racial / police conflict (though he’s very recently stepped his game up), Bill Cosby’s recent speaking engagements, and most clearly, in the mechanisms and creation of National Coming Out Day.
But I know, I know, I’m a crappy queer, right? NCOD should be my minor national holiday. But I cannot enjoy NCOD. I cannot enjoy translating my identity for the cishets. The language of ‘coming out,’ is the language of emergence from hiding, and I refuse to acknowledge anything that tells me how to hide or how to emerge. But honestly, I’m a prep-school brat and feel entitled to my identity. What of the queers who cannot exit the closet and receive facebook likes or love? A queer non-white person’s narrative sexuality is often more treacherous than a white queer’s by virtue of non-whiteness. Like masculinity, whiteness makes the queer more normative, more recognizable (in cishet eyes) therefore more respectable.
And the respectable are numerous. Again we return to Emmerich’s Stonewall and its blaring whitewashing. The film took a historical event and removed the non-white and trans* people, and replaced them with a swathe of cisgender, white queers. His (racist / generally phobic ass) logic knows that marketing Stonewall is more palatable with respectable queers–white, masculine, and cisgendered. More digestible the queer is made, for the culturally ravished cishet.
And what to do about the terribly destructive yet lovely music of NCOD? After all, the day does have many positive merits. What to do about the sweet heat of a pumpkin spice latte? Perhaps grin and bear the weight. Which, realistically, is fine. Just like Cait Jenner costumes are fine with most folk. I’ve come to terms with not being like most (normative) folk that find NCOD helpful; for my body (queer, brown, masc, and trying very hard) the day only serves as a reminder of a tradition that was staunchly uninterested in my body. Therefore, I will not question those politics nor engage that dialogue. Instead, I will keep myself living through the fall. NCOD is a great day for thousands and thousands of people, I imagine, and they can continue enjoying it. I just know that this body (brown, queer, masc) can’t have fun with it. This body doesn’t like fall very much at all.
Kamden Hilliard goes by Kam and has received fellowships from The Davidson Institute and Callaloo. His chapbook, DISTRESS TOLERANCE, is forthcoming in early 2016 from Magic Helicopter Press. He is the recipient of the 2015 Stanley and Evelyn Lipkin Poetry Prize and wants you to take him seriously. Kam is a co-editor at JELLYFISH MAGAZINE and his work has appeared in (or will drift into) Juked, The Sakura Review, The Atlas Review, and other lovely places. He tweets sporadically @KamdenHilliard.