Proud of What, Exactly?

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Photo credit: Getty
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Photo credit: Getty
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I got engaged in March 2018, two and a half years after gay marriage was legalized in the United States. A few months later, I attended a graduate school party with my fiancée proudly at my side. Between sips of warm white wine, I gushed about the engagement to my professor, a queer author and journalist, and her partner, a longtime political activist and retired professor. I expected them to congratulate us with the same flushed enthusiasm everyone else had expressed. After all, our engagement was historic. I braced myself for celebratory bear hugs. This proved unnecessary. My professor offered a mellow "mazel tov," to which her partner tacked on, "Congrats, I guess."

Perhaps worried she'd offended me, my professor explained that marriage meant something very different to her generation; it was a patriarchal institution to organize against, not to join. I told her I appreciated the reaction because it reminded me of our movement’s radical roots and just how far we’ve come.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Later that evening I reflected on the generation gap between the pairs of partners. I understood how bearing witness to atrocities like the AIDS crisis and the do-nothing response from the Reagan administration would make most any gay person who managed to survive them wary of joining a heterosexual institution that for thousands of years reiterated how much my people didn't belong. But that wasn’t my experience. I came of age when the AIDS epidemic was in decline. Marriage equality was my generation’s major civil rights battle. Now that we’d finally won the right, how could I not indulge?

This past May, Politico published a leaked draft of the Supreme Court's impending decision to strike down Roe v. Wade. In the flurry of analysis that followed, pundits hammered home one point in particular: gay marriage might be next on the Supreme Court's chopping block. Taking in the news that evening, I felt scared the pundits may be right, and then mad I'd gotten married in the first place. How could I have been so naïve? I should've heeded my professor's cautionary tone. I should've opted for a civil union, something religious conservatives haven't tainted and that straight people can't take away from me. I couldn't stop thinking about what my professor's partner had said.

Congrats, I guess. Congrats, I guess. Congrats, I guess. The phrase pinballs around my brain whenever a new piece of transphobic legislation forces me to remember how shitty 2022 has been for the LGBTQ+ community. This year alone, more than three hundred anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in state legislatures, according to Bloomberg, one hundred thirty of which target the trans community. Hate crimes are up, fueled by dangerous lies about LGBTQ+ individuals "grooming" children. Earlier this month, a group of far right, anti-LGBTQ+ extremists protested a Disney-themed drag brunch in Arlington, Texas. Video footage of the incident shows a protester verbally assaulting an individual, calling them a range of anti-LGBTQ slurs. In the wake of similar incidents across the country, several Pride events were cancelled.

Civil rights battles aren't linear. Small steps forward often precede periods of regression. But even if you concede that the moral arc of the universe is comprised of peaks and valleys, and that the LGBTQ+ movement is currently stalled in the latter, the speed with which our rights are unraveling defies precedent. This isn't a pendulum swing; it's whiplash. How in the hell did we end up here, and what are we supposed to be proud of now?

When I reflect on my lesbian awakening, the person I immediately think about is George W. Bush. Let me explain: Right around the first time my feelings for another girl brought me to my knees, Bush endorsed a constitutional ban on gay marriage. "Ages of experience have taught humanity that the commitment of a husband and wife to love and to serve one another promotes the welfare of children and the stability of society," the president said in an official statement.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

My mom loathed Bush. This made her quite the outsider in the Country Club south where I grew up, but an endless source of reassurance to her tomboy daughter. It allowed me to freely explore my feelings without fear or judgment. I never worried that my parents wouldn't accept me. I even got a kick out of the idea that my sexuality offended the d-bag-in-chief who, to echo one of my mom's frequent refrains, lied about WMDs so he could finish his daddy's war.

Another one of her refrains caused me more heartache: "Being gay is hard," she would tell me whenever I floated hypothetical questions meant to test how she might react to possibly, maybe having a gay daughter. "It's a harder life." My mom didn’t want this to be true—she was and remains an outspoken LGBTQ activist—but she knew from the many gay friends she’d loved and lost over a decades-long career in theater that it just was.

In 2006, after dog-paddling around in a sea of seersucker-clad Republicans for eighteen years, I left North Carolina and headed north for college. I cried quietly in the backseat of my parents' car on and off all the way. I knew I wasn’t straight. I didn't want my life to be harder because of it.

In October 2008, I made out with a girl for the first time. The next morning, I wrote in my journal, "Last night was soooo awesome!!!!!" Reading that now, I can't believe we let eighteen-year-olds vote. But we do, and a few days later, I voted for Barack Obama in my first presidential election. Sure, on the campaign trail Obama promised to be against same-sex marriage, but no one believed him. It felt like he'd say it and then wink to the gays when the swing voters weren't looking. For the first time in my life, it seemed marriage equality was no longer a matter of if, but when. This was enormously exciting, not because it meant I might be able to get married one day. I wasn’t thinking about marriage at 20. It was exciting because, at the time, I naively believed it meant that the era of discrimination I’d grown up in would be over soon. We’d all be free, as the song goes, “to feel good.”

Two important gay anthems that came out during the Obama administration, Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" and Macklemore's "Same Love," embraced the notion that homosexuality isn't a choice. "I can't change" sang Mary Lambert on the chorus of "Same Love." "Even if I wanted to, even if I tried." The born-this-way theory had good intentions. It began as a repudiation against conversion therapy, which stipulated that, with a little religious shaming, gay people could choose to become straight. But some in the LGBTQ+ community, including yours truly, didn't identify with it.

Around that time, and much to my surprise, I fell in love with a man. He was warm and silly, and animated, too, like a Snuggie sprung to life, and he nursed me back to life after my dad died suddenly midway through my junior year. We’d been friends, so he knew I was, as I described it drunkenly to him one evening, “kinda gay.” He laughed and called his body the barrier to our love. We embarked on a short-lived, quasi-romance.

I haven’t dated men seriously since, but that experience taught me that my capacity for attraction was more nuanced than any slogan or anthem could communicate. I found little comfort in the idea that my lesbianism could be traced back to a single gene—as if it was some genetic disorder, the same one that afflicted poor aunt Susan and her adult roommate, Linda.

Frank Bruni summarized the issue with the born-this-way theory in 2012 when he wrote, "By hinging a whole movement on a conclusion that hasn’t been—and perhaps won’t be—scientifically pinpointed and proved beyond all doubt, they [gay advocates] hitch it to a moving target."

Except it was already too late; the theory had taken hold. In 2009, polls reported that 54% of Americans opposed gay marriage. By 2013, that number was down to 44%. Two years later, the Supreme Court struck down Obergefell v. Hodges, legalizing gay marriage across the country. My partner and I celebrated at a wild block party in Andersonville, Chicago’s unofficial lesbian neighborhood. On our way home, we saw two elderly butch women, festooned in rainbow boas and jewelry, smooching on a street corner.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

The Obergefell decision functioned like a recruiting tool for the LGBTQ+ community. I don't have any hard data on this, I just know that suddenly people I grew up with, many of them conservative, were coming out in droves. When a childhood friend informed me that a preppy girl from high school—she drove around in a Land Rover with a big Dubya sticker affixed to its bum­per—came out as gay, I responded with "Homosexuality is dead, and she murdered it."

Finding out a former Bush supporter was a lesbian felt like a particularly violent and unnecessarily personal way to have to learn about homonormativity. I would've preferred that she'd voted for Ron Paul; there's an undeniably gay flair to libertarianism. But Bush? The guy who refused to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell and forced a bunch of closeted homosexuals to march into Iraq and Afghanistan? Not every victim can correctly identify their oppressor, but what's worse is if they can but are too privileged in other ways to care.

What I realize now is that the queer community's major gains during the Obama years came at the sacrifice of what sets us apart from straight people. To convince the government to loan us a few rights, we rallied behind the idea that queerness was genetic—no different than diabetes—and minimized the experiences of those who felt otherwise. We forfeited a more nuanced conversation that encompassed all our community so we could visit our dying loved ones in hospitals. I don’t blame us. In fact, I’m grateful for the rights we've gained, but given where things stand today, I wish we’d carved a more inclusive path to victory.

In January 2016, a rabid, spray-tanned hyena became the 45th president of the United States. Sometimes I think the sheer magnitude of Donald Trump's vitriol and chaos caused everyone who opposed him to feel like a victim; or, if they couldn't legitimately claim victim status, to distance themselves from his administration by aligning themselves with a marginalized community. This is how we ended up with the corporate takeover of Pride and all those rainbow "In this house we believe..." signs in the yards of suburbanite allies. It also explains Taylor Swift's album Lover, and why there's now a lesbian, though frequently played by a straight person, in every major historical drama. LGBTQ+ representation mattered a lot during the Trump administration.

Speaking of lesbians, some of us freaked out during the Trump years. In the wake of a few high-impact moments of transgender representation—Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair, television shows like Transparent and Pose—conversations about trans people entered mainstream cultural discourse. This unleashed the trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs, whose transphobic belief that trans women don’t belong in women-only spaces appealed to a small subset of lesbians. Those of us who didn't want to get lumped together with J.K. Rowling rushed to clarify that our version of lesbianism didn’t imply a preference for cisgender females, or simply abandoned the term altogether. Lesbian became a bad word, indicative of retro views on gender. People my age and younger preferred the term queer.

I met a girl in Chicago in 2017 who told me she no longer referred to herself as gay. She now went by queer. She was skinny and had a lot of Instagram followers, so I copied her and started referring to myself as queer. I identified with the term's inclusiveness but couldn't pull it off. I felt like a grandpa trying to skateboard. I reverted to lesbian and got on with my life. No one asked me about my sexuality anyway.

I was supposed to get married in May 2020. Instead, my partner and I spent the week distributing supplies to George Floyd protesters and, later on, marching for black trans lives. Pride kicked off two weeks later, smack dab in the middle of a tense presidential campaign, a reignited culture war around gender identity, an election-year cascade of federal anti-trans legislation, and the politicization of cancel culture. Covid forced the festivities off the streets and onto the internet, so my partner and I marked the occasion at home with to-go cocktails.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

We eloped in September. We'd thought we might at some point but hadn't been sure when. Then, in August, I got laid off and lost my healthcare insurance. Thanks to the Republicans’ chipping away at Obamacare, the plans on the public market were not affordable. We figured it was as good a time as any to exercise our right to register me as a dependent on her insurance plan. (Only in America do we marry for insurance.) I threw on my favorite Hawaiian shirt, my partner slipped into a crinkly white dress, and we gathered on the couch, with our dog in her fanciest bandana snuggled between us. When the internet minister we’d hired a few days earlier pronounced us married, we collapsed happily into each other’s arms.

Being married didn’t feel very different to me, and I found the absence of special meaning quite comforting. I’d been hopelessly devoted to my partner since the day I met her. I didn’t want marriage to transform or legitimize our relationship. I just wanted health insurance.

When Joe Biden was elected in November 2020 the country collectively exhaled a short-lived sigh of relief. I briefly thought things would get better. Instead, the opposite has occurred. Trump-era queer representation failed to inspire any Biden-era legislation. The Senate has yet to pass the Equality Act, which means that in more than half the states in the U.S. you can be refused housing or a bank loan for being LGBTQ+. Meanwhile, the culture wars have only worsened. The GOP tosses trans kids around like a political footballs and our own community seems at risk of ripping itself apart over the question of gender.

I do not agree with people who think homosexuality is defined by an exclusive attraction to our own biological sex. I much prefer Harron Walker's assessment of being attracted to either masculinity or, in my case, femininity, unbound by gender. In fact, the first time I felt the queer tinglies was while watching the excellent film The Ladybugs (featuring the one only Rodney Dangerfield in a career-defining role). My toes curled under whenever Jonathan Brandis dressed up as a girl soccer player and flirtatiously palled around with Bess, the team's star forward. Anyone who wants to unpack what my childhood crush on Jonathan Brunis—but only when he's in disguise as a female athlete!—says about my gender and sexuality preferences, be my guest. I gave up trying years ago. Like Hannah Gadsby, I now primarily identify as tired.

I'm so very tired of policing each other's LGBTQ+ experience. But I also know white, cis privilege is real. I experience it every day. I believe Elliot Page when he says transphobia is more severe than homophobia. For fuck’s sake, just look at the statistics. I support the Reclaim Pride Coalition and agree with Roxane Gay that cops don't belong at Pride. At the same time, I'm glad the San Francisco PD and Pride organizers found a compromise. I'll tolerate internal tension so long as it doesn't tug our community entirely apart. Because in the eyes of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, we're all from the same leper colony. We might as well fight together, not one another. We still have so much work to do.

Recently, I crashed head-first into the upper limit of the LGBTQ+ movement’s progress while navigating the family-making-industrial complex. I've had nightmares about the Proud Boys that are less homophobic than the U.S. healthcare system. For instance, when it comes to benefits, my insurance provider doesn't recognize the word "lesbian." They prefer the term "infertile." And I’m one of the lucky ones because I live in New York, which recently passed a law (riddled with exclusionary caveats and loopholes) that requires certain insurance companies to cover a limited range of “infertility” treatments for some LGBTQ+ couples.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Barring such protections, queer couples fortunate enough to be insured must prove they’ve been unable to conceive from either having sex (the cis-hetero kind) for at least six months or having six rounds of IUI—which not everyone has the right parts for. Asking if strap-on sex with a power bottom zaddy counts will not help your cause. I remain constantly disturbed by doctors’ and insurance providers’ need to process my homosexuality in relation to heterosexuality to understand it. Turns out that old refrain from the Bush era is true: It is harder to be gay. It's more expensive too.

According to the Family Equality Council, creating a family can cost LGBTQ+ couples anywhere from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on their personal and financial circumstances. Adoption prices range from $20,00 to $45,000. Surrogacy, which is rarely covered by health insurance, requires a budget of $60,000 to $100,000. Lesbian couples who want to purchase sperm from sperm banks, many of which are unregulated and plagued by lawsuits, will need to pony up around $1,500 per vial; doctors recommend at least three vials per pregnancy attempt. From there, IUI can cost anywhere between $250 and $4,000 per attempt. Then come the legal fees, for establishing parental rights. I don’t have to tell you how expensive lawyers are, do I?

Attempting to construct a queer family within a heteronormative system has taught me an important lesson—one that the critic and author Maggie Nelson succinctly outlined in The Argonauts: "If we want to do more than claw our way into repressive structures, we have our work cut out for us."

This past weekend the New York City pride parade marched through downtown Manhattan. I know what we were protesting, but what were we celebrating? In this perilous, post-Pride moment, with state governments determined to shame our trans and non-binary friends out of existence, the Supreme Court interested in extinguishing rights we only recently won, and our own community hell-bent on ripping itself apart, what am I supposed to be proud of?

When it comes to anything other than marriage, LGBTQ+ individuals are still outsiders. I consider it both a call to arms and a badge of honor. I never wanted to be an insider. Part of the reason I got into this whole gay thing was so I could live a life free of patriarchal-y, heteronormative-ish nonsense. I love the freedom my partnership affords me: to design a new experience, unconstrained by traditional gender roles. A new generation of LGBTQ+ people are finding more ways to live authentically and expanding the scope of our movement. To them, I say thank you.

Despite the parade of letters, LGBTQ+ means one of two things: not straight and/or not cis. But until now, the movem­ent's largest victories came with the stipulation that we exist in the world like straight, cis people do. What we’re fighting for today, though—support for queer families, trans healthcare, a broader and more flexible understanding of gender—will force this country's powerbrokers to accommodate all of us, on our own terms. Hence the headwinds. As painful as this moment is, I’m more determined than ever to keep fighting—not for assimilation but liberation, not to be seen and treated like an insider, but to be recognized and granted rights as a proud outsider.

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