Last March, when the Human Rights Campaign urged me to update my Facebook profile picture for marriage equality, I did so without hesitation. I was in the middle of writing a paper for grad school, it was seven in the morning, I was tired and eager to procrastinate, and I couldn't believe how many of my friends -- Southern friends I'd never before considered openly supportive of what many still erroneously referred to as my "lifestyle" -- were now willing to openly declare their support for the freedom to marry.
I told all of this to a fellow dull-lidded grad student. This was a big deal, and I wanted someone to confirm it. I'd grown up the son of an ultra-conservative Missionary Baptist preacher in a small town that many considered to be the buckle of the Bible Belt, amidst a congregation that regularly asked me to sign petitions to keep our country safe from "perverts" who wanted to destroy the American family. It seemed momentous that so many of these same people were now on my side.
"That's nice," she said, barely looking up. She was a transplant to the South, rising out of an urban East Coast childhood with its complications so different from my own, and HRC's neoliberal call was, for her, a familiar yawn. "Even bigots like a good logo."
I scrolled through my Facebook feed, occasionally magnifying a particularly witty logo, laughing loud enough, I hoped, to break my friend's concentration.
"I really have to finish this paper," she said, fingers clicking.
"Suit yourself," I said, trying to sound casual, even as my voice threatened to warble into mild hysteria. Though I knew she was right to shush me in a public study room, the fact that she was writing through a hugely historical moment made me want to laugh even louder, shove my laptop screen in her face.
Seconds later, I received a private message from P, a well-known genderqueer LGBTQ activist working primarily with homeless teens. We'd been introduced through mutual friends, many of whom said we would make perfect allies. P and I would accomplish great things together, these friends said. We shared similar interests, similar goals. Here was the perfect person to take part in my joy.
P's words, which I've since deleted out of embarrassment, went something like this:
Hi there. Don't mean to be rude, but are you aware that the HRC has a history of excluding LGBTQ homeless and other minority issues from their campaigns?
I wasn't aware. In fact, I was so unaware, so completely unaware, that P's words felt like a cold slap. Here I was, suddenly ushered into a discourse much more informed and nuanced than my own. P's condescending tone, whether intended or not, made me feel like a complete idiot. Here I was, celebrating my friends' pro-gay stance on their Facebook profiles, when hundreds of thousands -- no, millions (I didn't even know the stats!) -- of underrepresented people were still suffering.
No time for celebrating. There was too much work to be done.
I opened a new tab and began researching the HRC logo. By lunch, my friend had already finished her paper, but I'd just begun my education.
At this point in the story, I'm willing to admit that I'm a bad gay. After reading P's message, I didn't message her back. I didn't want to face the humiliation of declaring my shallow stance on marriage equality. Instead of engaging in healthy dialogue, I unfriended P later that day. And though we now communicate, I still find it hard to be in the same room with her. I still see my flaws as an LGBTQ activist most clearly when she acts as her normal, well-informed self.
Being a bad gay means my developmental history can best be mapped by false starts, by embarrassing situations like the one I've just described. It means I joined the gay rights movement rather reluctantly, considering it a necessity rather than a privilege. It means that for years, I internalized bigotry and bad reasoning by assuming that labeling myself LGBTQ could somehow limit my personality.
There are, of course, many reasons why people turn out to be bad gays. After all, most of us didn't start out with the kind of support we later find in inclusive LGBTQ communities. My story is an odd one, though not necessarily exceptional for its brand of self-hatred: in my late teens, I attended ex-gay therapy in order to please my parents. While there, my counselors told me that the words "homosexual" or "gay" were faulty labels Satan had designed to snare me, that accepting these labels meant giving up on God. And for a while, I believed these assumptions. I believed that my shameful feelings toward men were the result of something inherently sinful in me.
For years, I was reluctant to take on a label of any kind, especially one that seemed specifically designed to mark me for life. For years, I thought I was done with labels. I took perverse pride in knowing that many straight men found me to be straight-acting -- "You're not that flamboyant" -- and I used to find it difficult to be in the same room with a group of gay men, not because I disliked them, but because I found I had little to say to such individuated persons. For years, I was miles away from accepting even the white gay male, much less the multiracial bi, transgender, and queer folks who make the spectrum so vibrant.
As a bad gay with a history of convoluted ideas, changing my Facebook profile photo was a big deal. Doing so meant publicly accepting an LGBTQ label for the first time in front of many family members and friends who hadn't already found out about my sexuality. As a bad gay, having friends who'd earlier criticized my "lifestyle choices" change their Facebook profile pictures felt like a monumental victory.
While P and my study friend were already developing nuanced views about HRC, I was just hoping for a sign that my friends and family members would still talk to me -- would, in fact, stop sending me angry text messages about how I was destroying my parents' dreams of having grandchildren.
The label I finally adopted required some coming to terms with, and it seemed impossible, during this transition, to understand what P's sophisticated queer rhetoric was all about. I thought I was just trying to survive at the time, when in actuality I was trying to keep myself from questioning too much at once, too afraid that I'd lose my footing in this new open-minded worldview.
This is an admittedly selfish way to be gay -- taking baby steps behind the progress of others -- but many of us are selfish and intractable when it comes to change. It just doesn't feel good to be called out, even in private. It's also not very productive.
In my experience of arguing with religious fundamentalists for most of my adult life, people rarely learn life lessons when humiliated; more often than not, they simply fight back with more venomous rhetoric. When the calling-out happens in the public sphere, I imagine it feels even worse, though I do believe public figures take on a responsibility that permits us to criticize them more candidly. The recent Mozilla controversy is proof that the straight population can make for particularly bad -- if not nefarious -- allies. And Bill Maher, who's supposed to be on our side, recently revealed through his half-joking-but-half-serious belief in the "gay mafia" that even he has quite a long way to go.
I'm a bad gay the way some women are bad feminists. To quote self-diagnosed bad feminist Roxanne Gay (disambiguate), whose article-turned-book inspired this article:
I am failing as a feminist. To freely accept the feminist label would not be fair to good feminists. If I am, indeed, a feminist, I am a rather bad one.
If I adopt Gay's rhetoric, then it's unfair for me to call myself a good gay as long as someone like P can exist in the world as her beautiful, well-informed queer self. So why, then, label myself a gay activist at all?
Gay's argument for her adoption of the label is that she's uncomfortable aligning herself with foundational feminist heroes like, say, bell hooks, but she's also too involved with feminist goals to reject the label. In other words, she believes that the distinctions, however tongue-in-cheek, are important to make. They allow for her individual growth, her wants, and her needs, while also providing her with role models:
At some point, I got it into my head that a feminist was a certain kind of woman. I bought into grossly inaccurate myths about who feminists are -- militant, perfect in their politics and person, man hating, humorless. I bought into these myths even though, intellectually, I know better. I'm not proud of this. I don't want to buy into these myths anymore. I don't want to cavalierly disavow feminism like far too many other women have done.
I also want to be myself. Bad feminism seems like the only way I can both embrace myself as a feminist and be myself.
To translate this into LGBTQ terms, the process of becoming a good gay causes me to aim for a goal that is always shifting as the equal rights dialogue evolves and as my personality develops. The truth is, my development as a person is never going to align perfectly with the development of equal rights in this country -- "ex-gay" therapy set me back decades, maybe even centuries, behind Stonewall -- and being a bad gay gives me permission to deal with these discrepancies in a less shameful and more productive way.
So what to do about bad gays like me -- people who, because of their complicated histories, are not ready to accept all of P's forward-thinking rhetoric? How tolerant should the rest of the LGBTQ community be with these folks who aren't yet ready to take the leap into being good gays or good allies?
Bill Maher's stance on the "gay mafia" serves as an excellent case study. According to Maher, the firing of Brendan Eich at Mozilla was 100% the result of intimidation and scare tactics from LGBTQ activists. The logic of this reminds me of a 30 Rock episode that spoofs the idea that an underground black mafia exists for the sole purpose of controlling the dissemination of stereotypes. In the episode, Tracy Morgan is on the run from a group of powerful black Americans who meet in the skull of the Statue of Liberty four times a year, led by Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby.
It's hard to miss 30 Rock's barbed criticism: that the two most white-accessible black personalities are also the two most dangerous, that the status quo fears what draws closest to it, what gains the most representation. Is it any wonder that the minute the gay rights movement begins to pick up steam -- to actually have a voice in the dealings of big business -- there is this sudden backlash against a unified LGBTQ force that doesn't even exist?
What public figures like Maher are missing is an insider's perspective. LGBTQ folks are hardly unified on all issues, though they are beginning to unite on certain ones. The fact that the Mozilla case did nothing to harm democratic values is less relevant to amateur conspiracy theorists than the perceived threat of gay policing, a threat many of my friends and I had internalized in our Southern fundamentalist youth.
It's the same story, told over and over again, and it's a story that many allies find compelling even as they accept broader issues like marriage equality. But only if we can find the patience to see where it's coming from will we find a way to thoroughly dismantle it.
Because by now we should know this much about the bad gays, the ones afraid of losing their grip on the status quo: despite their bluff, they're scared. Despite their laughter, they're a little afraid. Despite sporting an HRC logo, they're still worried about what people will think.
Perhaps it's time we start speaking to them without the language of blame or condescension. Perhaps it's time we start speaking to them in the language of symbols, of dreams, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once did -- as even Jesus, that great storyteller, once did.