In the last decade, we have witnessed a dramatic shift in public discourse about gay issues in the US and the UK. Throughout earlier gay organising, one thing was always clear: whatever else gays were, we were victims. At least, we were at risk of being victims. Victims of hate crimes, police brutality, discriminatory laws, family rejection, AIDS, suicide, conversion therapy, the Holocaust. Gays had No Future, and black comedy was a key part of How to Be Gay.
But with dramatic progress in the social and legal status of gays over the last decade, things are changing. Gays are no longer Longing for Recognition; we have it. Military service, parades and propaganda, prom dates, having sex, and most recently getting married are (mostly) legal and supported by a majority of the US and UK populations. Even The Gay Daddy is now literal. The HRC [Human Rights Campaign]- one of many gay lobbying organisations – reports annual revenues of over 38 million dollars.
Some gays are still seen as victims. Those living in Russia and Uganda are subject to horrifying laws, and in Jamaican and Muslim communities they are also imperilled. But British and American gays are described as having forged Safe Space for themselves. Sometimes in school we’re told “Dude, You’re a Fag“, but It Gets Better when we go to a university in a big city.
Having it all?
We’ve come so far that some are even declaring The End of Gay, that the gay community is a myth, and that we’re now post gay. With gay victimisation overcome, little is left to unify gays in one identity. Unlike The Kinks, gay organisers have been arguing that we are like everybody else. We’re normal. At long last, it is possible for gay kids to live the same lives as their straight peers. School dances, weddings, raising children; careers in politics, military, and media – gays can finally have it all.
But a vocal minority of writers push back Against Equality and against The New Homonormativity. For them, the struggles of other queer people – whose bodies, genders, sexualities, bank accounts, and relationships don’t look like Dan Savage and Terry Miller‘s – are left out.
My research on queer university students (an ongoing study at numerous sites across North America) highlights another complication of the cultural shift from gay-as-victim to gay-as-normal. Even in the best of conditions, at wealthy universities in famously gay cities where It Gets Better, queers are sometimes still victims of violence, harassment, discrimination and hostility. And the desire to appear normal often leaves us silent about it.
It’s not that queer people are making a conscious choice to cover up victimisation to further assimilationist politics. Acts of bias and hate have stigmatising effects, and few want to be a victim. Even when we’re “out” and involved in LGBTQ organisations, we frequently cite the desire not to be seen as different as a reason not to speak up in class, not to complain about harassment, not to report offences, not to mention them to friends and family.
The shame of victimisation isn’t new or unique to LGBTQ people. It’s not a product of the turn toward assimilation. But when gay organising called on victimisation as the basis of community, identity and politics, it offered an empowering way to reclaim a positive sense of self identity from that fear and shame. While the current trend of gay assimilation offers unprecidented possibilities for living normal, safe lives, it offers little in the way of support for people who are still victimised. Where they once shared a community-defining problem, victims are now isolated. And with gay victimisation ‘solved’, little thought and energy goes into the ways sexual and gender minorities continue to be victimised, or the ways those harms disproportionately fall on the most marginal groups.