Shame on me. I didn’t know October was Gay and Lesbian History Month until this summer. I didn’t know that in 1994 a school teacher named Robert Wilson, who noticed his textbooks had no queer history, organized a campaign to educate people about our history. It was launched in October of that year to honor the first march on Washington, D.C., for gay rights in October 1979, the second march on Washington, D.C., in October 1987 and National Coming Out day, which is Oct. 11. (A note on terminology: I am going to use, for the purposes of this article, the word, \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\”queer\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\” to mean gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.)
I didn’t know any of this when I was growing up. The 1980s were a tough decade to grow up queer, not just because of the fashion and hair, and the idea of an entire month to honor the courageous efforts of queers to enrich our lives was so far removed from possibility it was just left of the moon. Ronald Reagan had just allowed 25,000 American citizens to die from complications of HIV/AIDS before deigning to mention the epidemic in the media. The so-called Moral Majority began to demonize queers in 1981. Jerry Falwell referred to the AIDS epidemic as the Gay Plague in 1983. Bowers v. Hardwick in 1986 saw a man convicted of sodomy in his own home when the U.S. Supreme Court decided to deny the Constitutional right to privacy to homosexuals.
I didn’t know that the ’80s weren’t all bad. I didn’t know that Wisconsin was the first state to ban discrimination against queer people in 1982. I didn’t know that Massachussetts representative Gerry Studds came out on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1983 and was surprisingly re-elected to the House in 1984.
In 1984, I was 13 and only beginning to understand that I was gay. Not that I hadn’t known I was different from the age of 5, I just came to the realization that what I was feeling and what they were hating were the same thing. I can only imagine the difference in my life if I had known about Gerry Studds\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’ brave declaration. Maybe I would not have tried to kill myself if some positive role model with brass balls and a little style had been within sight to let me know that I wasn’t actually evil. People ask sometimes why queers have to tell everyone about it, why we have to have pride festivals and stage demonstrations. Why can\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’t we just stay in the closet?
Different paths, same potential
We have to leave the closet to share our stories and our history so we are never again forced to live in fear and shame. We need to hear the struggles of our brothers and sisters in their fight to obtain equal access to the laws of this beautiful land, like Kathy Kozachenko in 1974, who became the first openly queer elected official in the United States. We need to remember the ones who have fallen on our behalf, like Harvey Milk, the city-county supervisor of San Francisco who was assassinated in 1978. We need to be visible so no one can come and take us into the night to be another martyr to hate, like Matthew Shepard, murdered in Wyoming on Oct. 12, 1998. We need to tell our stories so others may come to understand that we are not damaged versions of them, but whole and healthy beings of our own.
We grew up alongside our heterosexual friends and peers in a world exclusively devoted to their life path: childhood, adolescence, engagement, marriage, children, grandchildren, done. They dreamed similar dreams, measured themselves by the same standards and prepared for the same kinds of struggles. There were no deviations except in the details. Some grew up to be doctors, some were cable installers and some were carnival workers. Some were responsible, some were alcoholics and some were downright batty. But they all followed the pattern. They got married, they had children and they raised their children to do the same. Or they recognized some shortcoming if they failed to accomplish these things. This life path doesn’t work for queer children. When we look to the future, the person standing beside us at the altar is wearing a tuxedo just like us. Or we’re both wearing dresses. Or we’re being run out of the church at umbrella point for even daring to contemplate such a scandalous thing.
The queer path is more like: childhood, ostracism, coming out, acceptance, chosen family, done. We didn’t fail to accomplish the other stuff. We are not merely damaged or debased versions of heterosexuals. Queers have been around since the beginning. As early as 12,000 BCE, artifacts and art celebrating homoeroticism were being fashioned. About the 25th or 24th century BCE, Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum had a tomb built for them together suggesting a queer relationship. In the 4th century BCE, the Sacred Band of Thebes, comprised entirely of queer couples, was an elite, undefeated fighting force so ferocious it inspired the respect and admiration of Alexander the Great’s father, Phillip II of Macedon. Though spotty and incomplete due to suppression and the censorship of fear, the history of the queer human can be seen peeking around the corner. If you look closely enough, you can almost see what queer life might have been like in early times.
Being queer in Ventura County
Queer life in present day Ventura County, I\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’ve discovered, is much like queer life anywhere, which is to say that there are certain features of the queer community which are ubiquitous: the bar, the community center, the church, activism, abuse and straight allies.
The bar is the first place new queer residents go to connect with the local queer community. I finished my tour in the Navy in 1995 and moved home to Virginia, where the first place I went was the local neighborhood queer bar. Just a smooth expanse of wood, a mirrored back bar, a dingy juke box and the usual complement of drinkers and lechers, it became like my living room. Imagine finally finding a judgment-free zone after years of feeling like the only one in the room with wings or plaid hair. The friends we make in the gay bar are often just bar friends, but they nonetheless connect us to a world where we make sense, where our struggles are the ones that are common, where we can ultimately discover who we are without judgment or ridicule.
The first day I went into Paddy\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’s, the bar in Ventura, I fell in love, The bartenders were sweet and welcoming, and I have met so many raucous and brilliant characters there. It’s big enough to be a dance club and versatile enough to host karaoke, private functions or benefits. The owners are always ready to lend a hand at events for local charities, like the AIDS Walk and the Pride Festival. Paddy’s is a big part of the community, and not just because it’s the bar. It\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’s like the office water cooler where you can count on running into someone you know any day of the week, where you can get a quick snapshot of upcoming events and where you can slough off the gritty layers of the day and relax.
The community center is where you go for answers to all the tough queer questions. Without the community center in San Diego, I might never have found the courage to accept myself. It\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’s hard to keep your chin up when the whole world seems to be telling you to go away, you\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’re not welcome here. You can only take so much before you’re ready to slam your head into a wall. Lucky for me, the community center hosted a coming out support group. The guys in that group were bold, shameless and fierce about queer stuff. They were pivotal to my development as a healthy, uncensored queer male. Helpful gems like, “You can’t have a relationship with someone you don’t know, and if no one knows you’re gay, then no one knows you,” and “Coming out is a process that starts with you. You have to come out to yourself first,” helped to heal those places which had been too raw to expose to scrutiny.
The Ventura County Rainbow Alliance is the community center here and has been serving the community’s HIV/AIDS concerns, mental health and recovery issues and community building since 1993. These are the hard working folks who bring the AIDS Walk to us every year along with the Pride and Diversity Festival. With more than 20 programs and services provided to more than 20,000 visitors each year, the VCRA is the largest nonprofit organization serving HIV/AIDS affected individuals in the county. With such vital and enriching services to offer, it is a shame that more of the estimated 40,000 queer residents in Ventura County don’t take advantage of what is available.
The church is where you go to belong. Well, it is supposed to be, but queers aren’t welcome in a lot of churches because of six verses out of the 78 books in the Bible which seem to condemn same-sex relations. It hasn\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’t always been so, but you\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’d never know unless you hunt for it. Vivid and complex gay poetry was very popular during the Carolingian renaissance in the ninth century. In the 10th century, the Archbishop of Tours’ lover was the Bishop of Orleans, a relationship of which the pope was fully aware. Byzantium recognized and honored queer unions in early medieval times.
In modern times, though, it was not until 1968, when the Rev. Troy Perry, who had revisited the scripture with a fresh perspective, uncovered a new truth — queer folks are no less the children of a loving creator than straight folks. Armed with this new truth he invited 12 gay men to his house to worship with him one Sunday. And so began the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. From the original 12 guests to more than 43,000 members and more than 250 churches in 26 countries today, an enormous debt is owed to the Rev. Perry from queer Christians around the world who can take comfort in the sacraments of their faith. All Saints MCC in Downtown Ventura and the Unitarian Universalist church on the hill are open and affirming spiritual centers where queer Venturans can go to celebrate their love of God.
More challenges ahead
Activism is where you go to make changes. The portrait of daily life for the queer has changed drastically since the raids and harassments of the late 20th century. Monumental improvements have been achieved because someone, somewhere said, “Enough of this,” and did something. Like Evelyn Hooker, a psychologist, whose study proving queer men were as well adjusted as their straight counterparts paved the way for the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of disorders in 1973. Same-sex relationships were decriminalized in the U.S. in 2003 due to tireless efforts on the part of activists throughout the country. There is still much to be done: full marriage equality, hate crimes legislation at the national level, incorporating orientation and gender identity as protected classes, and ending the ridiculous Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in the armed forces would be a good start.
Largely to tackle the issues just mentioned and to combat the negative public perception of the queer community, some like-minded activists in Ventura County started COLOR: a Community Organized for Liberty, Opportunity and Respect (see “COLORing Activism,” News, 6/21/07). It’s a new form of queer activist organization in that its aim is to serve all of Ventura County instead of limiting its efforts to explicitly queer concerns. Straight folks who may not have any contact with a real live queer need to see that we are, at the end of the day, just men and women struggling to craft a life that has meaning and dignity and that will in some way outlast us. When we had to hide from persecution it made sense to be separate, to take care of our own. Operating separately from the straight community won’t work anymore. We need the credibility achieved when you take on broad issues of concern to everyone, like the need for low-income housing or healthcare reform, issues that transcend orientation or gender identity.
No one goes looking for abuse; abuse comes to you. My friend didn’t believe me when I told him how often I get called a faggot from some simple dolt driving by. He couldn\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’t seem to fathom how such a thing could happen in Southern California in 2007 until it happened while I was talking to him. We were standing on Main Street in front of Brian de Staic\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’s jewelry store, when a girl in a white Ford F250 hollered, \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\”Faggot!\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\” and all I could do was point at the bumper as she drove away and say, \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\”See.\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\”
Having become inured to such things, it didn’t matter that she yelled at me. I just don\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’t understand what the pay off is. What did that girl get from yelling such a thing at me? Apparently, I\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’m not the only one getting catcalls from the bigoted. Studies conducted in the early 2000’s indicated that between 97 percent and 99 percent of high school students report hearing homophobic remarks from their peers. No wonder the suicide rate for queer teens is three times that of straight teens. Especially when you realize the same studies showed that 67 percent report hearing homophobic remarks from the faculty and staff. Grinding a youth’s will to live with derision and hate until they can\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’t find the strength to endure is despicable. But it happens everyday.
Luckily, we have allies in the straight community, straight people who recognize our common humanity and refuse to condone our oppression. My boss has donated generously to sponsor my team for the AIDS Walk this year. The friend who witnessed the F250 girl donates handcrafted imports from his store to many annual county events. The restaurant and business owners I have the privilege to know are so supportive. They want to know what they can do to help. Ultimately, we are only as liberated as our most oppressed element. I love that we get to work together to make Ventura County a center of art and culture, a model of tolerance and respect and a beacon of refuge. The queer element of Ventura County is fortunate to have allies of this quality.
So that’s queer life in Ventura County in a nutshell. I hope you take a minute this October to broaden your experience of life here — stop by the bar for a drink and some conversation, drop into the Ventura County Rainbow Alliance or worship at one of the churches some Sunday. If you feel like getting more involved, contact COLOR or another of the social betterment organizations in the area for volunteer opportunities and become an ally for social justice. Please be more aware of possibly abusive behavior and try to curtail it. As you explore the rich, queer culture that makes Ventura County such a great place to live, you may discover that we’re not so different after all.