Earlier this month, a federal court issued yet another ruling striking down same-sex marriage bans. It was the 39th in a near unanimous string of victories for gay couples in just over a year. If you only read the headlines or watched the poll numbers (showing an all-time acceptance of same-sex marriage), you’d think “these are the good old days” for all LGBT people, as one California gay rights advocate said recently.
As an advice columnist who’s been answering queries about LGBT manners for (and from) both gay and straight readers, I’ve found I have a unique vantage point on the state of gay today: My inbox is stark evidence of the deep pain and challenges that LGBT people still face. I don’t know if my fellow advice columnists like Jeanne Phillips (“Dear Abby”) or Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”) ever feel rage as they read the questions that come into their inboxes. But I do.
I know this pessimistic view seems counterintuitive, especially given the recent tilt toward civil rights and equality for LGBT people. Naturally, I’m thinking about the impact of the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the reversal of the policy that allowed the Boy Scouts to kick out young gay men, and most of all, the success of the marriage equality movement.
Well, not so fast.
Let me tell you a few stories from my LGBT readers: A young woman in Mississippi wrote me to say that after her wife of 43 days died from cancer, she found herself banned from the funeral by her in-laws. She had posted on Facebook: “This is tearin’ me apart. If I pull up, I will go to jail for real…. I’m at the laundromat watching [my wife being laid to rest].” She had no question, only a statement: “All people need the same rights – no matter gender, race, or religion or what state they live in.” Her story tore me apart too; I don’t know that I could have answered a question from her that was not colored by fury at her in-laws and a state that denies LGBT couples the right to marry and to bury their spouses.
I’ve heard from a grandmother in Kansas, who in the struggle to come out had considered suicide. She wrote: “I convinced myself that it would be better for me to die rather than risk bringing shame to my children and family by telling the truth.” When she found the courage to disclose her sexual orientation, members of the Baptist church she’d attended for 20 years “shunned” her. She wanted to know how to handle such hate. Although I counseled acceptance, I really wanted to wring the necks of these people. How can anyone intentionally inflict such pain?
Perhaps nothing hurts or angers me more, though, than those straight readers with a public axe or two to grind. In response to a lesbian Bridezilla mother-in-law question came this post: “Get normal and quick making your ‘in-laws’ life miserable with your sexual acting out & playing house. And don’t expect your kids to bring you happiness in the future when you’ve brought them into your own miserable creepy unrepentant lifestyle.” Dearest letter writer, that’s not just my readers you’re talking about – that’s my husband, my sister and her wife, and me. You can’t get more personal that that.
I suppose every advice columnist raises some reader hackles from time to time, but I don’t know that my colleagues are subject to slurs like “faggot” (and others that can’t be printed here) or death threats (“I have ordered 3 of my men to monitor every move of you and make sure you are not out of sight till the date of your assassination”).
As I contemplate my anger, I see two tracks when it comes to the state of LGBT affairs today. The civil rights successes on the nightly news move on one track, but my reader mail reflects the headlines that don’t make the front page or homepage, like these recent ones: “Mom Accused of Doing Horrific Things to Daughter For Being Gay” and “Still No Arrests After Two Transgender Woman Killed in Baltimore.”
I’m not entirely alone when it comes to thinking that the struggle for LGBT acceptance is far from over. Michelangelo Signorile, editor-at-large for Gay Voices at the Huffington Post and author of a forthcoming book of the backlash against marriage equality, told me: “People are often seduced by polls showing dramatic shifts in support for LGBT ‘rights.’ But the polls don’t measure homophobia and transphobia. A few legislative and court wins don’t end homophobia, just as getting rights for African-Americans didn’t end racism. There is a larger job to do here.”
Last month after another court victory for marriage equality, a straight acquaintance, excited for me and for gay people in general, exclaimed how this was “the best of times” for us. Alas, he was dumbfounded (as was I) when I unexpectedly let loose with a 30-second barrage of the painful questions my readers send me. Somehow, like so many others, he’d missed those stories, those headlines, and those studies.
Whose fault is this? I’m reminded of Larry Kramer, who famously asked “Where’s the rage?” in an essay that decried the efforts of the gay community to get the government to focus on HIV/AIDS. Said Kramer: “[We] let them get away with it.”
Perhaps all of us well-mannered LGBT folk, including columnists like me, need to stop hiding our pain and anger. Maybe if we started voicing our rage, right-minded straight allies would not be blinded by headlines, polls, and court victories. Maybe then people would finally wake up to understand the parallel track of gay life today and the pain that lives in the hearts of those, like my letter writers, who have been abused, mocked, bullied and beaten. But, by the strength of their indomitable spirits, not broken.
Steven Petrow writes the Civilities column about LGBT/straight social dilemmas for The Washington Post and is the author of five etiquette books. He’s a former president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association. Follow him at Facebook.com/stevenpetrow or @stevenpetrow.