Suit and Tie Picket Line

Suit and Tie Picket Line
“I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down…”
-Buffalo Springfield

There is a different world in our activism these days, a world where woe unto those who dare to cross the line of the high-rollers, you better look perfectly acceptable to white bread America if you want them to back you up.

Welcome to the world of suit and tie activism.

Dig, this is a true story. Back in January 2014, we were facing HJR-3 here in Indiana. It was the latest attempt by our statehouse in enshrine marriage discrimination into our state constitution. They had been trying it for the last ten years or so and this looked like their last realistic chance to do it. Anyway, they were having a public hearing about the matter there in the statehouse chambers and the call went out to the brothers and sisters through the vine to show up and support equality in Indiana.

So I showed up, decked out in a red Hawaiian shirt (we were told to wear red to show our support) and of course, I had my Pride Flag wrapped around me. I don’t go into a fight without the Colors, you dig? And this young man in a suit who looked like he stepped out of the pages of GQ stopped me and looked at me a bit oddly. He was with Freedom Indiana (the “official” group on our side) and he said to me “I appreciate the enthusiasm, but is there another way you could hold your flag? We don’t want our opposition taking a picture of you looking like that and using it against us.”

I didn’t look like white bread America; I was a flat-out stone-obvious freak, a street activist with the weight of many picket lines around my eyes and this young man was worried how such an image would play out in the papers. Never mind the fact that I was there to show my solidarity, I didn’t meet up to the dress codes standards, so there was no room for me to show my dedication.

That incident really lit a fire under my buddy Mike Shipley. He’s connected with the Outright Libertarians, so he decided to investigate a bit and called the folks at Freedom Indiana and he got this explanation from Megan Robertson (one of the campaign managers), “Freedom Indiana has become a brand in and of itself, while the rainbow flag certainly has a place in this overall movement, our campaign is currently focused on a very small constituency. It is great to have these allies step up, some even to the level of contributing $100,000 to our efforts.”

You hear that, brothers and sisters? This wasn’t a fight for equality, nope, this was a “brand” and all folks like me were good for was ponying up the cash to keep the brand going.

But is this sort of squeaky clean activism without precedent in our history? It is not, many of the early movements in the pre-Stonewall days of the 1960’s were absolutely insistent at marching in conservative suits and ties with the women in respectable skirts. Their demonstrations were completely civil, nothing dangerous, nothing outrageous, just a group of LGBT folks and their supporters marching quietly with their picket signs.

For the time, it was radical in and of itself to march for support of LGBT people, what those people were doing was risky on its own, they believed if they kept it clean and conservative they would have a better chance of making their point. While admirable, they were ultimately ignored by many in the political establishment. It wasn’t until the streets burned in NYC on that hot night in June of ‘69 that people started to take us seriously.

Looking beyond history and even beyond what’s been happening in my home state of Indiana, the corporate activism of the HRC (Human Rights Campaign) is a major part of the national movement. One of our other national fights right now, outside of marriage equality, is the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). ENDA has been introduced in every session of Congress since 1994. In 2007, Congressman Barney Frank introduced a version of ENDA known as HR 3685. Many LGBT groups pulled their support from the legislation due to its absence of protections for transgender folks. The HRC didn’t, they continued their support of the legislation. They considered the opportunity too great to pass up and if it meant throwing our transgender siblings under the bus, so be it.

So why did they throw our transgender siblings under the bus? I believe it was basically for mass appeal, to reach the greatest number of potential donors and supporters. We are at a point where gay and lesbian folks can be presented in political advertising as all-American couples, no different than your neighbors next door. Our transgender siblings are not in so great a position, they still strike fear into the hearts of Main Street USA (for whatever reason), and thus they are politically expendable.

It’s a sad thing to see as we march closer to the mountaintop of equality and liberation. The voices on the streets, the vanguard of our revolution, are being told to quiet down, don’t upset the neighbors, don’t make the donors anxious. The HRC are always quick to claim the victory when we win, always quick to pat each other on the back and send out another donor email asking for money to continue the fight.

Who’s gonna ultimately win this war, brothers and sisters? Who gets the party at the end? Is it gonna be the suit and tie folks who use us as bartering chips with donors and legislators? Or is it gonna be those of us who do more than just cut a check, those of us who pick up the signs and banners and march in the streets when the drums roll?

It’s up to you, whose faces will we ultimately remember?

The Stonewall Riots, Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, ACT UP, Queer Nation, landmarks in our history, tales of bravery by countless brothers and sisters armed with nothing but their identities and a sense of right and justice; nothing pretty, nothing fancy, pure unadulterated street action, a bold and desperate move to proclaim our rights and humanity.

Or, some company that puts up a meaningless “workplace equality policy” that shines on paper and soon has high-rollers of the HRC pop the cork on a bottle of champagne and raise a toast to the CEOs and bosses. The high-rollers who brown-nosed a few folks in local government, maybe even scored a congressman or two (er, not in the sex scandal way), and soon, they had those elected officials in their back pocket and the lavender vote locked down for that candidate.

The latter should not be the faces of our legacy. The face of our legacy should be the ones that had to get sweaty and angry and unkempt. Faces like yours and mine.

Revolution for Sale: Pride, Community, and Advertising

forsalepride

By the time I was twenty-five in the summer of 2012, I was certainly a certified radical queer; I had been a veteran of many picket lines both in my hometown of Indianapolis and in Terre Haute where I went to school, I had seen my name splashed across local newspaper headlines and even racked up a few appearances on the evening news for my activism. Pride was something I believed in heart and soul, a high-octane rock n roll sort of pride, the kind of pride that drives a person to say “Enough!” and take to the streets. But despite all my experiences up to that point, I had never made it out to a Pride Festival.

In June of that year, I finally made the pilgrimage to the Pride Festivities in Indianapolis. I hadn’t been able to do it before due to my job as a camp counselor, being at camp during June and all. But that job was over after nine years, so I could finally go. I put on my black beret with all my street buttons and ribbons on it, wrapped my Colors around me and headed downtown.

I didn’t quite know what to expect, I think I was looking for an oasis, a home in a sense if you can dig that. I figured I’d run into other like-minded young radicals and maybe even score a new gig or two. I had been out of street activism for several months and was looking for some action.

Well sadly, I didn’t see any of that. Instead I saw tents and booths hawking cheap merchandise emblazoned with rainbow colors. The closest thing to any activism I saw was the booth of the HRC (Human Rights Campaign). I saw cut lean pretty boys strutting around shirtless, teasing the crowds in hopes of scoring at least a free drink. I saw corporate feces being smeared with our rainbow colors, like a bank or a beer brewery was really gonna be on our side just because they decided to hoist our Colors for the day.

This was Pride, this was our celebration of the Stonewall Riots, our time to embrace each other and keep up the fight. Instead it seemed we had allowed our forefathers (and mothers) vision to be turned into a den of corporate thieves and there was no Christ to drive them away from our temple.

It was a revelatory experience for me, no doubt. But maybe not in the way I had planned. I went in expecting to find like-minded activists; instead I left the events feeling isolated, too heavy and crazy for even my own community. Later that night I went to Rocky Horror and found a haven of radical queers, activists, and just plain weirdos.

This isn’t just a question of advertisers taking over my hometown’s Pride festivities; this is a national campaign of injecting corporate smack into our celebrations.

Consider Oreos campaign in 2012, in “honor” of Pride month; the famous cookie posted a picture to their Facebook page consisting of a big Oreo with six layers of cream, each a different color, forming the famous Rainbow Flag. The text simply read “June 25 Pride”. A Kraft foods spokesperson was quoted in the Huffington Post in regards to the ad campaign saying “As a company, Kraft Foods has a proud history of celebrating diversity and inclusiveness.”

Or Burger King, in 2014, the fast food chain unveiled a special Whopper available only at their San Francisco locations. It was wrapped in Pride colored wax paper. Customers were initially baffled, wondering what the Pride Whopper had on it. Turns out it was just a regular Whopper, a reflection of the company’s then current marketing campaign “Be Your Way”. A senior vice president of marketing told TIME magazine “We felt that [the Proud Whopper] could bring to life a message of equality, self-expression, authenticity and just being who you are.”

While the Pride Whopper was released only during Pride Week and only in San Francisco, images of the burger’s wrapper quickly spread to social media, attracting many reposts and calls of support, claiming that the burger chain was on our side.

Of course, both companies marketing campaigns also attracted a small amount of protest, with many taking offense and claiming that both companies had “abandoned moral values”. Needless to say, there were also calls for boycotts which promptly went nowhere and were ignored. I’m still not sure what moral values these people had attached to their burgers and cookies, but apparently those values had been violated.

These ad campaigns and the prevalence of big corporate advertising in our Pride Festivities mark a strange watershed in our movement. Companies don’t generally like to gamble with their advertising and pissing off a large potential customer base definitely constitutes a gamble. Think about it, would Burger King or Oreo have run such a campaign say ten years ago when the culture wars were reaching their zenith? I doubt it, back in 2004 we were still a viable threat and the conservatives were exploiting people’s fear of us for all the votes they could get (the conservatives were ultimately successful in that campaign, Bush got another term and many states outlawed marriage equality in their state constitutions).

We have struggled for over forty years to be accepted into mainstream America and being a target audience for major corporations counts as a form of acceptance, what’s more American than consumerism? But is this the sort of acceptance we want? Have we wadded through rivers of spilled blood and hail storms of nightsticks and fists just to become corporate mascots of consumerism?

That’s a question we have to ask ourselves at this crossroads and for me personally, it’s not the sort of acceptance I want. I’m not fighting like hell just so that in five or ten years I can see stores offering big sales on Harvey Milk Day. In a capitalist society, one of the tools at the disposal of any activist is the power of the dollar and I say we use that power. We use that power to tell these big corporations to back off. We use that power to tell them that if they really support us then they will cease splattering their corporate vomitus all over our parties and they will cease zeroing in on us merely to line their pockets with our dollars.

Pride Festivals were born out of a sense of community, a chance for us to proclaim to the world that we are here, we are mighty, and we ain’t going anywhere. Corporate advertising has no place in our parades, we are a family, a network forged in the struggle for liberty and justice, and we don’t need our parties to have banners proclaiming “Welcome to Pride! Sponsored by the Big Corporation”.

No Man’s Land: Notes from the Bisexual Experience

 

no mans land

“Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, Here I am , Stuck in the middle with you…” –Stealers Wheel

Sometimes I wonder how far we’ve really come. Oh sure, in the legal sense, we’ve gone a mile a minute; more and more states have marriage equality and it looks like the Supreme Court may be gearing up to settle the question once and for all, our reflection is posted all over Main Street USA, with Lady Gaga racking up millions in record sales and Glee coming in on top of the ratings. Hell, even our opponents seem to be on the retreat, with the notorious and once powerful National Organization for Marriage (NOM) being reduced to a mere shadow of their former selves, their primary activity these days is sending out emails begging for money.

But somehow in all this excitement and seemingly forward movement, I feel left out. I’m a bisexual dude, the “B” in LGBT you might say, and to quote Rodney Dangerfield, I don’t get no respect at all.

Bisexuality is a strange thing in America, it seems if you’re bisexual and you’re female, it’s somewhat respected (manly because heterosexual guys fantasize about having two women at the same time), but if you’re male and bisexual, you get a lot of stick from all sides.

To give you an example of what I’m talking about, when I starting coming out publicly (a process that took seven years and towards the end, enough liquor to float the liver of Charles Bukowski) I got a lot of flak from gay guys. I heard it all, “Oh you’re just too afraid to come all the way out of the closet”, “It’s just a phase”, “You’re just experimenting” or the biggest kick in the balls, “You’re just riding our coattails, you’ve never suffered for your sexuality!”

And this attitude isn’t just confined to the gay guys I knew in Indiana, noted gay journalist Dan Savage at one point even denied the existence of bisexual guys. He has since amended his position and has acknowledged our existence.

But beyond just questioning my very existence, once someone accepted the fact I was bisexual, it opened up a lot of other odd questions. A primary one I got was just “how bisexual” I was, you know, did I dig mainly dudes and just sleep with the occasional woman or was it the other way around, that sort of trip. Was I mainly gay? Was I mainly straight? I’m neither, I’m bi, I’m a guy of options. It depends on the person as to whether or not I’m attracted to them.

Apparently I’m expected to be fifty-fifty, total Kinsey Scale middle to be accepted as “truly” bisexual.

The deepest cut of this erasure and confusion comes close to home for me. Like many LGBT folks, coming out to my family was the hardest part and some of them still don’t know. But one person I didn’t want to find out was my grandfather. He’s very conservative and pretty stuck in his ways, especially when it comes to LGBT folks. I had a lot of respect for him; he taught me the art of telling a really good story and how to take pride in turning an honest dollar. The last thing I wanted was for him to disown me because of my sexuality.

Well one night earlier this year, I was out to dinner with my Aunt Debbie, who could be counted as “liberal”, at least by my family’s standards, and the subject of my sexuality came up. I mentioned that when I came out to my mother, the one thing we agreed on was that we wouldn’t tell grandma and grandpa. Well apparently grandpa knew.

She told me my cousin Morgan (her son) had been over at our grandparents’ house with a friend of his and grandpa was showing them some family photos. When grandpa flipped to my picture, he said to my cousin’s friend, “This is W.T., he’s gay, we just don’t talk about it” and moved on.

Now on one hand, I’m glad grandpa didn’t disown me or have another heart attack, but on the other hand, I resented being called gay, because I’m not. I’m not straight either for that matter. This black and white, one way or another bit really frustrated me.

As much as it hurts to admit, part of this erasure does fall on some members of the bisexual community. I’ve known people who are bisexual who end up in a long-term relationship with a man or a woman and they just publicly identify as either gay or straight, whatever the case may be. I’ve asked a few of them why and the response is usually the same, “Oh I got tired of explaining it, I got tired of the hassle.” Damn it, brothers and sisters, hoist that bisexual flag high and proud! Don’t identify yourself one way or another just because folks won’t accept it!

I don’t want to be all heavy here, so I will leave with a laugh. When I finally finished coming out publicly, a lot of my friends were surprised, telling me, “You’re bi? Huh, never saw it coming.” My response was, “Really guys? Have you ever been to the liquor store with me? It takes me half an hour to pick out a damn drink! I’ve always liked my variety and options.”

Coattail Rider Blues

(By Walter Beck)

Dancing on a tightrope
Strung across two worlds,
Time warping on a high wire
Over a sea split by colors.

Yeah, I’m a fence rider,
Leaning one way or another,
With the person holding on
Absolutely terrified
I’m gonna jump ship
And swim in the other side.

Boots boogieing on a thin rail,
No pan tapping to hold my rhythm.
I’m a coin toss
Betting on heads and tails,
Fizzling out and plummeting down
Into the melding middle stripe
Strung between two worlds.

 

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