The Gay Gap: A Taboo Tangoed

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Lt. Dan Choi and Dan Manning march in Wichita Pride Parade. Both were discharged under DADT. (photo by David Quick)

The first time I heard the word “gay” was in 1993. Bill Clinton was our new President, and gays in the military was among the first major issues his administration was tackling. I was 10 years old. One Sunday morning, after reading about Clinton’s proposal to allow open service, my dad commented to my mom that gay people were going to destroy the military. Clinton, he said, would be to blame when our country was no longer able to defend itself against foreign invaders after our troops fled their posts to avoid the gays.

Whoever these “gays” were, they sounded pretty bad!

When I asked my parents to explain, I was told that being gay was a taboo. Homosexuality was against God’s intentions. Our nation would fall like the Roman Empire if we embraced it. Visions of fighting, fire, and warfare clouded my mind as I pondered the significance of this new mention in my lexicon. Little did I know that a few short years later, a word introduced to me shrouded in distasteful forbiddance would become a central part of my own burgeoning identity. When it did, those connotations stuck, and an awkward resentment lingered as I came to understand the utter wrong in my parent’s assessment.

Taboos are cultural creations. Society sets the parameters for what is acceptable. Often, those boundaries change. Words once masked in darkness become illuminated over time.

Fast-forward 18 years, and that’s exactly what has happened. In 1993, around 40% of the country favored allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. Today, that number swells close to 80%. The September 20, 2011 “Repeal Day” of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was more than a mere lifting of a ban. It was the culmination of an evolving country. We are a nation of people becoming more enlightened each day on the issue of sexual orientation.

It’s not just straight people who’ve needed to evolve, though. Those of us who are gay need to remember the people inside the “gay gap”. As acceptance has grown, the folks in between that 40% mark then and the 80% mark now are why laws are changing. They are our friends who disassociated with us when we came out. They are our colleagues who ridiculed us behind our backs. They are our mothers who cried when we revealed our truth. They are our fathers who cringed when they learned their child is gay. They are our uncles who made offensive jokes at Thanksgiving dinner. They are our grandparents who never knew a single homosexual person. They are all the people who clung to the taboo, only to have their notions stretched by the true colors of our realities. They might have caused us grief in the past, but they are paving part of our road forward in the present. We must forgive them and let go of that resentment.

The Sunday night before the ban was lifted, I was on the phone with my dad. When he asked me what my plans were for the upcoming week, I mentioned my intention to attend a Repeal Day party. He very comfortably commented that he had read an article in his local newspaper focusing on an elderly man discharged under the policy who would soon have his benefits reinstated. “That’s a good thing for the country,” he said. His understated tone of acceptance underscores the gap.

Those simple words did wonder to wash away my own resentment. They made me realize that whatever hostility headlines from the past may have elicited, it’s the lives we are living now that truly matter. We can’t begrudge people for past prejudices. We can only be thankful that they embrace the truth of a taboo lifted.

Gays are now serving openly in the military. Our nation stands strong. Our families can be stronger.

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Flux of a Movement

There’s a moment captured on film that simply, yet perfectly shows the flux of shifting attitudes about gays and lesbians. This summer’s much-hyped The Kids are Alright showcases the joys, trials, complexities, and simplicities of raising a family in modern America. When the family’s teenage son realizes his moms are going to stay together despite a rocky period in their relationship, he cracks a satisfied smile. Nodding with approval over their decision to remain a couple, MGMT’s “The Youth” is queued. Audiences understand that the kids of same-sex couples ARE alright.

Gay/Straight Alliance-me with ICT musician Justin France (photo by David Quick)

The youth, indeed, are starting to change! But that change is recent, and the future is still very much in flux.

It’s no secret that over the past decade, a cultural shift has taken place among the millennium generation that has lead to an overall change in attitudes toward gay people.  Most under the age of 35 view their LGBT peers as equals. They see their same sex relationships as being on par with their own hetero-romances.  Polling data shows that nearly 2/3 of young adults support gay marriage, but this social transition is much deeper than any poll could ever pronounce.  At the time of this writing, the U.S. Senate has failed to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and Proposition 8 remains on stay in California; gays remain barred from both military and matrimony.  Yet, something progressive is afoot in the culture. As I write, I wait for musician Justin France to join me for dinner. He’s a 26 year old straight man, and fast becoming one of my closest personal friends.  This gay/straight alliance is a pairing that is not so uncommon anymore.

It turns out that social barriers, not legal hurdles, were the most significant change to unfold for gay people during the 2000’s. No longer relegated to socializing solely in bars with other gays, we were able to form real friendships with straight men and women, integrating into the culture at-large.  That’s what happens when closet doors open. We end up in a post-Will & Grace world where we can be whole people instead of just gay people. How many of you who are heterosexual have a dear friend of another orientation whom you can’t imagine not having in your life? Your life, too, would be different without this social flux!

A flux is a precursor to change, and while socially we’ve made progress, legally we lag behind.  The kids are alright until tragedy puts their family in limbo. With most states not giving any legal recognition to same-sex couples, the death of one mom doesn’t always mean the surviving parent will get custody. The youth have to make change happen. Telling a pollster you support gay marriage and then going to get a drink with your gay best friend is great, but it’s not enough to ensure that this flux gives way to a permanent state of fairness.

You have to vote, advocate, and demand. And then vote again! If we do, this generation can finish the change!

Honesty: A Latino Family Value

ImageJaron is patriotic, young, Hispanic, and gay. He’s a son, a brother, a friend, and possibly someone’s boyfriend.  He’s a student and an activist. He’s also a former soldier in the US army. Identity is a myriad of personal circumstances. Take one part of who someone is away and they’re not a whole person anymore. They’re compartmentalized and incomplete.  Mandate that someone keep a significant part of their life a secret, and you’re asking that person to be less than honest.

Living in between the lines of truth and trickery is exactly where Jaron found himself, though, both in his family and career.  It’s a familiar place for people who serve in the US military under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Telling the truth means you’ll lose your job—and more importantly, your ability to defend the country you love. It’s also a familiar place for people who are Hispanic. Coming out in a Latino family means risking losing su familia, your family, the people who love you and the backbone of who you are as a person. Latino culture places a high value on family and extended family connections.  Because homosexuality is seen as being a threat to the family structure, many gay and lesbians within the Latino community take up don’t ask, don’t tell us their mantra. Their families learn not to ask about their love life. They discern how to keep their love a secret.

Secrets don’t settle well with Jaron, though. He came out at 16. He references the hindrance hyper-masculinity plays in Latinos being able to be themselves. Placing a high value on machismo, it makes being openly gay very difficult. “My coming out story was nothing short of turbulent. I came out the summer before my junior year in high school. I was very afraid of what my family and friends would think of me. My father was brought up in the old school way. He was a very devoted Baptist, and took the news very hard. My mother was no better. She held herself somehow accountable for me being gay,” he said.  “The rest of his family was equally aghast. “My immediate family met me with disbelief, and thought I was in a phase for awhile.”

Unlike clothes, you don’t try on a sexual orientation. Jaron knew he wasn’t in the middle of a phase.

One day after he graduated high school, though, he did try on a uniform. An interest to serve his country lead him to a new phase in his life—as a soldier of the US army. Having come out once, he didn’t want to step completely back in the closet. “It was more of an open secret to begin with. I just used gender neutral terms, never really talked about dating women specifically… that sort of thing. I came out when I was deployed to Iraq. When you’re in a place like that, no one really cared. There were many more important things to be worried about,” he said.

Jaron described a military culture that seems to be in transition on this issue. He pointed out that younger soldiers, most of who grew up around other people they knew to be gay, were a lot more comfortable. He is quick to note that his sexual orientation never affected his unit’s cohesiveness and ability to work well together. His honesty, actually, had the opposite effect. “There were some guys who didn’t really agree with me being gay at first. After awhile though, a lot of them came around and acknowledged that being gay has no real bearing on your character. They supported me no matter what. Ultimately, I found it brings you closer when you’re honest with each other,” he said.

Jaron’s service in the military ended last December. He’s now back in Wichita and involved locally as a political activist. He can be classified by many identities, but ultimately it’s his self-identity that matter most. The ability to be yourself and integrate who you are into the family dynamics and culture you were born into as well as the career you choose is the paramount of American heroism. It’s also an homage to the Kansas value of honesty.

If you’re a not-so-homogenous homo on the range, tell me you’re story! I want to hear from Wichitans from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. E-mail me at jasonaarondilts@gmail.com