Bravery and the Closet
The Stonewall Uprising was the turning point between the time when queer people either accepted a life in the closet or a life on the margins of society, and the time when queer people started to live openly within society. But what exactly does this turning point mean to queer individuals today; what does it look like on a personal level? The openness of the post-Stonewall environment is exemplified in the common chant of yesteryear’s LGBTQ rights movement: “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” After 50 years, it would be nice to think that queer identities are now accepted by our society, that people have gotten used to it, and that the fight on the personal level was over. However, we now know the implication behind “we’re, we’re queer, get used to it” is a philosophy too simple for reality to allow.
The previous articles in this series have focused on the activism and bravery of queer individuals and relevant events from around the world, but for the conclusion, I would like to take it back home, because even here, in the liberal city of Portland, in 2019, being openly queer still feels like a risk. I discovered this truth for myself last year through an experience that had me confront what a moment like the Stonewall Uprising really meant for me—an experience that was the seed for this series.
For PSU pride month (May) of Spring 2018, I decided to display a rainbow-flag button on the strap of my backpack. I felt it was the least I could do to show pride and acceptance in my own gay identity. Quite literally the least I could do, as I had never done any queer activism, never yet participated in a Pride March, and the button was given to me free by the QRC. I positioned the button so that it lay across the left side of my chest, and in doing so, openly marked myself as queer for the first time. What I mean by “openly for the first time” is not that I “came out” for the first time, but rather that I, for the first time, forfeited control over who knew and who didn’t know I was queer. My identity had only ever been known in situations where I chose to make it known, or in situations where it was implied (for example, my monthly meetings with the Portland Gay Men’s Book Club). I had anticipated some apprehension in giving up this control of identification, but was surprised to discover how strong the initial discomfort was. I felt as though I’d cast myself into a spotlight, under which I exposed a vulnerability I’d never before perceived. I had never recognized how comforting that control, that ability to hide when needed, really was; I immediately came to hate that comfort I had only just become aware of, because it felt like I had been trying to keep one hand on the doorknob of the proverbial closet. Unfortunately, despite my disdain for the comfort I didn’t even know I had until I gave it up, I could not embrace the discomfort.
I tried to dismiss the discomfort, believing it would cool and diminish as the month went on; marking myself was a new experience, and new experiences often come with an inherent uneasiness. The discomfort did start to numb, but I never forgot the button was there. Like a lit match held between my fingers, I felt the rainbow pin required constant and conscious attention, or else it would burn me. I became very aware that I could no longer fully hide myself from someone who might not appreciate my existence. For the first time, I felt vulnerable to a harsh look or loaded word. Going to my classes, waiting in line for a cup of coffee, I wondered how glaringly the button blazed off the dark background of my backpack, and I wondered if this too is what is meant by “internalized homophobia.” Was I the problem?
The answer is complicated. I wanted to feel ridiculous and silly about feeling such a hyper-awareness, I wanted to simply believe I didn’t care what others thought and go about my day. But I had to care. While the button itself was and is just a button with a rainbow inspired design, it is representative of something that is not yet a full reality, not even in 2019. It is easy to be gay at a book club for gay people, it is easy to be queer in places like the Queer Resource Center, and it is relatively easy to feel accepted at a liberal university like PSU.
But this easiness fades when one is in society at large. The button was a constant reminder that even though I’m here and queer, not everybody has gotten used to it. In realizing this, I was confronted with the question of how many steps away from the closet I was willing to take. Could I take my hand off of the doorknob?
To come out of the closet is simply to stop acting, to stop pretending, to stop denying—it is more passive than active. A queer individual must be active only in dealing with the consequences of stopping the performance. Coming out of the closet by itself, while a significant and important act, has accomplished little on the larger stage of equal rights. Many of the Stonewall paterons were already living an open life, but merely existing did not make the government, or the police force, or even friends and family start to empathize with their unfair treatment. It was the active resistance of the Uprising to that unfair treatment that sparked real change. This holds true even today. Coming out of the closet might alter the viewpoint of some friends and neighbors, but alone it has done little to stop the misinformation of hate groups wanting to convey a less-than about queerness, little to stop the inflammatory rhetoric of pedophilia and assault misappropriated into the conversation about restroom use, little to stop a gay Latino PSU student from being brutally assaulted on an Amtrak train in Spring of 2018. It is worth repeating, one last time, how important and valuable coming out of the closet is, but it is only the first of many steps that must be taken for the dream of the Stonewall Uprising to be fully realized.
This is why the rainbow button made me so uncomfortable. I had already come out. I had already stopped the performance and the denial that is the closet. But I had done little else to move toward a life away from the closet. However, I’m grateful that I learned this about myself, because I want not only to end the performance, but to move forward to that hoped-for future of equality, despite the uncomfortable (sometimes dangerous) consequences of doing so. A future where young, queer people are baffled by the concept of the “the closet” is a future worth taking a risk for. Truthfully, I’d wish I’d taken more risks sooner, and I wish I was a few more steps away from my personal closet than I currently am. But it’s never too late to rise up and move forward. It’s easy to look at myself and my experience with the rainbow button and think, “coward.” But I’m not a coward. I’m just not yet as brave as I will be. This truth has only been reinforced over the past months as I’ve researched and written about Stonewall and the brave activists still fighting for LGBTQ justice around the world. They took the brave step of moving forward, and in doing so, pushed the world forward. For me to not move, when there are still steps to be taken, would be an insult to everything they risked when they began pushing forward and pushing away from the closet.
A Final Thought
There are many queer activists around the world that still deserve to be talked about, and whose work still needs to be acknowledged. However, I thought it best to close this series by recognizing the Stonewall Uprising itself. I have written about many aspects of the Uprising, and how lucky we in the United States are to have such a historical moment we can look back on, and be inspired by. But now I wish only to emphasize that fifty years is not such a long time, considering the change we have seen. Positive queer representation in media, marriage equality, and even a Queer Studies major at an urban university in Portland Oregon, are all current realities that many who participated in the Stonewall Uprising might have thought too much to hope for in only fifty years time. They are realities for which people struggled, fought, and even died. And while equality for queer individuals is still far from a complete reality, let us be encouraged that so much positive change was ignited by a relatively small group of brave, queer outcasts who, fifty years ago this month, decided it was time to step away from the closet door, and start moving forward.
If we can be as brave, imagine what another fifty years might bring.