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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Being Gay in the Hood

June is gay pride month, a month dedicated to the proposition that gay, lesbian and bisexual folks should have the same rights as everybody else. In 2009, many people, thankfully, don’t have a problem with that. After all, we live in an age where every week in The New York Times there are photographs of gay and lesbian couples alongside heterosexual couples in the marriage announcement section. These marriage announcements rarely mention the words gay or lesbian. What you get are short bios of the engaged couples.
Fishtown and Port Richmond are generally ‘live and let live’ places when it comes to sexual orientation, but sometimes old school prejudices die hard. Recently a lesbian friend of mine told me about the reaction caused by a friend of hers wearing a t-shirt with the name ‘Dyke’ blasted across the front. A few men on her street made their objections to the t-shirt audible in an impolite way. Their manner was so gruff my friend categorized it as a ‘gay bashing.’
I found the men’s reaction odd. After all, the stereotype is that many straight men like the idea of lesbianism and lesbians. Watch reruns of the old Jerry Springer show and count every time the audience chants, “We love lesbians!” If this is truly the case, why were these Fishtown men upset at a corny old Dyke t-shirt? How could that threaten their rough-hewn masculinity? Shouldn’t they have been upset about the economy instead? Or how about rising food costs at the local market or even the high rate of unemployment?
The t-shirt episode forced my friend and I to dissect the mores of the neighborhood: it seems you can be gay here, but you can’t be too showy about it —no hand holding in public, no political signs, no rainbow flags, no “in your face” slogans printed on jackets, hats or t-shirts. If you want to walk hand-in-hand with your same sex partner, then you had better head for Center City (where that is quickly becoming the norm). It’s not that people in the hood don’t know you’re gay; it’s not that they can’t “see,” they just don’t want blatant visuals, even if everybody has a different interpretation of what a ‘blatant visual’ is.
I think everybody should be able to hold hands, despite the fact that I find the whole public hand holding business a bit odd. It’s uncomfortable to walk in public and hold somebody’s hand. To me it feels like you are leading a little child around. It’s also sweaty on the palms, and then there’s the question of unequal walking styles.
For years prior to my move to the neighborhood I had heard that Fishtown and Port Richmond were not ideal places to be gay or lesbian. Once I settled in, however, I was surprised to learn that the numbers of gay people who live here are significantly high. My eyes were opened. “This area is the best kept secret in the city,” I exclaimed then. “It’s a mini (under wraps) San Francisco!”
I also discovered that most people here are generally respectful, civil and tolerant—good people-- but that (hey, life is not perfect) sometimes there were “eruptions” from cranky old school types and from children whose parents may have taught them the “art” of bigotry.
The aim of the gay rights movement, as I understand it, is to make itself obsolete, to go out of business and disappear. This is a good thing, but this can only happen when being gay is a completely irrevelent fact of life. Let me give you an example: Say, if in a dispute with a neighbor, one neighbor calls another a “queer,” an irrevelent fact not related to the dispute in question. This statement would reveal bigotry, right? The gay neighbor may have never realized that the neighbor she is in conflict with felt that way, but when the truth comes out under pressure, she is suddenly aware of it. Prejudice, then, is often hidden or masked until it is tapped, like a volcano in waiting.
Making the ‘gay thing’ totally irrelevant would mean that the two neighbors would stick to the issue at hand without getting into name calling.
Statements like “He’s a queer,” or “She’s a dyke” are labels that attempt to set people apart. Granted, wearing a Dyke t-shirt is a little silly when you think about it. Certainly the impetus there is to shock and get a reaction from people. In an ideal society, a t-shirt like that would generate no reaction, but unfortunately we live in a society where certain buzz words make some folks go off the deep end.
What’s funny about people who overreact, those folks who are the first to yell queer or fag, is that very often they are the ones with deep seated sexual orientation issues. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for those people to come out as gay at a later point in life.
Let’s not forget Shakespeare’s line, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

Thom Nickels

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