|Posted on November 8, 2016 at 12:20 AM|
By Dennis Stone
Gay people have historically had the self-perception of being society’s outsiders. It’s not hard to understand why. Until the 1970s gay people were considered by all psychological organizations to be mentally ill. In only one state in the U.S. was sodomy legal prior to the 1970s, and it remained illegal in fourteen states until the Supreme Court’s “Lawrence v Texas” ruling in 2003. Until recent years few people came out at work, and many feared coming out to family and even friends. The “average person” didn’t know gay people, and thought of them as scary deviants or doomed sinners.
But times have dramatically changed. Marriage equality is the law of the land, and, more importantly, societal attitudes have largely embraced the gay community. Corporate executives are run out of their companies for expressing opposition to marriage equality, celebrities who say anything homophobic immediately hit the apology tour, and most people of all political persuasions have gay friends or family members whom they love and value.
The bottom line is that we really aren’t outsiders anymore in any meaningful way. I considered all of this the other day when I read the most recent editor’s letter from Matthew Breen in “The Advocate.” This is his first sentence: “It’s a natural impulse for outsiders—like we in the queer community—to reject the mainstream candidates and lodge a protest vote.” The problem is that a large percentage of us are no longer outsiders in any meaningful sense. Matthew Breen certainly isn’t an outsider. In fact, he’s become a consummate insider - the editor of a highly regarded, long established magazine that speaks for a “trendy” population group.
I think we in the developed world do a disservice to our community by continuing to classify ourselves as outsiders. Yes, there are still many who suffer because of their orientation, especially kids subject to the scourge of bullying. (And, of course, there are many countries where gay people remain quintessential outsiders.) But as a community we in America are no longer lurking on the outskirts of mainstream society, we are no longer exotic creatures to be uncovered and then shamed, we are no longer social pariahs feared or hated by most of our fellow citizens.
The danger in maintaining the outsider characterization is to the self image of those in our community, especially the younger, impressionable ones. It’s far more healthy for people to see themselves as integral, valued, and accepted members of society, than to see themselves as being on the margins.
So why do so many join Matthew Breen in thinking of themselves as outsiders? Habit is a part of it, especially for those who have spent energy fighting for equality. Self perception has exceptional strength, and is not easily changed. Identity is a vital concept to most people, and if “outsider” is a word included in our identity, then it is a word and concept that has become a part of us, a word and concept we are loathe to give up.
For some people it is a distinction, a badge of honor, to be an outsider. I can personally relate to that, recognizing myself early in life as different from my peers in multiple ways. I actually celebrated the differences, and because of that had no trouble with my gay identity when I realized it at nineteen. I think that’s what’s going on with a lot of people like Matthew Breen. They can actually be insiders, with all the attendant benefits, but then get psychological benefits from their perceptions of being noble outsiders, fighting for truth, justice, and the [ideal] American way.
As a lifelong progressive I hate to take shots at the activist and “social justice warrior” types among us. But those are the people who are maintaining the facade of victimhood and “otherness” that genuinely described us in the past, but that has become more and more a false picture as the twenty-first century progresses. The “regular people” I know who happen to be gay live their lives essentially like the straight people around them. For most, they did at one time think of themselves as outsiders, but that designation has become worn and tattered. It’s time we left it behind.