A word on progress, or the lack thereof

If you were lucky, this past weekend you were able to catch the heartwarming story about a bunch of straighties who stood up for gays and general civility outside a pizza joint in Columbus, Ohio. The best part of this story is that after the crowd blasted an anti-gay heckler waiting in line for pizza, the workers at the establishment also turned away service, because he was “spewing hate.” What a great story, right? And it is! Allies are great, but businesses turning away paying customers to stand up for our rights is even better (and even more rare).

After reporting on the story, the Huffington Post then also released an editorial by drag queen Lady Bunny called “Heartwarming Stories Are Great, But Bad Things Still Happen to Gay People in Ohio,” chronicling their own appalling experience in Columbus, at a McDonald’s which was, unfortunately, not situated in the same gayborhood where the cheery, gay-lovin’ pizza truck was. I started reading Bunny’s story worried it would end in violence, but its conclusion is the other classic option—getting interrogated by the police for standing up for yourself, while the people who harassed you never receive a second glance.

I was glad Lady Bunny wrote this (though sorry, of course, that this event happened in the first place), and they bring up some really good questions about how far we’ve actually come in gay America, in between the occasional feel-good story. She says, “And imagine all the people whose negative stories are never even told, out of shame. Sadly, I think those experiences are still the norm.”

I know responses-to-responses pieces can get old on the Internet fast, but I believe this all starts a conversation that’s important for our community to have. The questions that are burning in my mind aren’t even necessarily about Lady Bunny’s final assertions. I think it’s true, and probably widely accepted, that negative experiences like hers outweigh positive ones like Joel Diaz’s at the pizza shop. My questions more surround the matter of: But should we still celebrate Joel Diaz’s story, anyway? And if we do, what’s the best way to do it?

Watch the video here

Because you see, before I actually read Lady Bunny’s story, when I first saw the headline on my Twitter feed, my immediate gut reaction was to say to myself, “Oh. Here comes the reason why you can’t feel good about that great story anymore.” It’s a feeling I’ve gotten used to in the gay community; I had already been guarded when I first read the pizza story, because it really highlights allies, and I’ve heard all the arguments about why praising allies is distracting and harmful. Sort of like the white hero complex: we spend more time celebrating outsiders who happen to decide to be decent people, instead of the people inside our community who really need the attention.

There seem to be negative sides of the coin for each seeming-triumph: we’re achieving greater marriage equality, but marriage is a patriarchal institution that simply molds us into a heteronormative world, anyway. The It Gets Better Project sounds like a good idea to some people, but it’s run by Dan Savage, a trans-hating dude, and places the burden of survival on kids’ psyches, instead of actually correcting the wrongs by adults and society. Obama’s done some good things for our community, sure, but he’s also done a lot of shitty things in his presidency, so let’s not get too excited, now. And on, and on, and on.

Before I raise anyone’s defenses, please, believe me when I say, I am not deriding any of these viewpoints, nor do I even disagree with some of them. I think healthy criticism is, in fact, at the heart of a healthy and honest movement. It is not only important to hear these counter-viewpoints; it’s essential. On this very site, I try to encourage criticism of gay media as often as possible. Yes, we’re making good strides, but there are so many more strides we have to make, so many ways we have to push forward past the Ryan Murphy mold.

So the question is—is it possible to have a balance? Because I do feel thrilled about gay marriage. I did smile when I read about that pizza shop in Ohio. Simultaneously, I want to be as educated and truth-seeking as the next person about the reality of our world. But the point in the counter-arguments that raises my hackles is the all-too-often implication that feeling happy about these positive stories is bad, and makes us bad people, that we are in fact doing harm by believing the world is all bubblegum and rainbows. But I don’t believe anyone in the gay community really believes the world is all bubblegum and rainbows. Joel Diaz was clearly very jazzed about his experience, because he knew it was a special experience. I don’t think that means that he believes we have all accomplished gay world peace or anything. But I do think he believes he has a right to celebrate what happened, for what it was—one spectacular moment of hope—and I would agree with him.

Even with the knowledge of our struggles, I tend to rail against the notion that we can’t be truly happy about anything, particularly when it comes to real life. When it comes to our TV shows and our books and our movies, yes, we should shout about the bad stuff even louder, because those are all plots and characters and ideas that have been purposely created, and can be purposely made better. It’s not harmful to say to a writer or a producer, “Sure, that gay thing you included in your story was good, but it wasn’t good ENOUGH, and in fact it’s offensive that it wasn’t,” because that pushes the writer or producer to get it right next time. But when you say to Joel Diaz, or to the countless couples who have had big gay weddings, “Sure, that was good, but it doesn’t erase all this really bad stuff,” those flippant remarks seem to negate a human being’s very real emotions of joy and pride, emotions that no one should be able to take away. (It can be said of course that these flippant remarks can be painful for writers and producers, as well, as they often put heart and soul into their creations, but they also put them into the world with the knowledge that they will need to stand to criticism. It feels different than saying to a real person, “Your moment of triumph isn’t good enough.”)

In the end, perhaps the essential conflict that I believe I’m struggling with is one that has been at the heart of any social movement, of any struggle, the constant Martin Luther King v. Malcolm X strategic debate. Do we focus as much as we can on the bubblegum and rainbows, or on the struggle? Do we praise allies and our triumphs in acceptance from the mainstream world, or do we fight for our solidarity as a movement of people who will NEVER fit in, and never WANT to? Do we focus on the good, or never stop reminding everyone why the good needs to be better?

As sensitive, human creatures, I believe that while we can never forget the negative stories, we need the positive ones, too, if only to keep ourselves sane. Lady Bunny told her story well, without too much denial of Joel Diaz’s triumph, and it turned out my defenses didn’t need to be raised as much as they were. There is certainly room enough in the world for both of their stories; for all of our stories. But my defenses have been molded as they are for a reason, and when I search those reasons, I would simply wish us to all be gentler with each other. Anger is healthy and necessary, but happiness does not have to equate to ignorance. We are all in this together, and sometimes, yes, it is okay to take a moment, when the right moments find us, and, unapologetically, be glad.