Thursday, April 3, 2008

On Rainbows and Other Manifestations

I'm layin' on the gay today.

Certain parts of the media and the blogosphere will be full of this story in the coming days, and while I'm not usually one to get on bandwagons, the subject is one I've been thinking about recently and the two happen to dovetail perfectly. The name of Leslie Hagen will become famous in some circles, and not for reasons that Ms. Hagen ever sought. She is the attorney at the Department of Justice with consistently outstanding job ratings whose contract was not renewed because of "rumors that she is a lesbian."

Those of you with more tolerant attitudes are thinking, "in this day and age???" Those of us gay people who are coasting along comfortably in what some are calling the "post-gay" 2-aughts are also saying, "in this day and age???" This story brings us up short.

I worked my entire career at the Peace Corps, which is famously (some say notoriously) gay-friendly. During the Clinton years the office I worked in might as well have had its walls painted lavender. My immediate boss was a lesbian, and her "big boss," the White House appointee heading our division, had made her political name in Colorado spearheading opposition to an anti-gay state constitutional amendment that made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Her name is Judy Harrington and you might have called her a "professional lesbian" in those days. Judy encouraged gay staffers to make themselves known in an effort to show Peace Corps' entire diversity. She tapped me to do a training session for new recruiters on how to deal with sexual minority applicants. The Peace Corps has a very active gay and lesbian returned volunteer organization, one of whose main functions is to mentor new members who need guidance on how to navigate sexual orientation issues in the developing world, on a country-specific basis. The gay/lesbian Peace Corps employee organization once hosted a reception and lunch for Mark Gearan, Director of the agency (another White House appointee), at which in welcoming remarks I told Gearan that I had witnessed changes at the Peace Corps, from the time when, as a volunteer, I nearly quit my assignment early because of a gay issue I was afraid to discuss with anybody, to that moment, when the Director of the Peace Corps was having lunch with me simply because I was gay.

Those heady times were not to last, of course, but we gay Peace Corps folk could never completely closet ourselves, nor were we ever asked to, even by Bush II. Gay Pride Month continues to be observed at the agency, with invited speakers and agency-wide events. One of the Bush appointees, the director of the legal office, did take offense at posters publicizing some related event, and had the temerity to order them removed. That didn't last long.

Blessed as I know I was in my workplace, I had, and still have, frequent reminders that I was in a luxurious coccoon. Two of my best gay friends are very highly placed career federal employees. One is open about his sexual orientation in his respected and nationally recognized AIDS work. He has been in line for a directorship for years and is constantly passed over. He is never given any direct feedback, and you're left with only one conclusion about why his career is stalled: he rubs some Bush appointee the wrong way. Another is a lesbian (now retired) who refused to come out. I constantly took her to task for this reticence. She was so competent, so professional and so well-loved by her colleagues, I told her, that she had reached a pinnacle from which she could not be dislodged. I reminded her that the gay people among her rank and file desperately needed her example. But she remained steadfast in her refusal. Given the story of Leslie Hagen, I concede her point.

Steve and I are not ones to make a huge point of the fact that we are gay. For most gay people, it's easy not to make such a point, since we are the ultimate invisible minority. Unless we do something that obviously bends the genders, or go around carrying signs, the everyday world passes us by assuming nothing out of the ordinary. And so, "to out or not to out" remains an issue for many and is often discussed at dinner tables when it's just us gay folks getting together. I still lose patience with obdurately closeted people, until I hear their reasons. Then I step back once again, chastened.

I often think that being gay is something like being left-handed--something integral to who you are happens to be different from what the world expects. The world is by and large made on the assumption of right-handedness, and so it is on the assumption of a heterosexual response. Make no mistake, there is much more danger associated with a non-hetero response than with left-handedness, and those dangers are very serious, running the gamut from the physical to the emotional to the professional. But if a gay person is lucky enough to negotiate those pitfalls successfully, s/he gets used to the difference; the necessary adjustments become automatic responses to the world and are given no more thought than breathing. It's only on some rare occasion when tables may be turned that we suddenly realize what we have been missing. The first time I had that experience was in April of 1993, at the time of the first big Gay Pride march on Washington after the start of the Clinton administration. The city and its suburbs turned into a parallel world where for one weekend, everybody seemed to be gay. It was like San Francisco on steroids, if you can imagine that. You straight friends would have felt in the distinct minority, and would have had to get used to seeing same-sex couples walking around really acting like couples. Holding hands, going arm-in-arm, maybe the occasional affectionate peck on the cheek. Completely innocent, completely lovely expressions of affection, and completely unseen in public, usually. We gay people had to get used to it ourselves. It was mind blowing, but a very pleasant adjustment to have to make. And here's a place for me to mention my cultural hero, Rufus Wainwright. I can't describe to you the feeling of utter liberation I get every time he stands up and sings one of his gorgeous love songs. All of that articulate beauty is about me! I never thought I would live to see such a thing.

Wainwright calls himself "post-gay." He came along after the big demonstrations, stands on the shoulders of the Stonewall heroes, and simply proceeds as who he is with neither apology nor explanation. Good for him and good for us. But we forget the Leslie Hagens of the world at our peril. "We are everywhere" is a favorite chant at rallies. But snipers are everywhere, too, and duck-and-cover is still a necessary maneuver. That's why Steve and I, post-gay or no, will not be putting our rainbows away just yet.


Cuidado said...

Even in 'this day and age' it is very brave to be out because of the reality of not getting promotions and/or sometimes not even jobs. It's a choice sometimes of one's authentic self or a career and it's obvious that for some, that career is all important. I understand both sides.

I love you saying that if you don't know Lola, 'you've been under a rock.'

Kat said...

Putting your rainbows away? I was thinking you needed a few more.

If you weren't gay, I'd never have found you again, and that would have been a tragedy.

Ralph said...

Cuidado, your words are sad but true. There's no doubt we've come a long, long way, at least here in the West, but equally there's no doubt we have a lot farther to go. I always say that the biggest political statement I can make is simply to go outside in public every day, with my rainbow sticker on my car. It tells the world I'm here.

Thanks, Kat, and you're so right. Too bad I couldn't tell you those many years ago, but better late than never. In fact, I never really "told" you at all did I? You just found me, at large out here in the world!

Sam said...

During my time at Peace Corps (or, as one of your applicants called it, "Peach Crop") I was introduced to the non-AIDS gay world for really the first time. (One of my jobs in the Army was as Head Nurse of the only in-patient HIV/AIDS unit in the military at the time, at Walter Reed.) For me, it simply seemed to slip into place easily. I developed some sort of gay-dar, though I was occasionally surprised to learn someone was gay or lesbian.

The one time I was brought up very short at the realization of how difficult a path that could be for some was when my daughter and I went to Topsail NC to visit Ryan Lawton and his partner, an active duty Marine stationed at Camp Lejeume. (He has since retired, having spent over twenty years neither asking nor telling.)

They had a small dinner party one of the nights we were there, and most people were from Camp Lejeune - all Marines, all gay. A lesbian couple lived next door, and they attended as well. I never had a more grown-up discussion with my daughter around and as a part of it (she was 18 then) - much give and take about impressions and the differences between her generation and ours.

I wouldn't be putting those rainbows away just yet, either, if I were you Ralph. But I always remember some of the things Samantha said. Just as her generation is far more genuinely color-blind than we are, so are they more orientation-blind. Maybe there's hope that it really will be no big deal for most people.

Anonymous said...

you've answered a question i've had for for some time...awhile after we split my ex joined the peace corp. when he returned from korea he went 'corporate 'peace corp working in dc..i'd always wondered how welcoming that was for him..clearly, quite.
greg mpls

Ralph said...

"Peach Crop"? Don't you mean "Piss Corpse"? My applicants???

That visit with Ryan must have been something else--the very idea of a "gay military wife," at Camp Lejeune, of all places, always gave me pause. How the hell did he stand it?? I'd like to think you're right about how the times they are a-changin', Sam, and maybe they are. Maybe the past 8 years have just been a stumble backwards. We can only hope. This is by no means the biggest issue the country has faced under the Bishes, but it's certainly symptomatic.

Ralph said...

Greg, no coubt he felt right at home once he got to DC. In many ways it was probably hte most pleasant work experience he ever had.

Thanks for the words.

FZipperer said...

Well said, Ralph. Say, isn't yours the house with the big rainbow flag proudly displayed??

Ralph said...

Um, yeah, Frank, come to think of it.

Nan said...

When I hear stories like this one, I feel it will take many of us (our voices, writings, and our votes) to create push-back on any pendulum swing backward. So much is at stake. And those of us from all along the LGBTS "orientation continuum" (I added straight - maybe it will catch on?) need to be allies for justice and equality. Geez Louise. Just can't get tired.

Ralph said...

Nan, sure, why not "LGTBS" There's P-Flag and Gay/Straight Alliance--it's a natural. I do hope, as Sam said earlier up there, that times are changing and what we have now is a temporary pothole. November will tell.

I trust you noticed yet another Rufus today??? He just happened to have a song that fit the subject perfectly, so....

Anonymous said...

I am straight but not narrow, as they say. I hope there will come a time when my son, now four years old, will ask me, "Dad, why was gay marriage ever illegal?", and he won't be able to understand the hatred and fear that are still so much a part of these times. Then you can put away your rainbows.


Ralph said...

Thanks, Darius. I hope when that day comes the world will be better in many more places than just this little corner. It'll have to be!

Marilyn said...

Ralph, this was one of the most eloquent passages that I have read. Although your readership is growing, I would love to see this published to an even greater audience - those in the "silent majority", who can affect the views of our future generations.
Like Sam (Hi, Sam!) with Samantha, my experience at PC allowed our boys to have a realistic view of gay/lesbian life.
Thankfully, mutual respect and acceptance is part of our Greg and Steve's lives, as well as their personal friends, although Wayne and I both have many many gay/lesbian friends/extended family members for many, many years before I came to PC - so this was not really new for them. In fact, Greg is now engaged to an amazing young woman, who is Lebanese. So right now, I'm not sure which is more challenging - being gay or being Middle Eastern, in America!
That being said, never, ever put those rainbows away, Ralph! They symbolize where our American society has been, we we are and hopefully, how we are continuing to grow. We need those reminders!

p.s. ever thought about being a speechwriter for Obama? He did such an amazing job with the race issue - this should be one of the next subjects he takes on!!