Not too long ago, I was asked to give a kick-off speech for the Ottawa Dyke March. The theme for Ottawa Pride this summer was “Public Displays of Affection,” so I put together a short speech that addressed the idea of PDAs along with a couple of queer-community beefs I thought might be worth bringing up. The day was chilled and rainy – yes, in mid-August, don’t ask, it’s fucking Canada – and as a result, a small, huddled crowd of brave dykes gathered in rain slickers near the Human Rights Monument in downtown Ottawa. The sound system wasn’t working and the passing traffic was making that awful white noise that happens when speeding car tires meet rainy streets, so I belted out a short version of this little speechy thing – partly to save my voice, and partly because it was clear that the crowd wanted to get moving before they got collective hypothermia. I’m posting a somewhat more complete version of the speech here.
I’ve noticed a strange tendency, in the LGBT community, to think in binaries. We come by it honestly, I suppose; North American society as a whole really likes its neatly paired up black and white concepts. Male/female, gay/straight, young/old, good/bad, right/wrong. It makes sense, on some level, in that the existence of any one concept implies its opposite, but what we seem to fail to notice is that an opposite is not the only thing implied by any given idea.
One of the binaries that seems to come up a whole lot among queers is the good gay / bad gay binary. Interestingly, there are two versions of it.
According to some people, the good gays are the ones who exercise their now-legal right to marry, buy a house, maybe have some kids, and fit into mainstream society; and the bad gays are the ones who cross-dress, who wear leather, who have multiple sex partners or fuck people of multiple genders, who do sex work, who have HIV, who gender-transgress, or who fuck in public parks.
According to other people, the bad gays are the ones who’ve sold out and bought into the heteronormative institution that is marriage, and the good gays are the ones who are still radical enough to transgress in any number of ways, such as fucking in public parks.
What I’ve noticed over the past few years, as the reality of legalized same-sex marriage has sunk in here in Canada, is that this equation is not so simple. The good gays and the bad gays are often one and the same.
My favourite example is that of Michael Hendricks. He and his partner, René Leboeuf, fought tooth and nail to force Quebec to legalize same-sex marriage in a protracted, and much-publicized, legal battle. When they finally won, of course, they went and got married. I invited Michael to speak at an event I organized in 2006 about the queer history of Montreal. Now Michael’s a crotchety old man, and he got up on stage and in his typical way said, “Okay, so now that we’ve finally got this stupid marriage thing out of the way, we can focus on the important stuff.” He went on to list what he felt should be four major priorities for queer activists in the coming years: rights for sex workers, rights for HIV-positive people, support for queer youth, and support for trans people. Not too long after that event, I saw him carrying a homemade sign at Pride, pushing for better health care for HIV-positive people suffering from lipodystrophy (the unsightly redistribution of fat on the body, such as in the form of a hump back, a side effect of certain HIV drugs). Not too long after that, I phoned Stella, Montreal’s major organization supporting sex workers, and Michael answered the phone – apparently he was volunteering there. Now this is a man who puts his money where his mouth is.
Michael is not the only person to personify both the “good gay” and the “bad gay.” They’re all over the place. The women who smile from the lesbian mothers’ group poster are the same women who regularly bring a third gal home for a fun Saturday-night romp. The married, home-owning university professor and government employee are the leaders of the local leather group. The Christian lesbian couple is raising a gender-variant child whose sperm donor is lovers with one of the moms. The respectable social worker does professional domination and sex work on the side.
In other words, just because you take advantage of the new rights we queers have won in Canada doesn’t mean you’re a sellout whose primary motivation is to conform at all costs. And, on the flip side, some of the people whose politics or practices are the most radical on the surface in fact hold deeply to some really conservative values or emotional patterns that pop up at the most unexpected times. For example, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve encountered who opt for non-monogamy because they think it’s politically progressive but who are terrified to admit they’d actually function much more happily in the security and comfort of an exclusive relationship. And don’t even get me started on the nationalistic, pro-military and misogynistic flavour of certain elements of the leather community, or the relentless racism, classism and educational elitism of so many so-called radical queer groups.
So if we can’t think in easy binaries, what can we look at instead? In a context where some public displays of affection have now been legalized and others are still most definitely not, what do we do? Do we deny ourselves the enjoyment of our rights? Or do we keep working, in whatever ways we know best, toward more rights and more support and toward creating a culture that makes room for much more? And above all, what does it mean to engage in a public display of affection in a context where there are no easy answers?
It means kissing both, or all three or four, of your partners, without feeling ashamed or scared, whether the government approves or not.
It means hugging and kissing the kids in your life, whether they’re ones you’ve birthed or ones you’ve been so fortunate as to find in your extended queer family – and claiming those relationships as real and valid whether they’re blessed by the government or not.
It means showing your love in the ways that suit you best – whether that looks like a collar and a leash, or a wedding ring, or a phone call once a month, or a nightly cuddle, or a manic make-out session right here on the Human Rights Monument, or nothing at all if that’s what best honours you and your boundaries.
It means doing all these things and more in a visible, public way so that the many people out there who are still thrown out of their homes, robbed of their children, denied employment, beaten in the streets, and tortured and shot have something to look to that gives them hope. And it means not expecting that their public displays of affection will necessarily look anything like yours. Same with the rights they choose to fight for, and the methods they choose for engaging in that fight.
Ultimately, your public display of affection can be a beacon that creates a sense of possibility for a full rainbow of other public displays of affection. But let’s recognize that the crowd standing here today is made up of people with incredible privilege… that we only represent the tiniest slice of queer life in the world… and that there is no one true way to work toward the betterment of our lives. Your public display of affection is a great way to show your pride, but I ask you to let it also be a way of showing your humility.
Now let’s go ahead and march for that!