Raise Your Head

By all accounts, the parade was a smashing success – the big 2007 Gay Pride Parade in Dallas – where we had just marched together – where we had created from a simple pick-up truck our official entry – the East Texas PFLAG “float” – representing the only organized group of gays & lesbians in all of East Texas.

We had marched. We had passed out jellybeans. We had waved at thousands upon thousands of “adoring fans.” We had had our hearts and souls filled with joy and thankfulness and love and hope… and hope.

We were in Rhonda’s minivan, the six of us who had traveled together – Rhonda, the ET PFLAG president, two of us from the Tyler HIV support group, another one had been the bookstore manager who I met while “hawking” my book, and two wonderful young lesbian women who I had only just met that morning. But now we were tired and weary and glad to be going home.

We had just reached the freeway when one of these young women turned around and handed me a bag full of the various gay pride items she had collected throughout the day, all contained in a handsome cloth shopping bag labeled “Lambda Legal.” “You might as well take this,” she said to me. “My parents can’t see any of it. They’d freak & probably kick me out of the house.”

“Julie” explained that her family had recently relocated to Tyler from Southern California – in no small part because of Tyler’s intolerant attitude toward gays and lesbians.

As I reluctantly accepted her “gift,” much of the day’s exhilarations subsided and my mind spun backwards in time to two days prior. On Friday, I had received a message from one of Tyler’s AIDS service organizations – an organization for which I have done a great deal of volunteer work – weeks upon months of work. I had most recently sent them an advertisement for the tridd website that was to appear in the program for an upcoming AIDS benefit. The ad was small and simple, mentioning the tridd forums and the fact that the site serves those with HIV/AIDS. It also mentioned it serves those in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) community.

Their message to me was also simple, stating that the word “gay” was offensive. They insisted, in fact, that I remove from the ad any reference to the GLBT community.

In most, if not all other cities in America, the word “gay” would have been acceptable at an AIDS benefit -- after all, the GLBT community created most of the AIDS service organizations in the U.S. It is no coincidence that one of the primary reasons I started “tridd” was to bring “out of care” patients into the fold of care offered by such agencies. I do this first by recognizing the humanity of all people, and encouraging others to do the same.

I was struck to discover we were “helping” people we find morally objectionable – that we could bring ourselves to believe these attitudes would not affect our care.

In 2004, the city council of Casper Wyoming unanimously elected that city’s youngest mayor ever. At 27, Guy Padgett is also their first openly gay mayor… which shows much progress for the town made famous by the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998. This news offers hope to oppressive communities everywhere – that no matter how entrenched are our prejudices, we may still work toward a brighter day. Tyler, Texas by contrast, has had a five-year head start since it’s grisly murder of Nicholas Ray West in 1993, yet here we proudly hold on to our prejudices. Rather than a gay mayor, we can boast a police department that can be conservatively described as openly hostile towards gays. How could this be? Where has Tyler gone wrong – that in our rapidly changing world, we could remain a “time-capsule” of bigotries long overcome throughout the rest of the country?

“The Stepford Wives,” is a brilliant bit of fiction that describes a community with a strict set of cultural standards – enforced, ultimately, through violence. The result is a perfectly calm and peaceful outward appearance, with white picket fences and warm, smiling faces, and no dissent whatsoever.

I thought of Stepford when Julie handed me her bag of “goodies” and told me about the reason her parents had moved to Tyler. And I think of Stepford when even the “good guys” participate in the enforcement of our anti-gay culture. I think of Stepford when the local CBS station glibly embraces the rhetoric of the extreme Religious Right, making a mockery of our pressing need for protection against hate crimes. And I think of Stepford when even members of the LGBT community here urge me to “leave well-enough alone.” Is our fear so complete that we would leave these battles for the next generation…, the next… or the next? Maybe “The Stepford Wives” isn’t fiction after all.

I have fought many battles since moving to East Texas two years ago. First, I fought to survive. I fought to breathe and to swallow and to walk.

Once I recovered my health, I began the daily struggle of trying to heal the wounds of religious conservatism that have effectively kept the gay and lesbian culture underground for decades. These outdated attitudes still see homosexuality as Satan’s work, and provide swift mechanisms of enforcement on the odd occasion that someone, somewhere in East Texas raises his or her head above the surface of anonymous invisibility.

The other battle is even more insidious, however, because it involves our gay and lesbian culture itself. Much like abused spouses, many of us have grown comfortable in this environment, and are quick to defend our oppressors. “It’s not their fault,” we say. “They’re only doing what they think is just and right.” “It’s not hate,” we offer. “They’re just following God’s word as they see fit.” And like abused spouses, our own self-esteem suffers. Fewer HIV+ patients seek care, and there is no discernable gay culture. Perhaps we have come to believe there is indeed “something wrong with us,” and that we somehow “deserve” this enforced invisibility.

Lest anyone believe the mountain to be a mere molehill, let us not forget that our PFLAG group was kicked out of their longstanding meeting location just prior to the Pride Parade for the exact reason of our participation in it. Simply stated, we had violated the standard of “invisibility” set for East Texas, and our “punishment” was swift and complete. Nor should we forget how valiantly the city of Tyler and its elected congressional representatives fought, in the mid nineties, against the opening of this area’s only HIV clinic. Jamieson Clinic was opened only after a court order demanded that Smith County comply with federal law. (Ironically, the same legislator who fought so ruthlessly to stop the clinic was on hand to take credit in the press when it opened.)

Our challenge – the challenge that has been laid out before us so clearly – is a simple one:

We must be visible.

If we insist on “visibility,” we will gradually begin to change the perceptions of the conservative community… because it’s hard to hate someone you know.

As we insist on visibility, we will also begin to change the perceptions within our own community – perceptions that say, “We are not worthy” – and we may begin to comprehend the value of our own humanity. Teenagers will be less likely to destroy themselves, and HIV patients will be more likely to seek care.

We must insist on visibility. We must not go away. The stakes are high – they include the most fundamental human rights and even our very lives.

But the stakes are even higher than that, if we want to create a legacy of hope for future generations and those gay and lesbian youths yet to come… yet to struggle with their own self-worth and their own pursuits of happiness.

We must stand up. We must raise our heads. We must count. We must matter. We must insist on being visible.

-- Troy Carlyle