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Generation (Gap) Q

 

I was recently talking with a gay poet who was bemoaning the absence of gay writing workshops in the area. “There must be other gay writers,” he said. It took me a minute to realize that the subject was making me vaguely uncomfortable because as an out queer writer I was being expected to not only commiserate, but take up the rallying cry, to agree not only that there should be gay writing groups, but that if there were, they would naturally be where the gay writers, myself included, would want to be.

It was much like the couple times when I was very new in Albany and I was invited to the “Women’s Brunch” held in my neighborhood. Again, I was several beats behind. Even now, I’m tempted to write “Women’s Brunch (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).” But that’s not really how it was. It’s not that the women inviting me were actually trying to be secretive. There’s a long tradition of naming something “women’s,” with the assumption that it’s queer women who prefer the company of other (queer) women. (It drives straight feminists nuts.) I just trip over it because if most people in my social circles had meant Dyke Brunch, they would have said so.

Though I’ve come to call experiences like this the “queer generation gap,” it really feels more like the difference between first- and second-generation immigrants. First-generation immigrants often start their journeys quite alone, and band together in a new place for the comfort of a familiar language and traditions. They fight to give the next generation an easier time of it—financially, but also in terms of fairness and acceptance.

Second-generation immigrants often don’t feel the need to stick to “the community,” speak the language, etc. They may even find it constricting, though they may also later regret having not learned and stayed attached to some of the traditions. They also provide us with some fascinating accounts of the complexity of ethnicity, belonging, culture, difference, and assimilation.

Similarly, I’d guess that what I’m feeling in queer culture may be a gap between those of us who came out at a time and place where we were able to reap the benefits of a couple decades of a visible, proud gay rights movement and those who didn’t, whether they were the ones who started that movement or just came up outside its cultural reaches.

It shouldn’t need to be said that things are a long way from fair and equal and safe for queers in this country. But for many of us, especially those of us who grew up in the orbit of a fairly large city and went to liberal colleges, the road has been remarkably easy. The first person who came out to me was my Sunday School teacher. I’ve had employers who have bent over backwards to get my wife on my health insurance or otherwise recognize my relationships.

My friends are straight, bi, and gay, with families of all shapes and sizes. More to the point, I don’t really sort them along orientation lines. The people whose orientations or family structures are the most similar to mine are not necessarily the ones who are closest to me or understand me best, although certainly I do appreciate having their knowing chuckles of recognition at key moments.

I know many other people who might qualify as “second-generation” queers. We use the word queer precisely because it is broadly inclusive and subversively reclaiming. We play with gender, and don’t assume it maps to orientation. We don’t like labels. We understand the differences between identity, fantasy, and practice and don’t care if they don’t line up with each other, even within a single person. Our default assumption is that other people will accept us unless the specific situation gives us reason to be cautious. We’ve often never been in the closet.

I think we have a lot to contribute to the gay rights movement, queer theory, the fair-marriage movement, and movements for social justice in general. We are often busily at work envisioning a world that truly recognizes a cornucopia of experience and orientation and family, rather than just adding a check box or two.

But it’s also easy for us to forget just how precious it can be to have a place where everyone understands this one crucial aspect of your life and supports you in going public about it. It’s easy to forget how life-saving it was, and is, to have communities to step in when families of origin throw you out. Or just how comforting it is to take time out from tripping over others’ assumptions.

It’s easy to forget that having access to queer culture, and queer-friendly culture, before even coming out is probably what allowed many of us to not need it so much now.

Last Thursday was Coming Out Day. Perhaps this year we can stretch its meaning a little and use it as an inspiration to think about acknowledging the queer generation gap. Just remembering how many different definitions of queer culture and community there are, and all the very good reasons for choosing each one, might go a long way toward smoothing those awkward situations where they bump into each other. And that could build some truly fabulous community.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

www.mjoy.org

www.albanyplanningblog.org

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