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
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
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
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
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.