Have you driven north on Route 30 or east on Route 25 lately? No? Then you haven’t seen the “Take Back Vermont” signs that are still up, a year after Vermont passed legislation legalizing same-sex marriage, and 10 years after the state created civil unions.
Those signs still proclaim that being gay is not OK. Can you imagine what it’s like to be a young, queer person riding a school bus past that message every day? A queer Vermonter commuting to work? A recently hitched same-sex couple heading to a country B&B on their honeymoon?
Legalizing same-sex marriage was a long-overdue, critical victory in the fight for gay rights. But I fear that many members of the queer community — the ones with financial, political and social means — see marriage as the end of the fight for a safe, fair and equal Vermont. To them, I would say: You, the adult queer with your chosen family, a job and home, may be better off, but I don’t think we are.
Marriage doesn’t address the unresolved needs of the queer youth, trans people, single queers, gender-variant individuals, alternative family and relationship seekers, perceived-to-be-queer people, queer service members and their families, food, and housing-insecure queers, and many other subsectors of Vermont’s queer community.
For example, the CDC’s 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey reports that queer students are still twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to be bullied in our public schools. A gay Vermonter in the military, if outed, can still be dishonorably discharged, stripped of medical coverage and denied the education he or she deserves through the GI Bill. My male friend who wears a pink bike helmet around Burlington regularly hears screams of “faggot!” from passing cars.
My point is: Yay for gay marriage! But let’s not stop there. We can legislate social change all we want, but laws do not eliminate fear, hate, bias or bullying for any of us, especially those most in need. Those “Take Back Vermont” signs are proof.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that many in the national and Vermont queer and allied communities see marriage as the last galvanizing cause. After 40 years, we now have a community with a generation that “missed” Stonewall, the AIDS crisis, and other visible fights for equity, inclusion and justice. How will young queer people learn about this movement and what it has taken to get us to marriage? Without a sense of this history, how can we expect to envision justice for all beyond marriage? Who is going to tell these stories? Where will they tell them?
Right now, our history is being commercialized and packaged into a corporate fad. Remember how Gap made it cool to care about people dying of AIDS in Africa? Well, gay marriage looks like the next hip social cause. With celebrities taping their mouths over with “NO H8” in protest of California’s Proposition 8 gay- marriage ban and Pride, go-go boys sporting undies with “legalize gay” across their tight butts, I fear that the marriage movement is quickly becoming a fad. And what happens to fads? Maybe I will write about that on my LiveJournal or, better yet, write a song to post on MySpace.
Marriage alone can’t bring us a vibrant queer community. Think about gay neighborhoods in bigger cities, or smaller destinations such as Provincetown. What is it that makes those places feel welcoming? It isn’t marriage — Massachusetts only just legalized that. It’s visibility. It’s queer people proudly displaying rainbow flags on their businesses and homes. It’s queer people walking hand in hand everywhere (not just down the main drag). It’s queer people gathering at gay bars, events and community centers to see each other and, more importantly, be seen.
Visibility has an impact — the “Take Back Vermont” signs are proof of that, too.
So many queers and allies came out to rally for the freedom to marry last year. Can you imagine what would happen if we all took on bullies together? Bring it!
It takes all of us committing to each other to stay engaged in the fight for everyone else. All Vermonters, straight or queer, have the responsibility to make sure our schools are safe, that transfolk are not fired based on their identities and that all families are given the protections they deserve. We shouldn’t rest until every Vermont queer knows they are not the only one.
Are you too busy? Are you too comfortable? Are you not an “activist”? Are you not into being visible?
Visibility is how queer people have proven to the world that we’re not only here, but we deserve to be here. When we stop showing up, we lose ground. The mainstream is allowed to rage on with heteronormative media, policies and behaviors. When we show up, together, we are fiercer, stronger and more beautiful.
In Vermont, we may no longer have a gay bar or a queer newspaper. We may not have a gay destination town. We may not have a Gay-Straight Alliance Club in every school. But we do have each other, and this is the core of what our community has always been about. We may not always get along, we may not always “get” each other, and some of us may not even be queer — but we are a family. A big, fierce, fabulous and flashy chosen family.
So, support your family. Show up at Pride. Donate to one of the queer organizations that is helping to protect and support the community. Volunteer! Join a board, mentor a queer youth or march in Pride. Become a GSA advisor in your school or, as a parent or community member, advocate for one to start. Vote for politicians who are vocal allies. Check your workplace’s antidiscrimination polices and help update them to be inclusive of all queers. Use the word “queer” — go ahead, try it out, take it back.
It is easy to mess with one queer. But five of us? Twenty? A hundred? A few thousand? In a state like Vermont, we need to be able to show our numbers — queer and allied alike.
So, come find me. Let me find you. Let’s go to Pride this weekend. Let’s celebrate our lives, our love, our community. And after that, let’s keep it going. Someday, maybe those signs will finally come down.