What's your take on the word "queer?" If you're over 40, it may trigger disturbing memories of grade-school gay baiting, where the label alone was enough to result in a beating, or worse. Perhaps it's more like "dyke" or "fag" -- it depends upon who's saying it and why. If you're under 30, chances are that "queer" is more like a pink triangle, an archaic badge of oppression that's been flipped on its head and reclaimed as a symbol of identity and pride.
At its grand opening last month, the R.U.1.2? Queer Community Center became the first of its kind in the country to incorporate a word in its title that was once an offensive and hate-filled epithet. With a new sign out front proclaiming they're here and they're queer, R.U.1.2? --as in, "Are You One, Too?" -- has staked out its turf as a progressive advocacy group serving Vermonters of all ages, genders and sexual orientations.
R.U.1.2? supporters admit that the controversial wording of the name may not have been the best strategy for overcoming its long-standing reputation as a "youth" organization. But let's face it: There aren't many umbrella terms that accurately and succinctly refer to everyone whose sexual identity falls outside the straight and narrow. To many queer folk, "gay and lesbian" isn't accommodating enough, and the more inclusive, "lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender," produces a clunky acronym -- LGBT -- that looks like something concocted by the U.S. Department of Transportation. As R.U.1.2? Executive Director Christopher Kaufman puts it, "We've had to fight for our language and identity all along. Queer is just another step in the process."
In fact, many queer-activist groups have since dropped their gay, lesbian, et al. identifiers entirely, and that troubles some older activists. "For the longest time, ever since the Pride Committee incorporated as Pride Vermont, I've thought, 'Are we talking milk? Are we talking maple syrup?'" notes Euan Bear, editor of Out in the Mountains, Vermont's only LGBT publication, which is now housed in the R.U.1.2? building. "What happened to lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgenders? At least 'queer' comes closer."
Do semantics really matter? Some contend that to even speak of Vermont's "gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer community" is to suggest a homogeneity where none exists. But regardless of which way you steer on "queer," the opening of the Queer Community Center -- attended by a number of local politicians, including former Governor Howard Dean -- symbolizes a coming of age of sorts for a new crop of queer activists, whose goals and priorities differ from those of earlier generations. The fight for gay rights in the 1970s, '80s and '90s was largely a reaction to common enemies such as AIDS and AIDS deniers, as well as an effort to secure fundamental human rights -- anti-discrimination laws in housing, employment, public accommodations, and so on. R.U.1.2?'s agenda, in contrast, seems more proactive. Today, says Kaufman, R.U.1.2? is focusing primarily on the physical, emotional and educational needs of its constituency.
To do that, he says, requires reaching out to a broader spectrum of the queer community -- in particular, the older generation. "I think that one of the things that queer people are bad at is remembering and honoring where we came from and the work that came before," Kaufman says. "One of the primary factors is that this culture, and queer culture in particular, is very youth focused. It's very much about being young, pretty and a sexual object. Older queer people have much less visibility."
Part of the problem may be demographic: Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the AIDS epidemic cut a huge swath across the gay-male community. As a result, many of Vermont's older gay-male activists aren't around anymore, a fact sometimes overlooked by younger activists. "There's clearly a generational distinction," notes Bennett Law, a longtime gay activist and R.U.1.2? supporter. Law now serves on the advisory committee of the Vermont Unity Project, a program that raises money from nontraditional (read: straight) sources to fund gay and lesbian groups in Vermont. "In my generation, everybody knows somebody who died of AIDS," Law adds. "A lot of people who are 20 or 25 probably don't. And they probably had a very different experience growing up."
Of course, it's not just twentysomething gay males who sometimes forget whose shoulders they stand on. Alverta Perkins is an 80-year-old lesbian who came out in her fifties. She belongs to a group of over-40 lesbians called the Crones, and notes that most publically acknowledged lesbians of her generation were politically active, especially in feminist causes like breast cancer and domestic violence. "We were very intense and committed to our feminist ideals. I don't see that happening as much today," Perkins says. "I wonder if young women really know how hard we worked for the advantages they have."
Bear at Out in the Mountains agrees. She says that many younger lesbians -- and Vermont women in general -- have no idea that vital community services such as the Women's Rape Crisis Center and Women Helping Battered Women were founded by lesbians. "It was a heady, exhilarating time. We were doing really tough work," Bear recalls of the 1970s and early '80s. As a result, she says, countless women "didn't commit suicide after being brutally raped or didn't end up being murdered by an abusive boyfriend or husband."
It's not surprising that five-year-old R.U.1.2?, an organization founded by two University of Vermont students, is on the young side. Many older queer folk have been reluctant to embrace the group because it doesn't provide services or programs geared for them. But that's beginning to change.
As Kaufman explains, R.U.1.2? is making a concerted effort to close the queer generation gap. For example, the center hosts coming-out support groups for adults and transgendered people. Earlier this year, it sponsored a conference at UVM on issues confronting the gay elderly. R.U.1.2? is also spearheading the Vermont Diversity Health Project (VDHP), which trains health-care providers to be nonjudgmental and more queer friendly in their practices while also connecting them with queer patients. VDHP, a collaborative effort with Outright Vermont, SafeSpace and the New England AIDS Education and Training Center, reflects a growing trend toward broader coalition building. "I feel like today, R.U.1.2?, and the queer community in general, reaches out to its allies more," says Khristian Kemp-DeLisser, a former VISTA at R.U.1.2? "It's sort of like Howard Dean trying to reclaim the left."
R.U.1.2? is also acknowledging its past through the Vermont Queer Archives, a collaborative effort to document and preserve cultural artifacts from Vermont's LGBT history, many of which are now on display in the center.
Rep. Bill Lippert, known for his eloquent support of civil unions within the Legislature, is a longtime gay-rights activist and founder and executive director of the Samara Foundation, which funds scholarships, LGBT groups and anti-discrimination campaigns throughout Vermont. In the early 1970s, Lippert belonged to a gay support group that held monthly dances at the High Hat -- now Nectar's -- in downtown Burlington. The events attracted hundreds of people from around the region. Back then, Vermont didn't have a gay bar, and gay men and lesbians were often thrown out of clubs for dancing with one another, even arrested for trespassing. Once a month, Lippert and his friends would organize an event, publicized by posters put up around town.
"I walked into the R.U.1.2? Community Center about a year ago and just about fell over. There was one of the posters I had silk screened in the 1970s," Lippert recalls. "What a flood of memories."
Lippert acknowledges that R.U.1.2? had a reputation for being too youth-centric. But he says that charge doesn't hold up anymore. He's encouraged by the center's growing interest in issues affecting older gay men and lesbians, particularly those involving children and families. And he encourages R.U.1.2? to put even more emphasis in that direction, especially as growing numbers of same-sex couples move to Vermont to adopt children, or have their own.
Law agrees. "You can't go to a gay and lesbian function today without tripping over somebody's kids. Everybody has a kid," he says. "A lot of the activism today has to do with how our children are viewed by the state, how they're viewed by the courts, and how they're viewed by the school systems."
Straight parents have had to get used to sending their first grader to school knowing that "Joey has two mommies or Heather has two daddies," he says. "You always have in the back of your mind, 'Geez! What am I exposing this kid to?'"
Lippert says the opening of the R.U.1.2? Queer Community Center comes at a fitting time in American history. In the last year, the U.S Supreme Court struck down all the remaining sodomy laws in the 13 states that made it illegal for gays to have sex with one another. Massachusetts legalized gay marriages, sparking a wave of gay marriages coast to coast. And the Episcopal Church ordained its first openly gay bishop, who leads a church service this weekend at St. Paul's Cathedral in Burlington.
In Vermont, the Legislature passed two bills this year that directly or indirectly benefit the queer community. One act offers greater protections for GLBT students and the children of GLBT parents. The second requires state schools to adopt anti-bullying policies, and provides legal remedies for students who are subjected to persistent harassment.
"I think we're living in the most exciting period in all of history in the United States for lesbian and gay folks," Lippert says. "In Vermont, it's been over a decade that people have been talking about starting a community center. R.U.1.2? was a project that's been in the works for years, but the time is clearly right for it."
Cathy Resmer contributed to this story.