Hope for Straight America

Here's further proof that gays and straights really do exist in parallel universes. June is Gay Pride Month, and queers all over the country will invevitably complain that there is just too much to do -- too many parties, too many fundraisers, too many people to search out (or avoid) at parades. There will even be the occasional comment that our Community is getting a bit overdemanding, that maybe we should give each other a little breathing room.But back in the straight world, they've got their own problems. White-supremacist computer bulletin boards and on-line porno pictures have prompted warnings that cyberspace is going to destroy what little sense of community spirit hasn't been erased by the automobile and television. Think of it: I use my e-mail to inform the guy in the next apartment that he's playing his CDs too loud. The next day, we pass each other wordlessly under the security camera in the lobby. His Shih-tzu pulls desperately at his leash, trying to sniff my shoes. Eventually, John Waters develops an Odorama drive for the Mac, and even dogs lose interest in their neighbors.Clearly, gay Americans have managed to hold on to something the rest of society wants. While straights regard "community" as a term regrettably lost to history (akin to vaudeville, chivalry, or the auto-da-fe), gays see it as a living, breathing pain in the neck. Perhaps I've been influenced by the spirit of Pocahontas, but I feel the need to help my breeder brothers and sisters capture the feeling that queers sometimes take for granted. And so here is a crash course on building more community pride than you'll know what to do with.Move to cities. Until recently, schoolchildren were taught that cities were terrible places where drug dealers targeted wide-eyed children, and where motorists threw trash at crying Indians. Now that most people live in secluded splendor out in the 'burbs, we're starting to realize that you can't have civilized behavior without civilization. In the city, for example, crazy people take up two seats on the bus and mutter curses at strangers; in suburbia, crazy people stockpile weapons and go on shooting sprees at shopping malls.Gays have always been drawn to major cities out of necessity -- there's safety in numbers -- so we've been quick to discover the joys of urban life. You can go to a party across town and meet someone who lives in your apartment building. You can spot an acquaintance on a crowded street three blocks from your house and act as if you found each other in Marrakesh ("What are you doing here?"). The result is that you get to select the inhabitants of your own small town from among the thousands of extras in the city.It's easy for a gay person to create such a community: even in a city as big as Boston, there are only a dozen or so gay bars, and about as many bookstores with gay sections. You get to see the same faces pretty quickly, and club-hopping gets to feel like moving through the different rooms of a single house. That's the cause of the much-maligned defense mechanism called attitude, a practiced cold shoulder that tells someone, "We'll probably be seeing a lot of each other, but please don't treat me like a long-lost friend every time we meet." It's often cruel, but it's better than the straight answer to the dilemma: if you don't like the people at one bar, just pick another one, and you'll never see them again.So there's really one way for straight people to fully experience the close-knit atmosphere of gay urban life. The city can provide each person with a list of bars and restaurants, equal to the number of such places for gays. Residents would only be allowed at the places on their list. March or Die.The SATs are a distant memory, but I still have nightmares about oversleeping and missing the Boston Gay Pride parade. In fact, the organizers of the St. Patrick's parades in Boston and New York may be on to us: with our perfect attendance record, we'd outnumber the straight marchers 10 to one.The best example of our commitment to being counted was the March on Washington in 1993. It was intended to prove how many of us there are, and it was successful on that point, even though participants were amazed at how easy it was to run into people they were trying to avoid back home. One high point of the weekend was riding the subway and watching the tourists and civil servants who didn't seem to have read the paper that day. Some of them must have wondered whether this garrulous gay crowd (even the most conservatively dressed stood out by smiling at everyone who boarded the train) was here to stay. The more submissive types might have tried to figure out how to "pass," now that they were in the minority.Gays and lesbians have even staged temporary occupations of a more powerful American city -- Orlando, Florida. "Gay Day" at Disney World has become an annual tradition, with the visiting queers so observant of social niceties they make Miss Manners seem like a libertine. It must be very confusing to straight families who have told their kids to run away from any stranger not wearing a mask.Alas, it would be difficult for straight America to emulate the movable-community concept that's worked so well for gays. We could all decide to celebrate the Fourth of July in Canada and marvel at how many people we recognize on the streets of Saskatoon, but overrunning a weaker country, even for a day, smacks of militarism. We can't be sure that the Cambridge City Council wouldn't stay home and stage a coup d'etat in our absence.On a citywide basis, however, this could work. How about New York Pride Day in Des Moines, Nashville Pride Day in Boston, or Hollywood Pride Day in Russell, Kansas? Soon everyone can share the warm feeling that can only come from a crazy person on a bus muttering, "When are all you f----- people going to leave?"Know Your Icons. One gay stereotype is largely true: we all share certain cultural references, including trashy movie actresses, flamboyant singers, eccentric writers. The great thing about it is that gay people of different ages can actually understand each other. A gay 16-year-old can reel off Joan Crawford movies, and a gay octogenarian knows lines from Absolutely Fabulous. Meanwhile, my parents have no idea who Keanu Reeves is, and my younger siblings have never heard of Audrey Hepburn. Straight America is splitting up into so many demographic groups that the stars on the flag could refer to cable networks rather than states.A cultural-literacy test for everyone is in order, ideally as a pre-requisite for a driver's license. No one should be allowed to steer a conversation without identifying the film in which Bette Davis said, "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night."Complain to the manager. Another stereotype is that gay people are bitchy customers, and this is also true -- with an explanation. We're constantly having to deal with airlines, motels, and insurance companies that refuse to recognize gay couples. As a result, we get to know the people in charge pretty quickly. Gay consumers are also more likely to patronize locally owned businesses like bookstores and video stores, since the national chains aren't always willing to carry the Advocate or Parting Glances. The fussy customer is the last weapon against a monopoly.Straight consumers can also win local control; all it takes is a little organizing. I suggest a campaign against Wal-Mart, in which straight people in every city demand a different product: more Chia Pets for Kansas City, more Flowbees for Miami, and so on. In no time at all, we'll have a completely decentralized economy. And isn't that what the "family values" Republicans say they want?


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