The Washington Blade
November 1, 1991
RICHARD J. ROSENDALL
Confessions of a 'Collaborator'
A few months ago, as I was returning to D.C. from Rosslyn, into the subway car stepped that tireless activist and self-promoter, Michael Petrelis. He greeted me effusively (which made me suspicious), and traded seats with the man next to me. I told him that I had been reading about him a lot lately, and he made a sarcastic remark about the Washington Blade's failure to report his every burp. I referred to his highly-publicized dumping of a drink on a Midwestern member of Congress in the French Quarter Cafe, and his participation in the "outing" of Defense Department spokesman Pete Williams. I said that I thought these actions were irresponsible. He said that he wasn't surprised at this, coming from a collaborator like me. As he began raising his voice I asked him to please keep it down, since we were in a crowded public transport. He said he didn't have to be quiet, and yelled, "Hey, everybody, I'm a faggot and I have AIDS!"
Appalled by this behavior, I got off the train at the next stop.
Since Petrelis equates the slightest personal modesty with shame and self-loathing, I am sure that he was greatly satisfied with having embarrassed me by creating a public scene. It is not enough that I am completely "out" in every facet of my life: to prove my avant-garde credentials, I must make a continual public spectacle of myself as he does. I gladly concede the field.
Petrelis is not Gay Washington's only adherent of public boorishness, as last week's First Person columns by Queer Nation members Stephen J. Smith and Greg Scott make amply clear. Confusing visibility with exhibitionism, these activists demand that everyone in the Gay rights movement copy their in-your-face tactics and loud, obnoxious demonstrations.
Smith seems to believe that screaming "queer," "dyke," and "fag" in public and deliberately shocking people is the same as effective civil disobedience. This is an insult to prophets like Gandhi and King, who showed great thoughtfulness and focus in their actions, which were aimed not at offending people's sensibilities so much as challenging their consciences.
Scott announces that Queer Nation has come to Washington to put on notice the D.C. Council, the Pentagon, the U.S. Congress, and President Bush, as if this will magically cause the forces of oppression to retreat and the Queer Millenium to arrive. This combination of hubris and naïveté is extraordinary.
Smith claims that Gay men who don't like the word "queer" are closeted, wear Brooks Brothers shirts, drink Cape Cods, pick up tricks at Tracks, and are weak, whining, self-loathing, and Republican. There is a clear tone of class-based resentment running all through his piece, with its snide references to politeness, cocktails, and black-tie fundraisers.
The Class Struggle appears to be a guiding theme of the Queer Nation for-ces. Their self-conscious rebelliousness in behavior and dress eerily resembles that of the '60s. The radical chic of their fashion is reflected in the forced quality of their arguments.
"Put down that cocktail," Smith exhorts us. "It's time to get into the streets. It's time to disobey an unjust government that's killing us. It's time to fill the jails. It's time to riot. It's time for a WAR!"
Before I rush off to battle, I have a question. Why must we talk of AIDS as if it were a government conspiracy — as if Ronald Reagan and George Bush literally ran through the night injecting people by the hundreds of thousands with HIV? Reagan and Bush have indeed pandered to homophobia and racism, and remained criminally silent on the AIDS epidemic. But the evil of others does not absolve us of responsibility for our own behavior.
Accepting responsibility is not the same as believing that we deserve what we get. It just means taking charge of our lives and not taking refuge in the mythology of victimization.
There is nothing wrong with well chosen civil disobedience or with impassioned questioning of our assumptions and methods. Dissent and diversity in our movement enable us to challenge the system from both inside and out. Playing Good Cop/Bad Cop can be an effective strategy, but it requires coöperation and mutual respect.
Gay people should not be expected perpetually to censor their public displays of affection, erotica, and other manifestations of Gayness just to protect delicate sensibilities. Similarly, if in the course of fighting bigotry I offend some bigots, that's their problem. But French kissing in a shopping mall with no other purpose than to shock people accomplishes only that.
The sodomy laws, hate crimes, and AIDS epidemic to which Smith refers happen to be issues that most of the Gay men he attacks agree with him about. The trouble is, Smith cannot abide any disagreement with his extreme tactics and rhetoric, so he resorts to insults, caricatures, and ridicule in an attempt to bully others into conformity.
Scott sticks more to the issues than Smith, but his reasoning is similarly overheated. Invoking the Stonewall riots, he declares that activists who are not still rioting are "assimilationists," and announces that "the Revolution has begun." But if all that we can do after the riots are over is have more riots, when do we ever build anything?
Gay people were coming out and confronting injustice long before Queer Nation came along. In fact, many of the nice boys in loafers whom Smith so despises actually founded the "hundreds of queer organizations" to which he approvingly refers, and have worked tirelessly for decades to win some of the freedoms that he now enjoys. No, our work is not finished. Creating social change requires perseverance, and involves many setbacks. But that is no reason to trash an entire generation of activists, to mistake public tantrums for carefully targeted actions, or to adopt derogatory epithets like "queer" as badges of liberation.
Richard J. Rosendall is a past president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, DC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.