THREE CHEERS FOR NEW ENGLAND'S GAY CULTURE
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- I did summer stock when I was a kid. And I'll never forget the time I stood in the wings with a group of professional actors, watching a wild musical number progressing on the stage. One actor said something about the terrible camping, and since I knew there were several summer camps in the audience, I told him not to disparage the paying customers. As the other actors roared with laughter, he explained "camp" - exaggerated comic actions and gestures with a homosexual subtext - to innocent little me.
I'm thinking about my embarrassing introduction to gay culture today because, by chance, I enjoyed it in two different forms this past weekend.
On Friday night, I watched the Ladies of the Rainbow Lounge perform live in Brattleboro, Vt. These four drag queens, with their big wigs, thick make-up, sequined bar mitzvah dresses and wonderful humor put on a lively - and risqué - show that charmed and tickled the packed house. On Sunday night I was at an Indigo Girls concert in Northampton, Mass. It was, like most Indigos shows, a virtual showcase of lesbian lifestyles.
It might be hard, in this "Queer as Folk" and "Will and Grace" age, when even the manly players of the Boston Red Sox get their backs waxed on television, to believe how dangerous it once was to be openly gay. But because stories of America's intolerance to homosexuals are piling up, it might be worth it to remember.
Just the other day, The Boston Globe had a story about some teenagers who wrote a homophobic epithet on a rock at a Michigan high school. The story was supposed to be heartwarming, because some seniors covered up the hateful words with spray paint and wrote "Love" over them. Then, carried away, they spray-painted the word "Love" all over the school. They were suspended for vandalism and barred from graduation, but the community banded together in support, a separate graduation ceremony was held, and even the superintendent of schools made sure they had caps, gowns and yearbooks. And yes, the original vandals, 9th-graders, were also suspended.
But how soon will it be before the community does not come out in support? How soon before people are afraid to speak up?
Putting the best face on it, one can only say that the Bush Administration is whipping up hatred in the heartland to create an "us" versus "them" mentality that will keep them in power longer. By demonizing one group, separating them out, making them appear "evil" or "lesser than us," they can fan the flames of prejudice and close the hearts of their heartland base.
That's the best face. The worst would be that these people actually believe that homosexuals are dangerous and immoral beings.
Back when Vermont was starting to create civil unions (to no ill effect, I must say), I collected some of the hateful pamphlets that were circulating around. "Do we want to legitimize a behavior that is linked to multiple high-risk behaviors?" asked one. High risk behaviors like loving? Like wanting to marry? Like raising children? Like wanting to be accepted as contributing members of our communities?
One wonders if these homophobes believe that straight people don't engage in "high risk" sexual behaviors. Don't they know that pedophilia, anal sex, drug use and promiscuity are equal-opportunity employers?
While the Brattleboro audience cheered the drag queens for adding a welcome bit of color, wit and naughtiness to our lives, and the Northampton audience danced, sang, hugged and kissed to the music of the Indigo Girls, I held my breath at the potential vulnerability of it all. After all, Germany in the 1930s also enjoyed a flourishing and emancipated homosexual culture. The backlash was devastating and deadly.
I enjoy living in a culture where homosexuality is open, acceptable, and a lively part of the cultural stew. I enjoy seeing men in drag walk down the streets of rural communities, and young girls wrap themselves tightly around each other during folk music concerts. Straight culture can be a little too straight, not to mention self-righteous, monotonous and boring. We need to shake things up every now and then.
But living in Vermont or Massachusetts (or New York City) is not like living in the rest of the United States. Conservatives - Christians and Jews alike - are busy demonizing homosexuals. And successful demonization leads to easy hatred, which is only a hop, skip and a jump away from violence.
Too much of the country believes that what we take for granted up here in Vermont is an abomination, and that any day now we'll be turning into pillars of salt. It's not enough to put a bumper sticker on your car that says, "Hate has no home here." Hate has a home here. It has a home everywhere. Just be aware and beware, is all I'm saying.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.