*(first published in Gay Chicago Magazine Nov. 2008 – This is NOT a theater related feature but since we are on the eve of the most profound presidential inauguration of our lifetime, since the LGBT community plays such a huge role in Chicago theatre, since so much of theater in Chicago examines/reacts to local, national and international politics and since editorial voices are getting fewer and harder to come by, it seems appropriate to add this to the website.)*
Are we dreaming? Or, I have a dream.
By Venus Zarris
Let’s go with the dream theme, since the last few weeks have been so dreamlike, and establish a certain level of stream of consciousness to this thing right off the bat. For the first time in over 8 years when I say ‘dream theme’ I really mean DREAM and not NIGHTMARE, as things have gone from unbelievably frightening to unbelievably hopeful in one day. That day, of course, being November 4, 2008.
The very first presidential celebratory e-mail response that I received on November 5 was a link to a very short op-ed by Paul Krugman of The New York Times entitled ‘The monster years.’
He opens with the statement, “Last night wasn’t just a victory for tolerance: it wasn’t just a mandate for progressive change: it was also, I hope, the end of the monster years.” The article is succinct and powerful but perhaps even more powerful are the responses. The one that particularly stands out sarcastically reads, “Great solace and comfort will be taken by the couples in California whose marriages were just declared illegal. – Kevin P.”
There is such a give and take to things. When we look at election day we not only see that the big political pendulum has finally started to swing back from the far right but that simultaneously there are several smaller pendulums swinging in different directions. I think that we really have to look at the unprecedented strides that the LGBT community has made during the last 8 years. If it is true, as we suspect, that the issue of gay marriage was brought to the front burner more so by the right wing, to smoke screen their wrong doings and alter the country’s priorities from prosecuting their criminal behavior to running in fear from the terrifying queers, then in the grand scheme of things this has and will continue to back fire on them.
Had they not allowed, since they have ultimately controlled the national vocabulary and subsequently the agenda, gay marriage to become a nationally prioritized issue we would still be fighting the fight in small fits and starts on municipal levels. That is NOT to belittle the early efforts made by the brave original champions of the cause, those who first went to their local courthouses and demanded marriage licenses only to be turned away or arrested. (Rosie only showed up on the steps of the courthouse with her partner AFTER the fact, when the cameras were rolling.)
But since ‘the right’ brought gay marriage more into the light, the progress has been remarkable. This is not an issue that will just die because of the bigots in California and elsewhere. The taste of franchisement that the gay community has nibbled on has only made people hungrier for justice and equality. It has made so many, who never considered it a possibility, dare to expect and even demand it.
It has also created dialogues that never existed. Kids are talking about it in college and even some high school classes. There is a large public forum of discourse and a general awareness of the details of the LGBT community’s struggles now that before only existed within our own community and in some college women’s studies classes. It isn’t just queers, fundamentalist clerics and a select few academics talking. It is the entire nation. And although everyone isn’t getting it right yet, at least they are starting to get it, that is, get the fact that we exist as an integrated part of the body politic and not just as folks on the fringes.
If we have come this far under the reign of the ‘monsters,’ imagine what might happen under a truly kinder and gentler administration. Hopefully we won’t become complacent and baby the new leaders simply because they claim to be more tolerant of our deviations.
We have been by no means embraced, rather just coddled to and solicited. And we can’t let the solicitations go by the wayside. They have got what they wanted, to be in office. We must remain vigilant in demanding and expecting equal voices and equal rights.
Think of this as Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves. Black Americans were by NO MEANS equal or able to enjoy their newfound freedom. It has taken 145 years since then for a black person to reach the office of president and even that achievement does not clear the slate or represent a total balance of franchisement for blacks.
It is a process. Hopefully, the optimism that this election represents will give us the renewed energy needed to keep fighting the good fight and not cause us to sit back and coast on how unthinkably better things are now then they were say, 20, 15 or even 8 years ago.
A couple summers ago I was, like SO MANY Americans, in the throngs of a crippling existential crisis. I stopped listening to the news out of emotional and psychological self-preservation. It felt like we were no longer teetering on the precipice of the apocalypse, but actually plummeting over the cliff. One day I had a remarkable epiphany of hope. In my mind I was transported back to the mid 1980s.
I was thinking of my problematic ‘coming out’ in a family of brutally homophobic evangelical Christians. But more so than my personal crisis, the world was being ravaged by the onset of the AIDS pandemic. Queer Americans were the target for all forms of projected blame, retaliations and persecutions. We were no longer merely left out, but we were singled out as the cause of the plague. We were facing a holocaust and between the deadly virus and the subsequent backlash, our worlds had never looked darker.
From THAT unthinkably Dark Age came the galvanized community that we now embrace and enjoy. Today’s LGBT community, many might even call family, is the phoenix that sprung from the fiery flames of that crisis. And so I realized that from the current administration of mass destruction, a glorious phoenix of some kind might arise. If every action causes a reaction, surely there must be something wonderful on the horizon of this absurdly bleak chaos.
I didn’t dare count on it. I simply had a new filter to look at the dangerous and disturbing world through. And on the days that seemed the darkest I remembered the darkest days of the 1980s and remembered how we didn’t think that we would survive then and yet we did, so I thought that perhaps we’d once again make it through.
With the election of not only a Democratic President but of a person who has already begun to restore hope and good will before even taking office, there is light in the tunnel that for so long has seemed like a bottomless black hole. The social strides made in this election have proven that once again a phoenix has risen from the ashes and that phoenix is as much this country itself as it is any one person.
We have heard a hell of a lot of ‘God Bless America’ talk over the last several months. It seems to be the required sign-off of politicians from both sides of the two party coin. I think that circumstances have proven that ‘God’s’ intervention is too random to be counted on. If we want real blessings bestowed on this country it requires a conscious secular effort to do the right thing and evolve together by lifting up compassion, justice and decency as our torches of liberty to illuminate the darkness of our internal tyranny. We cannot wrap these words up under the heading of democracy and then forcefully export them abroad when we don’t afford these inalienable rights to our own citizens. On November 4, 2008, ‘God’ didn’t bless America. America Blessed America by caring for ourselves and each other.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream 40 years ago that people would not be judged by the color of their skin but rather the content of their character. President Elect Barack Obama is the most profound realization of that dream to date.
I have a dream. One shared and articulated by so many before me. I have a dream that people will not be judged, persecuted or legislated against because of who and how they love. And regardless of the setback of Proposition 8, high on the list of the many wonderful things to be thankful about this year is the remarkable progress made toward realizing that dream.
Image by Venus Zarris.