In late March, I became the kind of person I once hated. To explain requires a story.
During the 1990s, I worked at Affirmations Lesbian/Gay Community Center in metropolitan Detroit. For those who may not remember, being gay and lesbian in the early 1990s was quite different than being gay and lesbian today. Before Melissa Etheridge was a lesbian (and when she was still a really big star), before Ellen came out (DeGeneres or Page), before The L Word and before gay or lesbian people could get married anywhere, we talked a lot about coming out and creating safe places for gay and lesbian people to be themselves. One consistency between then and now: there was a vibrant, activist movement for gay and lesbian rights.
In partnership with hundred and thousands of other gay and lesbian people, I was a part of the movement. It was noisy, loud and unruly; it was also quotidian, modest and soft-spoken. We wanted to live a new and different way; we wanted gay and lesbian people to be accepted as a part of the rich fabric of American life. We had bold and audacious visions; we had ordinary hopes and aspirations.
Detroit was literally and metaphorically in the heartland. We thought of our struggle and our work in Detroit as important to the gay agenda. We understood our work as central to the project of gay liberation. Occasionally, though, someone from one of "the coasts," either the east coast corridor from Boston to Washington or the west coast hub between San Francisco and Los Angeles, would at a conference inform us all of what was au courant. These activists, fierce and righteous, would tell us what was new and interesting, what was the cutting edge of lesbian and gay activism. Often, their ideas and insights involved things that we had not considered and conditions that were not part of our daily lives. Almost always, these activists, who I generally admired and wanted to emulate, highlighted how our ideas were passé. They saw us as living in my world that was smaller and less important than theirs. I resented this insinuation. It happened a lot.
Often people from the Midwest pointed out this tension and quite often this tension became a creative one for moving our work forward. As a young person, I swore that even if I lived on one of the coasts, I would not become one of those people.
Then in March, I became that coastal, urban person. Speaking at a conference, I commented that I was tired of marriage. I worried that marriage was making us mainstream; I suggested that marriage was passé.
Then, someone from the rural part of the south spoke up and corrected me. She could not get married in her state, and the struggle for marriage was important to her. She confronted me on my blithe dismissal of the continued struggle for marriage equality. I was humbled and grateful.
I am struck by how quickly our locations and our sense of place and time change. If you had told me at twenty-five that I would become a jaded urbanite in my forties, I would have disagreed, vociferously. If you would have told me that I would be one of the people that marginalized other experiences different from my own, experiences that did not reflect my urban, coastal perspective, I would have called you a liar.
I became what I never wanted to become, or maybe what I desperately wanted to become. I cannot be sure which proposition is true. What I am sure of is this: my perspective was enhanced, I became more self-aware and more self-critical because someone stood up and spoke her truth to me. My thinking was improved by confrontation within a community. Those conditions are a consistent part of my activist life, and I am grateful for them.
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