Last Saturday I attended Gay Day at Washington, D.C.'s National Zoo. The event, organized by a local coalition of LGBT communities, saw thousands of gays and lesbians descending upon the home of one of D.C.'s most famous celebrities: the pandas. So it makes sense that the organizers not only asked those who identified as LGBT to wear either orange or blue at the event but created a T-shirt sporting both these colors and a picture of two panda bears embracing. The shirts were a nice touch for those who decided to buy them, but for those who opted out of the color-coded dress scheme, it still wasn't too difficult to discern the gays from the normal Saturday crowd.
Walking amidst the throngs of strollers and parents with diaper bags, it was quite apparent which team the groups of well-dressed men played for as they crossed on the opposite side of the walking path. In fact, the juxtaposition was so strong, and the amount of gays so prevalent, that most of my friends admittedly spent more time observing the passersby than observing the animals.
At each crossing, heads would turn, gazes would shift, and whispers were shared among my group's members. However, unlike the mammals in our midst, no one at Gay Day seemed to be in heat, instead leaving the animalist instincts to the mating monkeys that everyone couldn't help joking about.
Yes, stereotypes, take that! For once the gays were concentrated in one area, which, for all intents and purposes, was basically an outdoor gay bar, and weren't hitting on each other like rabbits. While I am proud of my gay brethren for resisting the carnal urges that so many assume pervades my community, for the first time this bucking of stereotypes bothered me.
My own gaggle of gays -- a title that I have chosen as the zoological term for my clan of homosexuals -- consisting of 12 team members from D.C.'s gay Stonewall Kickball league, aptly spent the day strolling up and down the walkways of the zoo and encountering many men from our homosexual species. Each time, we'd murmur to one another which members of the passing colony were cute, who we thought checked us out too, and which one we wished had stopped to
sniff our butt talk. One by one, clans of gays would pass by us, always sharing these glances and stares but never once speaking to the other herd. For an hour we continued our mating dance, rivaling the birds of paradise in the concentration of bright colors we were wearing, until I'd had enough of this inaction and decided to do something about it.
The next time I saw my gaggle of gays sharing side glances and head turns with another pack, I walked over and said, "Hey! Are y'all here for Gay Day too?" You would have thought I had just dropped a flock of flamingos in the cheetah pit. The gaggles paused in trepidation.
I shook hands with the leader of the other group, who wore blue shorts and an orange shirt, erasing any doubt of his species, and introduced myself by name. He entertained my unconventional hunting technique; however, his pride stood back in fear. Even as I introduced my team, The New Kicks on the Block, and tried to foster some conversation between our two gaggles, they all hovered like toddlers seeing a pony for the first time, wanting so badly to pet it, but scared out of their minds at the same time.
Despite this initial failure, I knew that chasing game could sometimes be a lengthy process, so I tried again. After a few attempts, the last of which resulted in one gay responding to my "are you here for Gay Day?" question with a snide look, a head snap and a "noooo" that would make RuPaul seem butch, I resigned myself back to the hunting lodge.
As my gaggle ditched the watering holes at the zoo to sniff out some food at a nearby restaurant, I wondered out loud why every other gay we met was so scared of actually talking to the men they ogled from across the Penguin Pit, asking my friends, "What are people so afraid of?"
"They're afraid of rejection," one of my gaggle replied. He continued, "Everyone is so scared of being judged and turned down that they won't take the risk to stray from their group of friends."
As I lamented the absurdity of the statement, another member of my gaggle chimed in, "That's just the way it is."
I pondered this assertion some more and thought of one of my favorite theologians, Shane Claiborne, whose radically anti-violence dogma often elicits similar comments. I internally echoed his belief that anyone who only accepts "the way it is," especially when it's an injustice, just needs to get more creative to solve the problem. I've done my best to be creative in bucking social norms; I even spent 260 days driving around North America and wrote a book about my extroverted doctrine, Life's More Fun When You Talk to Strangers, to prove that "the way it is" can be altered into something spectacular if you are willing to break the normal binds of social interaction. Perhaps I'm too much of an unreserved optimist, but I just don't understand this fear of rejection that seems to plague humanity.
While I do agree that it is a universal human truth that people are more willing to pick out their flaws than view themselves as beautiful (shoot, Dove even made a wildly popular video highlighting just this), my local friends say it's especially bad in the Washington, D.C., political pressure cooker, where everyone is safeguarding themselves for the next election. Since I've only lived in this city for eight months, I'm told that my lack of time here and my friendly Midwestern roots might keep me from noticing it, but on top of that heightened pressure, D.C.'s gay scene is even more dominated by this aura of pretention and exclusivity. Their point was hammered home that same night after the zoo when we attended a gay sports bar together, and one of my peers said, "See, the whole crowd is in their own group and not mixing at all. Everyone here is dying for someone nice and cute to come talk to them, but they're scared to death of it too."
Deep down, this universal fear has to come from an idea that we as individuals are not good enough, pretty enough, smart enough, etc., and it makes sense that this anxiety would plague the gay community so strongly. Many of us know what it feels like to be rejected by our family, friends and bosses once we come out, so we have an even tougher time accepting that we are beautiful just the way we are. However, just because that's "the way it is" doesn't mean that it's the way it should be. In fact, as gay people who know this rejection so intensely, we should be the ones most willing to confront it head-on and not allow it to permeate our community. We should come together to overcome that fear, to walk up to a fellow gay and say "hi," to not pander to the idea that there are only certain acceptable ways to meet someone (shoot, we're queer, so we should already be used to bucking social norms). If every one of us could do this, the whole process wouldn't be so scary anymore.
When I walked through the Amazon exhibit at the National Zoo, moments after my last-ditch attempt at integrating some gaggles, I was struck by one profound juxtaposition: Sitting in the tree branches, above the gaggles of gays shuffling by each other with little more than stolen glances, perched two monkeys. Those two monkey friends sat next to each other, taking turns picking fleas off each other's back, each cleaning and bettering his mate's fur coat.
Perhaps we can learn from these monkeys' example and do what we can to enhance the lives of those around us. Instead of allowing an aura of fear and pretention to dominate our gay community, we can be supportive of one another, take risks beyond our own social circle and be receptive to those willing to branch out from their own gaggle. If we can, perhaps we can pick those metaphorical fleas of judgment and fear off each other, in exchange for open minds and exceptional interactions with strangers that strengthen our community. After all, we're already queer; so what if we choose to make our habitat a little kinder than the rest of the animal kingdom?