I realized I was gay when I was 13. That was 1981, a fascinating "cusp year" in the continuum of LGBT history. In 1981, a frightening new virus began to put the brakes on what had, in the 1970s, been accelerating acceptance of gay people in America.
In recent days, a majority of members of the United States Senate have come to support marriage equality. The sudden senatorial consensus favoring greater equality for gay Americans is the latest statistic in a series of favorable societal evolutions that have taken place during the past four years, President Barack Obama's pre-reelection change of heart being perhaps most seminal among them.
But there is an enemy of equality that we LGBT Americans might be tempted to ignore during this new cusp time. As society transitions from open, widespread bigotry against LGBT people to mainstream acceptance of our community, it is incumbent upon lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people to be aware of a potential new enemy of our equal rights: intra-community discrimination among LGBT people.
I have seen that enemy. When we fail to honor, respect and celebrate our community's own diversity, that enemy is us. Last year, a troubling story came to my attention. It is a story that illustrates the perils of becoming too concerned with rushing toward acceptability by heterosexual standards and conforming to so-called family values.
During the 2011 San Diego LGBT Pride festival, the civil rights of a man named Will Walters, then 28, were allegedly trampled by police and, astonishingly, Pride security.
Walters went to San Diego's annual LGBT Pride festival in 2011 wearing what, by anyone's standards, was a sexy leather outfit. But by no stretch of the imagination could his leather gear have been considered more revealing than many typical men's and women's swimsuits worn without incident or remark at public pools and beaches every day across America. But as Walters answered a photographer's questions about his custom-designed, leather gladiator kilt, a San Diego Police officer decided to interject.
"The officer said to Will, 'Excuse me, your outfit is borderline breaking the law,'" Walters' attorney, Chris Morris, of Aguirre Morris & Severson, LLP, which is based in San Diego, explained to me during an interview last year. Walters is now suing San Diego LGBT Pride and the City of San Diego because of alleged violations of his civil rights. Although he was never charged with an offense, he was taken into custody, allegedly humiliated and subjected to harsh treatment while being transported and while in jail.
"As anyone of us would, my client felt intimidated by the threat of possible arrest implied by the officer's words. So Will told him how he felt. He was then hustled out of the beer garden, forced out of the event, and ultimately arrested. It appears that the police were following Pride's request to step up enforcement of the dress code, and Pride was following the police in how they dealt with Will."
For decades, LGBT people, our friends and our families have come to pride parades and festivals to enjoy expressions of gay culture, music, dance, fashion, art and camaraderie. In recent years, the general public has discovered that the events are safe places for families to join in celebrating and supporting the diversity of their neighborhoods.
"That's a wonderful thing," Walters recently told a reporter. "Everyone should feel welcome at Pride, just as they do at events like Over the Line."
Over the Line is a beloved San Diego bat-and-ball tournament, presented annually by the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club. It is perhaps best known for its abundance of scantily clad women and ogling men.
"But when you prevent gay people from expressing ourselves by wearing leather in a tasteful and decent way, you've gone too far," Walters said. "San Diego Pride is basically saying, 'It's more important for us not to risk offending straight people at gay pride festivals than it is to ensure gay people are safe from discrimination or having our civil rights violated.'"
The bad news is that Pride officials in San Diego continue to shirk their responsibility, saying that it is up to police to decide the dress code for this year's event (scheduled for July 13 and 14) and every year's festival and parade. Nevertheless, local police have made it clear that they would rather take direction from Pride officials on the matter of what attire is inappropriate for Pride 2013.
Clearly, both organizations are now more worried about passing the risk of future civil rights lawsuits to the other than they are focused on creating a safe environment for LGBT people to express our pride as members of a community that has a lot of accomplishments to be proud of these days.
The good news is that even the mainstream media in San Diego, a relatively conservative part of California, understands that something went terribly awry at Pride 2011. In fact, my story in LGBT Weekly about the tragic events surrounding Will Walters' visit to the Pride festival that year was recognized with a second-place award for best investigative reporting by the San Diego Press Club in 2012.
If the presumably mostly straight judges of an arguably conservative major city's press club can see the importance of shining a light on instances of intra-LGBT-community discrimination, I submit that it is crucial for members of our community (especially those of us who work in the media) to do likewise.
Will Walters is suing police and San Diego LGBT Pride for allegedly violating his civil rights. Walters was forced to leave 2011's San Diego LGBT Pride festival and arrested because he was wearing the outfit shown here. The next image shows as much, if not more, skin being exposed by women at a popular non-gay San Diego festival.
Public safety officials in San Diego have said that event depicted here, called Over the Line, is historically one where they are "more lax" on enforcing nudity laws. (Photo by Sean Callahan, courtesy SoCal Beaches)
Walters is hopeful that a jury will send a message that it's not OK for LGBT pride organizations to discriminate against members of their own community when trying to appeal to heterosexual audiences and pursue so-called family values. (Photo: Big Mike Phillips)
Follow Thom Senzee on Twitter: www.twitter.com/tsenzee