We Never Left Laramie: White LGBTQ Consciousness Post-Election 2016

Image: Matthew Weibe

Monday 19th December, 2016

Jack Gieseking

Since the election, many friends and colleagues have turned to me. They ask what I thought was next for LGBTQ people under the forthcoming Trump administration. They ask this of me because I am writing a historical geography of lesbian-queer New York City in the contemporary era. I presently do research on transgender youth use of Tumblr, and I write queer theory about the political economy of data and mapping. I’ve also helped to write and review documents that will serve as the basis for the U.S. National Parks Service to create the first national LGBTQ monuments. Unsurprisingly then, what I think about queer U.S. futures lies heavily in the past. If you do not live a queer life, know that queer lives are often fragmented, uprooted, violated, unrecognized, and/or rendered invisible. So I offer you the fragments of how I got to this idea, through what this idea feels like. The idea is this: in everything I have read and seen in the news and through the lens of my research, it is clear to me that in the long arc of queer history, we never left Laramie.

November 9th, 2016, Hartford, CT

The day after the election, I was on a panel at my home institution: a small, elite liberal arts undergraduate college in New England, Trinity College. A colleague invited actor/director Stephen Belber, an alumnus of the college, to come and speak about his role in writing, producing, and acting in the play The Laramie Project. Belber and his colleagues in the Tectonic Theater Project had gone to Laramie, Wyoming in 1998, immediately after the brutal beating and murder there of a young, white, blue-eyed, blond-haired man named Matthew Sheppard. Sheppard’s death made national news, inspired an international outpouring of grief, and was a key event that led to the creation of U.S. hate crimes laws. The Project conducted hundreds of interviews with residents and pieced together their words into what would become the play. In the decade after its first performance, The Laramie Project has been taught and performed in thousands of high schools across the U.S. and touched the lives of multiple generations in this country and abroad.

As we were doing our introductions for the panel, suddenly in a sharp intake of breath sitting on the stage in front of our Dean, staff, students, and other faculty, I was 21 again and I can’t breathe.

Fall, 1998, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA

I’m in my dorm room in a women’s college. I just heard the news about the young, gay college student named Matt Sheppard who is in the hospital. They doubt he will survive. He was attacked for merely being gay, the news tells me. I had only come out publicly a few years prior. I know this only matters to the news because Matt Sheppard is so white, pretty, and even angelic. I am so desperate for sanctuary I am happy we are noticed, even in our murders.

Just that week, I had bought a sticker of a rainbow Pride flag for my car. Now I decide not to put it on. I put the sticker away in a box.

September 20th, 2010, Berlin, Germany

Suddenly, I blink, and I am not on that theater stage on a panel in New England, but at my desk in Berlin on a fellowship and writing what will be the first lesbian and/or queer contemporary historical geography of New York City. I’ve just finished two years of qualitative and archival research and I take a break from writing to call a friend. Although I won’t see the video until a week later, my friend mentions to me that the gay pundit Dan Savage went so far as to announce to LGBTQ teenagers that “It Gets Better” in a YouTube video. His argument? If gay teens would only they could choose to live, their lives would surely get “better.” I’m so outraged that I begin screaming in my living room.

September 21st, 2010, Berlin, Germany

The next day, I am checking the U.S. news when I hear how 18-year old Tyler Clementi was outted to the world by his roommate who made and put online a clandestine video showing him making out with another boy. In response, Clementi walked halfway to the queer haven of New York City from New Jersey on the George Washington Bridge, and committed suicide by jumping into the Hudson River. Clementi was white, middle class, and a first-year student at Rutgers University. His last Facebook post read, “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”

November 9th, 2016 (part II), Hartford, CT

“Sorry,” I say, as tears well up in my eyes in front of colleagues, students, and administrators. I am intact again: a white, working-middle class, 39-year old butch trans queer lesbian who teaches and researches in American Studies, LGBTQ history and theory, cultural geography, and digital and computational studies. In this moment, none of this really matters because I am undone. I know I am not sorry because I have done something wrong—although I once believed that to be true decades ago—but I am sorry for what we are all about to live through, for what we all live through.

November 10th, 2016, Amherst, MA

The day after the panel, an LGBTQ-identified college student I know tells me, “Well, they haven’t said anything about us.” Do I tell him the truth?

I exhale. Yes, I do. I tell him the alt-right was always there behind and besides Trump-Pence. I tell the LGBTQ movement did nothing to cohere en masse and fight this evil from taking power.

I recall how this student loves Dan Savage. The original “It Gets Better” video snowballed into over 50,000 videos recorded by famous and everyday citizens, and led to the creation of an international non-profit. Along with other scholars, I concur that Savage’s message is absurd, cruel, and wildly privileged in its whiteness and upper-middle class-ness. I also concur that these videos did little to actually aid the distress of LGBTQ youth but did much to assuage the guilt and agony of LGBTQ and LGBTQ-sympathetic adults.

I tell him, sadly and suddenly, that during this era of increased LGBTQ acceptance and tolerance, I have never, ever seen evidence to suggest that LGBT suicide rates have decreased.

He says he isn’t surprised. I realize his lack of surprise makes sense: he’s still a teenager. He’s still living a world that isn’t yet “better.”

November 14th, 2016, at home

A week has passed since the election. Once a week, during the long election and at night in my home when the quiet prevailed, I would look at a hashtag I discovered on Twitter: #GaysForTrump. I began this practice not long after Trump selected Mike Pence as his Vice Presidential candidate, a politician who has been linked to a host of anti-LGBTQ laws, policies, statements, think tanks, funders, and sentiments. I wanted to comprehend how a sexual minority would feel seen or supported by the Trump-Pence ticket. When I can handle looking at the hashtag, at a somewhat random timing, the photos of those tweeting for this hashtag always appeared to be white and were almost always male. The arguments made on behalf of those supporting Trump-Pence focus on immigrants and Muslims. These tweeters argued that it was immigrants and Muslims who not only perpetrated anti-LGBTQ hatred in the U.S., but brought it into the U.S. when they arrived on these shores—as if we weren’t a nation born in blood and always determined by its heterosexuality, racism, sexism, and colonialism.

In all of the places and spaces mentioned in my research and all of the spaces I have experienced in my genderqueer body, I never once heard or felt that anti-LGBTQ violence was a project from without. However, I could see similar patterns as those described by my research participants: how white male privilege asserted its power by claiming the villainy of an other, as if they were not others themselves.

November 20th, 2016, Northampton, MA

I attend a Rally for Resistance and Change in the center of the small city near where I live in in New England. One woman has wrapped herself in a rainbow Pride flag. I think: people still can buy those?

I open Facebook that evening and read about a friend who had borrowed her partner’s laptop case for a trip. She forgot there was a faded, beaded rainbow dangling small but bright from the zipper. My white, middle class, successful, straight-passing friend describes the sense of panic she feels walking down the aisle in this southern town for a flight back north. She hasn’t felt like this since the 1990s, she mentions. The panic increases: will anyone see?! Will anyone attack me?!?!!?!!? And then some butch nods at my friend, the small nod that some lesbians, dykes, gays, fags, queers, homos, transes, bisexuals, queens, and more share with one another to say, “I got you, sister/brother/themster.”

“Pride” is always momentary.

2008-2009, New York City

I interview 47 self-identified lesbians and queers who came out between 1983 and 2008 and spent most of their time in New York City. In my research, my lesbian and queer participants describe how the dyke nod is disappearing. They remark how the rainbow flag is passé. And everything will change now! A black man has been elected president! Hurrah!

Our conversations also document how, at the turn of the century, the brave act of placing a rainbow flag on yourself, an object, or a place became a branding scheme. At the same time, the Human Rights Campaign launched their logo of a yellow equal sign on a navy background. It’s not so-in-your-face as the gay and lesbian rainbow of old were known to be. It’s just about equality, this logo says. Just but not justice.

The Human Rights Campaign is the largest LGBTQ lobby in the U.S. It is the Human Rights Campaign that played heavily in narrowing the LGBTQ movement’s platform to marriage-and-military when they out-fundraised and then out-voiced any other LGBTQ organization. Other LGBTQ organizations and groups were limited in power and prowess by the promise of “official” and “recognized” status of the non-profit industrialization complex.

My own research with lesbians and queers resonated across generations with stories of self-loathing, dread, and loneliness. The lives of lesbians of color and poor lesbians were riddled with even more stress and violence, a sensibility I saw in my everyday life but could only be traced to structures of inequality when hearing all of their voices together. The black and brown women in my research said this was the only chance they would have in their lives to sit in a room together, across generations, and talk. It doesn’t have to be, I say. They shrug. I know I won’t let it be.

Somehow, all along I choose to forget—until the moment recalling Sheppard’s violent ending on the stage at Trinity—that total experience of fear, abandonment, and loss I felt as a self-identified gay teenager in a racist, homophobia, heteronormative, cis-normative world. Somehow, these conversations make sense of queer oppression in the face of queer diaspora.

June 27th, 2011, Berlin, Germany

My fellowship is almost over and I’ll soon be returning home. I watch the NYC Pride marchers celebrate the New York Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. It's been timed for a media release. Justice depends on the news cycle, but ACT UP and Lesbian Avengers learned and taught us that.

Two years later I'll be in Berlin again, now watching the celebration at NYC Pride of the federal Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage in 2013, i.e. a peace offering on the 47th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot. I don’t celebrate. I spend the day mourning the demise of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protected racial discrimination in voting until two days previous.

Both times, I wonder if marriage was worth the vote, since it feels like there is only so much justice the state is willing to administer to its people. The gays merely leased this most recent piece of the pie.

November 24th, 2016, Portland, ME

I am visiting old friends. They live in Maine, as I used to, the whitest state in the union. We’re celebrating Friendsgiving together, and each of us reveals by the end of the night that they donated again to Standing Rock that day. Again, I think of how Native Americans have never been safe in this country. But, for the first time, I realize that until the election of the Trump-Pence ticket, my white, educated, middle-aged, butch lesbian trans self felt some semblance of safety. I am appalled at myself. I also realize this safety I let myself dream made sense because, without it, I’m dreaming of Nazis again. I haven’t done since I was 14.

Over the years, I have felt that sense of agony I felt as a lesbian teenager less and less often. I realize it lay dormant though ever-present underneath my skin, all the while emblazoned in my research framework and purpose. Now, since the election, I see that.

November 9th, 2016 (part III), Hartford, CT

I cry briefly and get out these points on the theater stage:

  • Matt Sheppard would have been my age.
  • I’ve lived twice as long as Matt.
  • LGBGTQ people call him Matt, as if we know him. We do. And we don’t.
  • Until this moment, I forgot all of that violent fear I felt when I first came out. That fear, panic, and related self-hatred was total.
  • In the play, Laramie is a place but also a character. We, as city dwellers, want to blame those in the rural for being “backward” or “uncivilized.” As if violence, especially to Americans, always takes place somewhere else. But we are all culpable if we do not speak out and act out for justice.

Today

We never left Laramie.

What I mean is that U.S. LGBTQ people, primarily white LGBTQ people of a certain education and/or income level, have been placated with some rights, some visibility, and some recognition and history. This justice for some of us plasters over (read: whites out) the wild injustices suffered by other groups, i.e. purported others—as if LGBTQ people are not brown, black, Asian, Muslim, Jewish, disabled, and immigrants. If we are just one slice of ourselves, are we really anyone? If we stand up for just one part of ourselves or one sub-group of a group, do we stand for anything?

Scholars write about this as a process of pinkwashing, whereby nation-states like the U.S. hawk their faux-magnanimity in the form of self-righteous justice through laws and policies to “normalize” gays and lesbians with the right to marry or serve in the military. This campaign is meant to—and often succeeds—in obscuring the hatred, harassment, and violence suffered by other minorities. If you listen to the news, it is the same “backwards” residents of rural locales who led to this election’s outcome. Now, the alt right’s vitriol and violences are un-pinkwashing many white U.S. citizens, as many of them wake up to the injustice perpetuated by the new administration.

So, white queers, hear this! We never left Laramie. We never left Little Rock, Seneca Falls, Montgomery, and Tiananmen Square. We never left every town in Germany on Kristallnacht. We never left Kosovo, Nanking, internment camps for U.S. Japanese citizens in WWII, Sonoran Desert, Aleppo, or Meerut. We never left the Warsaw Ghetto, Orlando, the Paris Commune, Greensboro, and Auschwitz. We are definitely still in Palestine. We will never leave Standing Rock. We never left Port au Down, Tibet, the Suez Canal, Petrograd, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, and Chiapas. Injustice lingers in place because the injustice still lingers in us. For queers, spaces matter all the more because we have been disavowed from having places of our own, or having them for any length of time. We know what is at staking in staying put—it is time to stay put together.

All queers, read this. It’s called “QUEERS READ THIS,” published by Anonymous Queers in 1990 and was handed out that year at the NYC Pride march. The first paragraph is as follows but find the entire piece linked in the footnote:

How can I tell you. How can I convince you, brother, sister that your life is in danger: That everyday you wake up alive, relatively happy, and a functioning human being, you are committing a rebellious act. You as an alive and functioning queer are a revolutionary.

This is still true.

Except this statement left out that being an alive and functioning black or brown person is revolutionary. Being an immigrant and/or a Muslim is, now, revolutionary. Being undocumented is revolutionary. Being part of Black Lives Matter is revolutionary. Being in solidarity where you do not speak for but with or—even better—you listen and act is revolutionary. Queers, if we will ever be liberated, we will need to go together, and celebrate totally the difference we so deeply believe in. New solidarities are growing, internally and internationally, and we must take all that we have learned and know to sow new seeds of change. We have done this before: queers for Palestine, queers against apartheid, queers against the Vietnam War. Always, queers, we are needed and we have a great and beautiful responsibility to be part of all that is happening now and all that comes next.

I believe what my ancestors taught me and I am listening again and again. I am alive and my very existence is revolutionary. I am in Laramie. We are in Laramie.

Jack Gieseking is an urban cultural geographer, feminist and queer theorist, environmental psychologist, and American Studies scholar.

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