New Internationalist

Out Of The Closet

Issue 113

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Out of the closet
If changing your life means confronting bitter prejudice, losing your friends - even risking physical violence - you may decide to stay as you are. But the example of a few trailblazing individuals plus solidarity among those who follow can make all the difference. Wayne Ellwood reports on 'coming out'.

IMAGINE your favourite pub or bar is regularly raided by the police for no apparent reason, that people jeer and toss insults at you for walking with your lover, that sleeping together is labelled unnatural and deviant.

That is the reality - of knee-jerk intolerance and intimidation that gay men and women must come to grips with constantly.

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Elan Rosinquist (left) and Tim McCaskell. Photo: Wayne Ellwood

The sociologists call it homophobia - the deep-seated, irrational hatred of men and women who choose to love members of the same sex. It's a form of discrimination that people who would blanche at the thought of calling a black person a nigger, or a Jew a kyke often gloss over. Snide remarks about 'pansies' and 'queers' somehow don't make it into the lexicon of proscribed words in the liberal conscience.

When all the trumped-up excuses for homophobia are brushed aside there is at bottom only one objection: homosexual men and women choose to love outside the boundaries of traditional heterosexuality. Love garners hate.

Gays base for centuries been the butt of wry asides, cruel jokes and full-scale bigotry in the form of discrimination in employment, housing and human rights legislation. Though the social stigma remains, homosexuals are now saying 'enough is enough'. They are no longer willing to remain locked in the closet. The political activism of the 1960s and 70s proved the spark. The antiwar movement, the battles for equal rights for racial minorities, the growing movement to halt the destruction of the environment and especially the women's movement galvanized gay's in many Western nations to demand sexual equality and social acceptance.

Elan Rosinquist, Richard Fung, Lim Ph and Tim McCaskell are four men typical of this new surge of 'gay pride'. The four live co-operatively in an inconspicuous Victorian house in downtown Toronto on the fringe of the city's gay 'ghetto' - the scattered bars, bookstores, shops, restaurants and clubs that cater to a largely gay clientele.

The 'ghetto' is an important part of the life of most gay men. Some operate almost entirely within it; for others it's a kind of refuge where they can escape the ever-present homophobia outside and just be themselves. But it can also be a shield and a way of avoiding conflict.

For Elan, 34, the ghetto was a critical stage in 'coming out' - being openly gay. l met my first group of gay friends when I was 19. Up to that time I'd had a lot of contact with other gay men, but no communication. I shifted my whole life into the ghetto: I realized there were institutions, bars, shops where it was easy to lead an entirely gay life. There are lots of people who still do that, they plunge into the ghetto. It's very simple and comfortable and you're not challenged. It's possible to exist there and never feel threatened or confronted by anti-gay 'attitudes.'

For many gay's in North America the sanctity of the ghetto was irrevocably smashed by the 'Stonewall' incident in 1969 when New York City police raided a gay bar in Manhattan's Christopher Street district and - for the first time - gay's fought back. 'That was a turning point in gay liberation', Elan says, 'in fact it was really the founding of gay liberation. After that groups began to spring up all over the US and Canada.'

Gay liberation dress much of its initial inspiration from the burgeoning women's movement. According to Tim McCaskell an articulate and politically-active member of Toronto's gay community, 'the women's movement and gay liberation are closely linked. Women developed a critique of socialized sex roles, that men were naturally one way and women another. Feminists turned so-called 'natural' role models around. Women were saying, 'hey, those things are oppressive to women, they are socially produced and we have to change them'. Soon gay men began to say, 'yes, you're right, those things oppress us too', and so there was an immediate overlap of interests.'

McCaskell, 31, sports a small pink triangle badge on the fur hat he wears to ward off the chill winds of a blustery April day. The pink triangle was the symbol the Nazis painted on the backs of known homosexuals in concentration camps. Like Jews and Gypsies, gay's ranked high on the list of social 'deviants' that were to be exterminated. Many gay men now brandish the pink triangle as a public statement, that they are proud to be openly, visibly, gay.

According to Elan Rosinquist this attempt to confront the sexual status-quo head on is a major departure for gays after decades of self-imposed repression and seclusion.

'Since "Stonewall" gay people have been politicized in a radical way that even the gay movement tends to ignore and forget,' Rosinquist argues. 'There is a lifestyle and an appearance that is immediately identifiable as gay. More and more gay men are putting their lifestyle right up front on the street that's a strong radical position - a 24-hours-a-day' statement.

Lim Ph a Malaysian with the lithe and muscular body of an ex-dancer agrees. 'In many way's, those are the real gay activists the ones who put themselves on the front lines, who march down the street holding hands. And I don't think people give them enough credit,'

This awakening of shared interests and solidarity is what makes the gay community such a potentially powerful political force. Tim McCaskell feels that shared identity of being gay opens the way for a much broader criticism of social inequality. 'Although many gay' men are not consciously political,' McCaskell reckons, 'that unifying element of commonly-felt oppression means there is a tremendous capacity for being organized.'

By and large that capacity remains untapped. But occasionally, incidents like 'Stonewall' concentrate the anger of the gay community. Toronto had its own such radicalizing event around midnight February 5 1981, when more than 150 police armed with sledgehammers and crowbars swept down on four gay men's steam baths and arrested 338 people.

The bath raids set off an explosive wave of rage and anger and caused an irreparable rift between the police and gay community. Four thousand homosexual men and women took to the streets the next night in the largest gay demonstration in the city's history. Ken Popert of Toronto's gay newspaper Bode Politic wrote of his own reaction to the police action: 'I finally got angry. And I'm still angry now. As long as society continues to demand us as its victims and its human sacrifices, that anger is going to be there, waiting to get into us, again and again. It's not going to go away for a long time.'

The outrage of the gay community was joined by liberal politicians, womens groups and others who felt gays were being unfairly scapegoated. It was a time of widespread solidarity but it was also a time of fear.

Emboldened by the police raids, 'queer bashers' came out of the woodwork, assaulting demonstrators and threatening gay's on the streets. 'After the bath raids many of us thought twice before we went out.' says Elan Rosinquist 'You were constantly looking over your shoulder.'

Despite the set-backs and the undiminished homophobia, gay liberation is now an established fact. For many men the existence of a gay movement has been the critical factor in 'coming out'. For Richard Fung, 27, a slightly-built Trinidadian Chinese studying film, the discovery of this larger community ended years of isolation and self-doubt. 'I knew very early on that I was "different" and that I could never be heterosexual. But it was only when I started to read about gay liberation and to meet other gay men who were comfortable with their sexuality that my life changed. I really came out - intellectually, sexually, everything at that same time.'

With this growing confidence and security in their own sexuality, homosexual men and women will no longer hesitate to demand equality. For the rest of us - those who are heterosexual gay liberation is a direct invitation to confront our own fears and prejudices and the sexual dogma that passes for Truth with a capital T.

Meanwhile, homophobia isn't likely to fade overnight. But then, neither is gay liberation. As Lim Ph is at pains to make clear: 'after you've lived in the closet for so many years, you know what it's like and you're not about to go back.'


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