25 June 2012


2011.06.26 - Gay 90's closeup Performers on a float at the 2011 Twin Cities Pride parade. Photo by jby.
Hi! Have you signed our pledge to vote "no" on the amendment?

The actual Pride festival is, in my opinion, the least appealing part of any Pride weekend.

Imagine a small county fair stripped of its rides and livestock shows, the agricultural implements replaced with booths full of rainbow-flag keychains and questionably tasteful erotic art, and with lip-synching drag queens instead of country musicians in the all-day stage shows, all dropped into a city park without enough drinking fountains. The people-watching is, admittedly, pretty great, but I don't think I've ever spent more time in a Pride festival than it takes to walk the circuit of the booths.

This Pride Saturday, however, I spent seven hours among the tents and food trucks in Loring Park—mostly standing within reach of one of the Minnesotans United for All Families canvassing booths, handing clipboarded sign-up sheets to passers-by, reminding them to vote "no" on a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would define marriage as "only a union between one man and one woman."

I've been putting in an evening a week with MN United for nearly six months, now—first making calls to Minnesota voters, but now mostly helping to train and assist other volunteer phone-callers. Since I started back in January, prospects for voting down the anti-marriage amendment are looking better: a new statewide poll shows "no" votes outnumbering "yes", MNUnited has raised quite a bit more funding than the pro-amendment campaign in the first half of 2012, and President Obama finally stated his support for marriage equality.

And then this weekend, hundreds of thousands of potential MN United supporters converged on downtown Minneapolis. With Pride as an official kickoff, the campaign against the amendment is off to a strong (and fabulous) start.


Public polling has burned us before—in California, prior to the vote on Proposition 8, and in Maine, on Question 1, it looked like things were reasonably secure, until they weren't. Pro-equality campaigns have outspent anti-equality campaigns in other states—most recently in North Carolina—without success.

All things considered, I'd say I'm optimistic that Minnesota could be the first state to turn down an attempt to restrict the rights of queer people via popular vote—but I still wouldn't say the odds are in our favor.

So what am I doing spending my Pride Saturday in Loring Park, thrusting clipboards at strangers? Or working the phone bank every Tuesday till November?

* * *

Gerty-Z's announcement that this year's Pride edition of the Diversity in Science carnival would focus on advocacy was a good prompt for me to sit back and think about my involvement with the campaign against the amendment, and, yes, advocacy in general.

Whenever MN United comes up in conversation, queer friends have taken to calling me a "good gay"—in a tone that's simultaneously needling and (usually) admitting they feel a bit guilty about not doing similarly. At the same time, I've been pretty firm about keeping my volunteering commitment limited—it's not exactly cramping my day-to-day schedule. Regardless of how the vote comes out in November, I wouldn't feel quite right if I hadn't put in some actual effort to help defeat the amendment, but I don't particularly want the campaign to dominate my life.

And, really, I'd say that the volunteering doesn't, of itself, make me a "good gay." Advocacy of the sort that happens in organized political campaigns, even the rather different kind of advocacy that happens in MN United's campaign, is important—but I strongly believe that, as with revenge, the best kind of advocacy is a life well lived.

I say that in large part because of the way I came out of the closet. I took a (relatively) long time figuring out my orienation, and by the time I came out I was well aware of, and in agreement with, the political arguments in favor of gay rights. All of that kind of advocacy didn't, frankly, do me a lot of good.

What did end up making a big difference was when I met my first openly gay friend, a collaborator on my dissertation research, who provided a daily example in matter-of-factness about his orientation. I knew him as a smart scientist and a fun drinking buddy, and the occasional presence of his boyfriend at social events was, really, no more remarkable than the occasional presence of anyone else's significant other. And he turned out to be entirely the right person to phone up, one night, for one of the most important conversations of my life.

* * *

And but so now, years after that conversation, my sexuality is a mostly unremarkable feature of my life. Day to day, I commute to campus and do the quotidian work of science—check ongoing analyses, start new ones, write up results, read papers, think about the next project. I go to the gym or for a run. Sometimes I go on a date or out for a night with friends; sometimes I stay at home and work in front of the T.V. I cook. I write about deeply metafictional Star Trek parodies.

And yet of course my orientation flavors almost everything I do, just as it would if I were straight. When I go on a date, it's with another guy, of course; but it also influences which bars I go to when I'm out with friends, what kind of books I read (A Single Man, anyone?) and T.V. I watch (poor Renly), and, yes, even how I think about science (well, how prone I am to take issue with evolutionary psychology, anyway). I don't immediately identify myself as gay to everyone I meet, but I don't make any effort to hide it; when I've taught, I wore my rainbow wristband and "Legalize Gay" t-shirt to class (ignorant as I was of the biases I was courting—but I have every intention of continuing to do so). I'd like to think my experience of life in the closet and out makes me a little more naturally skeptical about recieved wisdom and existing power structures, and I tend to think that kind of suspicion is a good thing.

If I had to pick a professional model for integrating my sexual identity into my professional identity, I'd lean more towards Douglas Futuyma than Joan Roughgarden; not so much a crusader for equality via science, but someone identifiable as a gay man who does good scientific work. My favorite example of this, I think, is a snippet from a perspective article Futuyma wrote for The American Naturalist back in 1999, lamenting the loss of old-fashioned natural historical specilization in evolutionary ecology:

... I could not begin to estimate the number of students I have met who, in explaining their work on some aspects of the biology of birds, plants, insects, frogs, have hastened to say that they are not interested in birds or insects as such but, instead, as models for studying principles—as if "ornithologist" or "botanist" were a scarlet letter, a badge of shame. I cannot cast the first stone, for I have often done the same. But in parallel with my other experiences of life, I have come to feel that as a closet entomologist, I should come out and stand proud.

I love that final line because Futuyma's drawing on his sexuality to make a point in pretty much the same way Stephen Jay Gould would quote Gilbert and Sullivan. (But, you know, much less pompously.) It's simultaneously an identfiable facet of his personality and no big fracking deal.

(See also that previous link on Futuyma for his own statement about a career as a gay biologist, much of it in an era when it wasn't as easy as it is today.)

* * *

In the end, I think that the point of advocacy is to try and leave the world a little bit better place for the next generation of queer kids, the ones who are just realizing they have to figure out how their orientation fits into the lives they've only just begun to build. In the spirit of It Gets Better, if good examples of how to be gay are what helped me come out, how can I not do my best to be a good example of how to be gay now that I'm out?

But, you know, I want to get married someday, too. So come tomorrow night, I'll be back at the phone bank.◼

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