First, a forenote: please note that instead of using the acronym “LGBTQIAP+,” in the interest of space, inclusivity, and comprehension, I’ll be using the word “queer.” This word has a history of being used as a slur. While it has recently seen reclamation by members of the queer community and is used by some academics, I would not advise someone who is cisgender (that is, someone who identifies with the gender assigned to them at birth based off of their genitalia) and heterosexual to use this word.
First, let us clear up something that Aaron Jaffe waffled on in his article, first saying “the gay culture” was not just “flamboyant men who love rainbows and drag queens and are prone to HIV,” and then saying “being gay is not its own culture”: queer culture does exist. Not only is it a reality, it’s also an area of academic study in multiple disciplines. It’s not just flamboyant men who love rainbows, true, but those men are certainly a part of it. When people are marginalized by society due to some shared immutable traits, it is literally inevitable that they will gravitate towards each other and form their own signs, norms and mores.
“Queer culture” is also a giant umbrella term that includes many smaller cultures, oftentimes at odds with each other… like any macroculture in general. Like any culture formed by marginalized people, queer culture is sometimes denigrated or stigmatized, as are certain things associated with it. In mainstream culture, anything too readily identified as coming from queer culture is often put down. Sometimes this makes us want to distance ourselves from what mainstream culture has dictated is “stereotypical” and, therefore, negative… but that doesn’t mean those traits cease to exist in members of our community.
The facts are these: Some queer men are flamboyant. Some queer people do love rainbows. Some queer people are drag queens. Some queer people are HIV+. All of these “stereotypes” can – and do – exist in the same person. I would love to see more diversity in PrideFest speakers and vendors in the future, but I will not have it done at the expense of “stereotypical” members of the community. To distance ourselves as a community from “stereotypical queer people” does not help us; it only isolates those of us who do fit those stereotypes, and it further underlines the traits that mainstream culture most strongly associates with queerness as negative, undesirable things. I especially take issue with two of Jaffe’s statements: the statement that having drag queens present at this specific event “stereotyp[ed] and generaliz[ed] the gay community” and the statement that HIV testing was somehow inappropriate at this event, specifically, due to the history the queer community has with HIV.
Does drag culture has problematic elements? Yes, indeed. It has also been a part of many queer cultures since the 60s as a form of entertainment. Entertainment – especially drag – is a massive part of Pride celebrations the world over, especially in the West. Jaffe does not suggest alternative forms of entertainment (a bouncy castle? “Regular” musical performances from bands whose members are not explicitly queer? Charades?) Instead, he chooses to repeatedly state that having primarily drag performers somehow cast the entire queer community as enjoying drag, and that there should have been a more diverse speaker group. I, too, would love to see speakers from many segments of the queer community speak about their experiences and raise awareness for their causes at the next MU PrideFest – and, what’s more, I have faith that they will. That’s the great thing about community-focused events – they can adapt and change according to the needs and demands that the people attending them have.
As for the concern that “having primarily drag queens to perform or speak at the event stereotyped all of the LGBTQIA community as loving drag,” Jaffe need not worry. What it means is that Millersville’s first PrideFest followed the same template as many other small-scale pride celebrations, like Lancaster’s pride celebration and many similar events around the United States. What Jaffe actually has an issue with is the typical layout of a pride event, and he might have something there – but aiming his rancor at MU specifically is barking up the wrong rainbow tree.
In addition, anyone who has met an actual queer person knows that we are large and contain multitudes. It is not our job to educate people on “our” likes and dislikes, because we are a massive group with an array of opinions and concerns. No reasonable person would attend PrideFest and draw from this singular event the conclusion that every single queer person likes drag performances (as though that’s the worst prejudice we face.) In addition, if someone thinks that enjoying drag in and of itself is shameful, I would suggest they ought examine their reasons for it; sure, the enjoyment of drag is associated with “flamboyant” gay men. Okay. So? Why is obvious queerness a bad thing? Why is the association with “loud” queerness considered irritating or shameful by some? It’s a PrideFest. Obvious queerness, and pride in it, is the entire point.
Speaking of things with negative associations, free HIV testing is not a negative and should never be presented as one in any way. It was offered at the event and was in no way limited to gay men – like last year’s sEXPO, which also had free HIV testing, it was open to the public regardless of gender identity and orientation. That said, Jaffe’s not correct in stating that heterosexuals and queer men contract HIV in equal numbers today. According to the Center for Disease Control, men who have sex with men, as a group, are more affected by HIV /AIDs, with trans women close behind them, so it makes perfect sense to have HIV/AIDS testing at an event for queer people. Jaffe states that this was “stereotyp[ing] one culture over another” and asks, “Was it truly necessary to have [free testing] during an event that was meant to promote an awareness and foster pride in the LGBTQIA community?”
Yes, it was, because being HIV+ is not a mark of shame, and while anyone can contract HIV, it’s ridiculous to pretend that some of the disease’s stigmatization doesn’t come from its association with queer men and trans women, groups that were stigmatized long before the AIDS epidemic and continue to be marginalized today. Bringing these things out in the bright light of day communicates that we are not, as a community, ashamed of them – nor should we be.
Jaffe is clearly concerned about the suicide rate among queer youth – as he should be, it’s astronomical – but exclusively focusing on the fact of suicide in queer youths is to treat the symptom while ignoring the disease. Why do queer youth commit suicide? A large factor is the societal marginalization that leads to individual isolation, rejection by friends and family members, and a sense of shame. Queerness itself does not cause depression; what we are told about it and how others react to it does. We have to make this world livable for queer people. That includes events like these, where people in the queer community are able to come together as a community and enjoy ourselves, however “flamboyant” we may be.
MU’s PrideFest may have a long way to go, but I am incredibly optimistic about its prospects. Present at the event were food vendors, a Lancaster-based support group for trans people, our Allies group, Elizabethtown College’s GSA, and queer-friendly churches – already a more diverse group than I had expected going in. CSIL, and especially Shaq Glover, did a fabulous job, and I thank them for this wonderful opportunity to build community and to celebrate our community in all its variations.