Randolfe Wicker was wearing a black suit and tie when he participated in what’s thought to be the first U.S. picket for gay civil rights, which took place in New York City in 1964. He wore it when he answered questions on-air in 1965 as one of the first openly gay men to appear on television. And he donned that suit again when he protested New York’s prohibition against serving gay patrons during a “sip-in” in 1966. Wicker jokes that he looked like a preacher for most of the 1960s—but for one of the earliest LGBTQ+ activists, it was a political choice.
Wicker believed that being perceived as respectable would gain LGBTQ+ individuals civil rights. He told Time Magazinethat, “A black suit and tie works wonders anywhere, because if you wear a black suit and tie people will stop and listen to you and consider what you have to say. It was assumed we [gay men] were mentally ill; it was considered that we were certainly criminals, and we were also considered to be morally depraved. But people would still sit and listen to you, and that’s the beginning of a conversation.” But was it?
Wicker was a member of the Mattachine Society (Initially called the Mattachine Foundation), which began as a secret organization in Los Angeles in 1950, with their first Statement of Purpose drawn up in 1951. The group was founded by Communist organizer Harry Hay and other leftists, including Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, Dale Jennings, Konrad Stevens, James Gruber, and Rudi Gernreich (Jewish Refugee). The Mattachine founders borrowed the initial structure of the organization from the Communist Party, and the leadership, the “fifth order,” was anonymous, so members didn’t even know their names. The Mattachine Society became one of several prominent groups organizing during the period of LGBTQ+ activism referred to as the Homophile Movement.
Thousands of men and women across the country were arrested on charges related to their sexuality each year throughout the 1950s. In California, certain sodomy convictions could carry a maximum sentence of life in prison. And even when the charges resulted in a slap on the wrist from a judge, an accusation could result in the loss of jobs or even homes. But after Mattachine co-founder Dale Jennings was followed and harassed by a police officer, the society mounted a defense—and won the case. Within just a few years, the group would grow to include thousands of members across the country in places like New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco. But, while the Mattachine society believed respectability was the best path to civil rights, the organization’s ties to the Communist Party USA were always a problem for gaining any respectability.
The arguments for respectability politics have continued to be part of civil rights strategy in all areas of civil rights. We saw this during the BLM riots last summer, and we see it in LGBTQ+ individuals who condemn gay pride celebrations for its (sometimes) outlandish aspects. Here’s the problem respectability politics; they don’t work. They are based on a false notion that says if only we behave, if only we play by the rules, if only we are good enough, then the church will love and accept us. But it’s not true. Because even if we tell our detractors that we are celibate, they still think we are having sex. (Trust me, I know this firsthand from my mother.) And even when we quote the Bible to them, they still distrust our reading of it. Even when we dress like them, talk like them, and marry like them, they are still waiting for us to mess up so they can discredit us. And if we play into respectability politics, we are working against liberation. We are saying, “I’m not like the rest of the LGBTQ+ community. I’m one of the good ones.” And by saying that, we allow straight and cisgender people to say it as well, and suddenly the “bad queers” are pushed to the side, or worse, pushed out entirely.
Respectability politics set up a hierarchy that allows straight and cisgender people to hold up the “good gays” and silence the “bad gays.” And who are the bad gays? We are anyone who believes that liberation should be for the whole LGBTQ+ community. We are the ones who get angry or raise our voices about injustice. We are the ones who say that it’s not okay for allies to speak over the LGBTQ+ community. We are the ones who say that there is more than one way to be LGBTQ+ (it’s the reason for the “+”). We don’t have to be celibate, and we can medically transition if that’s what’s right for us. We are the ones who dress the way we want. We act the way we want. We are proud of who we are and every aspect of the gay community. Maybe something is not your cup of tea, but that doesn’t make it wrong. I love drag queens, but I have no desire to be one. I love seeing men in skimpy outfits at Pride, but am I comfortable doing the same? No, I’m not, but if I had their body (or body positivity), then I might be right there with them.
When the people who hate us come for us (and they will), they won’t care if we have conformed to some false heteronormativity. They won’t care that we are white, dress nice, and toe the line. They will look at us as if we are just like all of the other members of the LGBTQ+ community, the ones that you have said you aren’t like. They won’t see the differences between us. They will lump us all together. In that moment, your respectability will not save you. They will still say that you don’t have a place in their churches, you don’t deserve to have civil rights, and it would be better off if you would just go away. Setting up this hierarchy allows people to control us. It also allows people to say who deserves respect and rights. They say only those who toe the line and behave deserve rights. They think you only deserve respect if you are polite and don’t get angry and speak softly, yet it will always be false respect if they ever give it at all. When it comes time to allow us civil rights, they will have a myriad of excuses for why we don’t deserve equal or civil rights.
You can live however you want. You can choose celibacy, singleness, or marriage for yourself; that is not the issue here. But when you demand it from other people or when you set it up so that your choice is the one that is acceptable by the straight and cisgender people, you become part of the problem. Liberation is about liberation for all of us, and if it’s not liberation for all of us, then it’s not liberation at all. When you narrow the rules so that only the “good” get in, you’re not actually working for liberation. You’re working so that someone else’s rules and priorities can define us, and that’s not good enough. We all deserve to be free.
For many years, I cared deeply about acceptance by my family and friends in Alabama. I wanted my parents to see that I am who I have always been and that there is no shame in my gayness. In recent years, I have realized, they will never change their minds. I watched them throw their support behind our former, twice-impeached president when he represented everything my parents taught me not to be. (I even pointed that out to them, but it got me a dial tone on the other end of the line.) They relished in his hate and lies. I realized that if they could turn against all they believed to “better” call themselves Christian; then they would never accept me for being gay. One thing this pandemic has done is that it has kept me away for a year and a half (two years if I go back down at Christmas, which I probably will). At first, I was sad I would miss them last Christmas, but I got over it. I didn’t want their constant judgment and to be forced to “be straight.” I hope and pray that I will have the courage to be who I am when I go back to Alabama to visit my family the next time.
In the LGBTQ+ community, some criticize pride parades because they see them as having an undue emphasis on sex and fetish-related interests. They claim this as counterproductive to LGBTQ+ interests and expose the “gay community” to ridicule. However, traditional media outlets often emphasize the most outlandish and non-representative aspects of the community. The main issue is not whether gay people will be ridiculed for the sometimes outlandish and sexualized aspects of LGBTQ+ pride parades, but that pride parades are visibility. We aren’t going to change anyone’s opinion of us by being “respectable” during pride events. When I was growing up in Alabama, I never remember any pride parades in the state, though Birmingham has had a pride parade since 1989. As pride parades have become more common, in addition to Birmingham, there are celebrations from Huntsville to Mobile. The same is true of Mississippi. I think Jackson had a pride parade when I lived in Mississippi from 2000-2009, but now, pride parades are held across the states.
The fact that there are pride parades in states like Alabama and Mississippi shows that LGBTQ+ visibility has increased in the United States in the past 20 or so years. Pride parades are not just for big cities anymore. When I moved to Vermont, the only pride parade was in Burlington, but now there are celebrations in Montpelier, Rutland, and Bennington. Visibility is the primary goal of LGBTQ+ pride, but it’s also about belonging. Respectability politics is counterproductive to LGBTQ+ visibility. It forces us to hide and pretend to be something contrary to who we are. The variety of expression at LGBTQ+ pride events shows the diversity of our community. It brings out of the margins all of our community to proudly proclaim, “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it!” because we aren’t going anywhere. We don’t need acceptance. We don’t need approval. We don’t need permission. We need liberation.