For the Sake of Progress
By Cameron Shepherd
Sketches by Adam Osgood
I have been called a “mediocre” gay man. On more than two occasions.
I don’t think that it was ever said with malintent, and I never bothered to take offense. I think what these individuals were trying to say (albeit with less than the appropriate amount of finesse) was that I am on the “quiet” end of the gay spectrum. To call me “quiet,” in almost any other sense of the word, would be something with which I would likely take issue – I am quiet in very few ways. I am about as far from introverted as one can be. I have a habit of making friends with strangers while standing in lines, and my obnoxious, barking laugh tends to embarrass my fellow audience members in any sort of “comedy” situation. Speaking literally, I am quite not quiet.
I am quiet, however, in the way that, on a scale of zero-to-fabulous, I would rank somewhere left of center. I may not be the butchest crayon in the box, but as far as gays go, I’m middle-of-the-road at best. I’m not afraid of skinny jeans (a recent development), but I draw the line at short shorts. I am unabashed in my love for good theater, but also in my tendency to yell at the television when my football team is playing. I don’t care for Madonna, and when I want to sweat, I choose CrossFit over Zumba. I’ll be at the pride parade, sure, but you’re not likely to find me on a float. And the shirt stays on.
I don’t wear my sexuality on my sleeve, and sometimes this serves to classify me as “less than” in the eyes of my gay peers. I’m proud of who I am, but I often find that “who I am” fails to fit perfectly into the mold that many of these peers – friends, even – proudly claim as their identity.
At 26 years old, I am in a long-term relationship with my even-quieter boyfriend. When I have a choice, I am nearly always in bed by 10:30pm. My typical Friday night is spent on the couch, boyfriend on one side, dog on the other, parked firmly in front of an Ally McBeal rerun (for the choice of programming, I will willingly move myself one notch toward “fabulous” on the aforementioned scale). By day, I work a quiet job in a quiet office, doing fairly typical things. I am good at my job, and take pride in my work.
Two nights a week, though, I work at the gayest place on Earth.
This is, of course, an exaggeration – I would assume that there are several gayer spots on Earth, but my workplace definitely ranks high on the list – somewhere between Disneyworld and Elton John’s closet.
I work in a restaurant that is staffed with a smorgasbord of individuals spanning the spectrum of the LGBTQ community (with the occasional straight person thrown into the mix in an effort by management to keep things interesting). This is a place where you are equally likely to be flirted with by a beefy waiter, offended by an outspoken lesbian bartender, or screamed at by one of two Mexican transsexuals (who, as coincidence would have it, are both overly fond of screaming at and around patrons). You can order subtly-named food and drink such as the “Guacamole BJ” or a “Busta Nut Brown Ale.”
And of course, you can sometimes find me. Often looking awkward, sometimes horrified (fault: offensive lesbians and shouting transsexuals), but generally enjoying myself, taking it all in with a significant amount of fascination.
All of this is to say: I spend my life in a kind of in-between. I live simply enough, with a quiet boyfriend in an apartment with gray walls and a sensible, mid-sized dog. But a couple of times a week, I put on a tight, purple t-shirt emblazoned across the back with the phrase “Tasty Meat!” and I serve campy themed dishes to an extremely diverse group of customers. I put on my best smile. I work, I tease and laugh with my eclectic coworkers. And I observe.
The gay community saved my life. I don’t say this with any flair for the dramatic – it is a statement of fact. When my family made the decision to stop supporting me completely, it was members of the gay community who stepped up to help my broken 19-year-old self build the foundation for the life I now enjoy. Gay friends at college, an understanding gay professor, and my then-boyfriend. These were the people who encouraged me, supported me, and propped me up until I was ready to continue on my own. In this way, I quite literally owe my life to the gay community.
It is for this reason I find it so bizarre that, today, living in a major US city with a burgeoning grow to understand gay “scene” and working, as I do, in a suburb of Sodom, I find myself at almost a complete loss for any true sense of community. I am an outlier – a cultural nomad – and while I travel through my days and the various cultures therein (gay culture, corporate culture, city culture, gym culture, etc.), I’ve never succeeded in pinpointing a community that provides me with the sense of home I so badly crave. My interests, friends, work, and loved ones – how does the Venn diagram that is “my life,” and, more specifically, the central intersection that is “me,” fit into a larger community?
The answer is simple, although it took me many years to reach it: it doesn’t. “Me” does not fit neatly into one community – not the catch-all “gay” community, not one of many gay “sub-” communities (theater, gym, circuit, etc.), and not any of the other communities into which I regularly dip my toe that have nothing to do with my sexuality.
At one point in my life – a period of time after I came out and took a blind trust fall into the gay world around me – I tried my best to personify every gay stereotype I could in a concerted effort to become the bona fide gay I thought I was meant to be. I dated lots of boys. I danced on the occasional box. I got a fake ID and took up smoking cigarettes whenever it seemed like the popular decision. I steered clear of drugs but drank enough to make up for it.
I stood, proud as that proverbial peacock, among the glittered and Abercrombied ranks of my fellow gay youth. I was in good company, making predictable decisions right along with countless others similarly trying to find their way.
It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I started to divert from the inner sanctum of the gay community and look elsewhere for a sense of self. After breaking the heart of a very nice man, burning several bridges with close friends, and moving across the country for an acting job that would barely pay the bills, I finally started to want more. To need more, in fact, because I was living in a new place with very few friends and very little to my name. I was without the community into which I had been so desperately trying to fit. I had inadvertently hit the “reset” button on much of my life – it was terrifying, but transformative (the transformative bit came eventually. At first, terror reigned supreme).
In the years since that summer, I have moved through a greater-than-usual number of com- munities. Working as an actor for a number of years, I moved across the United States and then across the world, finding myself in a vast and lovely array of casts and companies. Each one of these opportunities taught me something specific about myself – what I value, where I find fulfillment, the kind of people with whom I like to surround myself. However, I now find myself in this new quandary: I have finally settled down, set up camp in a city I love, with no plans to move or take a new job anytime soon. I am comfortable. But I am community-less.
I am so excited to be living in 2013. For the first time in modern history, the fight for equality is truly staring progress square in the face – not just where I live in America, but the world over. As a gay man, I can work where I please, travel the globe, and speak my mind. I could get married, or be a father. It is an age in which many of the rigidities around all things “gay” are becoming less and less relevant.
This is not to discount the values of the gay community, and I won’t make light of the many contributions gay culture has made in today’s global political discussion (not to mention human rights, art, science... a list that is quite literally endless). However, a rampant exclusivity is being exhibited by many in the gay community – a need to keep gay culture sacred and segregated – which is serving as a detriment to those on the outside as well as to those safely behind the walls. The gay community is, and has been for a long time, flirting with the dangerous doctrine of “separate but equal,” a space carved neatly out of society in which there is plenty of room for all things queer, and very little room for anything else. This door is made to swing both ways, but today it seems as though there are too many people trying to keep it shut – from both sides – to allow opportunity for meaningful dialogue and engagement.
I say, why have a door at all? Let’s take that shit off its hinges, shall we?
In the 2012 US Presidential Election, the term “progressive” was bandied about more often and with more abandon than I have ever heard by our media. Young, liberal-minded individuals, often associated with the Democratic Party, proudly rallied under the “progressive” banner, while many conservatives used it as a slur to attack those who they perceived as a threat to their ideals and “traditional values.” Even now, post-election and post-news-cycle, this word continues to echo with me, though on a much more intimate level. What does it mean to be progressive? How do we progress? How do we take the next step toward a more inclusive community without turning our backs on our proud history?
Before we can even discuss making a move in this direction, an issue must be addressed – a widespread, debilitating phobia of normalcy. We have to stop being so terribly precious regarding our notions of this delicate gay culture. There seems to be a fear within the community that, with a more permeable barrier between gay and straight, gay culture would effectively disappear. Within minutes of any conscious effort to desegregate queer culture, gay people would assimilate into the mainstream, the Castro would be taken over by Pentecostals, and pride parades would be cast aside for sensible block parties and backyard barbeques. Such fears only serve to hold progress hostage, and it is imperative to understand that broadening our cultural horizons won’t sign the death warrant for gay culture.
David Halperin addresses this very topic in his article “How to Be Gay,” adapted from his recent book of the same title. Halperin, a respected academic, author, and pioneer in queer studies, asserts that gay culture will persist – it must persist, even – due simply to the fact that “we will always be queer.” Gay culture exists, says Halperin, because “we live in a world in which heterosexuality is the norm. Heterosexual culture remains our first culture, and in order to survive and to flourish in its midst, gay people must engage in an appropriation of it that is also a resistance to it.” Gay culture isn’t in danger of assimilation due simply to the fact that we will always be fundamentally at odds (however peacefully, given an ideal world) with heteronormative society.
The solution to this breakdown in ideology lies in the spirit and practice of multiculturalism. In a day when most gay men have as many straight friends as they do gay, when gay actors, rappers, athletes, and politicians are not only present but excelling all over the world, it is high time to redraw the lines that confine our communities. Even better, it is time to blur the lines. I want to belong to a community in which there is room for gay and straight, glamour and camp, exhibition and introversion. A community that respects the past and all of those who went before us, but is defined by its single most valuable commonality: a spirit of inclusion.
Ryan Fitzgibbon, the editor of the publication you’re currently enjoying (or shall I say, “perusing,” for the sake of modesty?) once posed me with a challenge. After submitting my first outline for this very piece, Ryan responded with a concern that Hello Mr. is about providing content that is progressive, instead of content that just talks about wanting it.
I’m not an activist. At least, I never considered myself to be. I’m not a big fan of confrontation, and I tend to be lazy when it comes to my political convictions – following several highly publicized incidents of gun violence in the US in late 2012, my first reaction was not to lobby Washington for gun control, but to simply move out of the country. As of writing, I have done neither.
Ryan was right, though. To be progressive is to progress. To move forward. The endless chatter around the matter is providing stimulating dinner conversation, sure, but what difference is it making? It takes action to set the wheels of progress in motion. A step in the right direction. For me, this begins with a modified view of “community” – of embracing the various cultures to which I belong, on both macro- and micro-levels and proudly claiming a less exclusive, broader community as my own. And as yours, if you’ll join me.
“Keep your language. Love its sounds, its modulation, its rhythm. But try to march together with men of different languages, remote from your own, who wish like you for a more just and human world.” – Hélder Câmara
Cameron Shepherd is a graphic designer, writer, and musician from Chicago. He spends his time dreaming of adventure, shopping for real estate he'll never buy, and enabling his dog.
Adam Osgood earned a Master of Art + Design in New Media/Animation from North Carolina State University and have a BFA in Illustration from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. His illustration work has won a number of awards, including Creative Quarterly, 3x3 Pro Show, and the Big Book of Illustration Ideas 2.