The Rebel Girl: For A Celebration Excluding No One

Against the Current, No. 81, July/August 1999

Catherine Sameh

THERE CAN BE something so queer about queers. Sure, it’s hard to tell who’s sleeping with whom these days, and in many cities we live so openly every day we’re hardly noticed. Assimilation, or integration if you will, has softened our hard edges. But then there’s all that hoop-la in June. You know, the annual Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Pride celebrations. Tens of thousands of people take to the streets, some in wild outfits, others outfitted minimally or not at all. And that’s when it becomes clear how queer we really are.

In the weeks preceding Portland Pride, out local queer paper ran an editorial suggesting that we keep Pride tame this year, and show normal folks how normal we all really are. This argument is always directed at drag queens and sex radicals, a parental reprimand toward the bad girls and boys who push the boundaries of sex and gender. An important and lively debate, one that continues to resurface in queer communities all over, ensued. I was pleased to see how many rebuffed the editorial, arguing for a celebration that excludes no one, and embraces liberatory and visible sexuality.

The assimilation versus liberation debate is not unique to the queer community. Every marginalized group wrestles with this dilemma, as the desire for equality under the law and the desire to preserve an oppositional culture comes face to face in a nasty battle. As many queers, generally but not exclusively white and middle class, gain access to (or never leave) the mainstream, the pressure to suppress deviation in themselves and others can be quite intense. I’m not entirely unsympathetic to this impulse. People get weary living always at the margins and the desire to get a piece of that American pie is not simply reactionary. Everyone should be awarded the rights and goods of real citizenship.

But as last month’s Pride parade wove through the streets of Portland, I couldn’t help but be struck by how important it is—even in the age of everybody’s pierced and tattooed ho-humism, and gays’ are just like straights’ nonsense—to see flamboyant drag queens, leather-clad men with whips, and motorcycle dykes with no shirts on being out, proud and very visible. Important because they remind us that even after we’ve achieved equality—after we’ve won the right to raise children, buy homes, get married, work anywhere and live without fear—we must still fight for freedom. Freedom to reject marriage, live child free, sleep around, change genders and wear what we want. Freedom to live full lives in all the different ways that can mean for fully dignified, liberated human beings.

And while I, who pass as straight and white, and who am middle class, watched from the sidelines and got choked up when the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays contingent walked by; I remembered, once again, that it is to the drag queens and sex radicals that I owe my life.

ATC 81, July-August 1999