The indifference and aversion to being gay is something that is embedded in our culture. Queer people have fought for their rights, their battle finally coming into light after the Stonewall Riots of 1969. The LGBTQ+ community has made many accomplishments such as the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, a ban on open transgender people serving in the military, and the passing of the Marriage Equality Act. However, our fight is far from over. Violence against queer people is magnified by intensity of our current political climate. On March 23, 2018, the White House made the announcement that “transgender persons with a history or diagnosis of gender dysphoria — individuals who the policies state may require substantial medical treatment, including medications and surgery — are disqualified from military service except under certain limited circumstances.” As a queer person, I have become fearful of what’s next, as if the progress made is being stifled by an oppressive regime.
Recently, the argument has been made that queerness is something that’s erupted in the past few years. The notion that being gay is trendy has recently come into the light. Janelle Harris, a mother and blogger, wrote about this subject in an article titled, “Are Straight Teens Being Influenced by LGBTQ Trendiness?” She explores this question primarily through personal experience after a preteen makes a comment about Harris’ child being gay for applying to an all girls high school. She also writes that, “I do know, however, that I’ve seen a plethora of young kids — even 12 and under — exploring same-sex lovin’. And that would be OK if I believed that they were actually gay and not just emulating folks in the streets or what they see on TV. Society’s slow-but-steady acceptance of gay and lesbian culture has made it hip to wave a rainbow flag.” On the grounds that children are more exposed to queerness in the media and in public, she is correct. Children nowadays are seeing gay people being accepted and even embraced by society, possibly being the first American generation to experience this. But does acceptance really constitute it as being trendy?
The biggest flaw in Harris’ argument is that she fails to back her claim up with anything but a single experience. She becomes very defensive when her child is perceived to be gay by another child. She simply believes she knows what is true because mother knows best. It’s natural for a mother to become defensive when untrue statements are made about her daughter. But does a mother truly know? Harris’ child is reaching the dawn of adolescence. It is rare that a 14 year old will be knowledgeable and confident in her own sexuality at only 14, let alone her mother knowing. It’s natural for people at this age to explore their sexual orientation and figure out their identity. Harris’ rejection of this curiosity stifles her daughter’s journey to self exploration, something that many queer teens experience firsthand. Bi-curiosity has a bad reputation but is, in fact, a healthy phase of adolescence.
Harris also fails to differentiate between social acceptance and what is trendy. The visibility of queer people seems to make her uncomfortable, as it does for many others. I believe this stems from homophobia so deeply ingrained into society that many often don’t even notice it. It was only three years ago that the Marriage Equality Act was passed. Queer acceptance is still a fairly new concept in America. While Harris makes the claim that being gay is “trendy”, queer teens are 120% more likely to be homeless.
The Stonewall riots triggered a surge in the fight against homophobia and transphobia since 1969. Queer people have demanded to be seen and heard. This country has become a much safer place for some queer people. When queer people are becoming visible for the first time and yet there are still many with an outdated, prejudiced mindset, some may still view queer people as a lower status of society, something they don’t want to be associated with. These people view LGBTQ+ visibility as a phase of society because they don’t understand the difference between being seen and what is trendy. Harris feels as if too many adolescents are coming out as gay or bisexual, making the argument that this stems from a trend in society. But as she sees more and more queer people becoming visible, she is blind to the fact that the emergence of more queer people coming out stems from the shift in society’s values on queer people. As a result, she comes to the conclusion that being queer is a trend of the future because she hasn’t seen it in the past.
Despite the fact that Harris and many others view being gay as trendy, queer people have been fighting for visibility for years but have been left in the dark. However, queer people have possessed many high power positions and made wonderful contributions to culture. Art has reflected same-sex unions and gender-nonconformity for centuries. Art has served as a platform for expression of queerness throughout history. The notion that being gay is trendy, however, seems to be a new idea.
Gender-nonconformity is often interpreted as a new concept that emerged in the newer generation. However, the fluidity of gender has been reflected in art as early as the 1600’s. Ermafradito (1652) by Matteo Bonuccelli portrays Aphrodite’s and Hermes’ child, who once joined with a nymph to emerge as one being but with both genders. This interpretation of mythology indicates a curiosity in the bending of gender roles for a long period of time. Gender-nonconformity has been prevalent among many groups of people, such as the Greeks and Spanish, throughout the world and is hardly something that is new. While many make the claim that the queerness is something that emerged from the younger generation, it has been expressed through art for centuries.
Another example of gender-nonconformity found in art and culture is a piece by Gauguin titled Marquesan Man in the Red Cape. Gauguin traveled from France to the Polynesian islands, believing that the natives would be free of European influence. What he found was a culture whose gender roles were vastly different than those of Europe. In this piece, Gauguin portrays a native whose gender would now be referred to as nonbinary. This individual was Mahu from Hiva Oa that identified as a third gender. They took on both male and female roles and ways of presenting themselves. Mahu natives of the third gender often had an elevated position in Mahu spirituality. They were often considered healers. Jade Snow, a writer for Yes! Magazine, interviewed a Mahu teacher named Hina who states that, ““A mahu is an individual that straddles somewhere in the middle of the male and female binary. It does not define their sexual preference or gender expression because gender roles, gender expressions, and sexual relationships have all been severely influenced by the changing times. It is dynamic. It is like life.” Colonization and the arrival of European missionaries resulted in the enforcement of Christian values on the Hawaiian people, imposing their strict views on gender and sexuality. While gender-nonconforming individuals have existed in Hawaiian culture for centuries, the influx of Western culture repressed their fluid ideas of gender.
While the oppressiveness of Western culture forced gender and sexuality into strict roles of what should and shouldn’t be, some defied social standards and persisted in proving who they were. Frida Kahlo, a highly regarded Mexican artist of the 1920’s and 30’s, identified as a bisexual women who had sexual and romantic relations with both men and women. She explored her sexuality through her artwork. One piece, titled Two Nudes in the Forest, also known as The Earth itself, portrayed Kahlo’s affection for Dolores Del Rio, a Mexican actress of the 1920s. In this piece, Kahlo is holding Dolores Del Rio, appearing to comfort her. In the background, a monkey sits, watching. Monkeys are a traditional symbol of sin and mischief. This juxtaposition of love and sin mirrors the duality of Kahlo’s sexuality and her refusal to conform to traditional standards of love and sexuality.
Art serves as both an expression of the artist and as a piece of history. Queer art has always embraced the ambiguity of gender and sexuality. It seems as if queer people have always existed and that colonization and oppressive Christian ideals are what is fairly new. Homophobia evolved from the stifling gender binary. Queer people existed, despite this, but became invisible to society. In the recent decades, the LGBTQ+ community has demanded recognition, and for the first time in American history, are receiving it. Those who argue that being queer is something of the newer generation simply seem to be unable to adapt to the shift in social standards.