Pride Month is almost over. I might be a basic cishetero dude, but I love Pride—I love the celebration, the camp, the colour, the music (dancing in the London, Ontario Pride Parade to “I Am What I Am” blasting from the speakers remains one of my fondest memories). I love the love. Some of this has to do with me being a liberal lefty bleeding heart social justice type, but then one of the reasons I’m a liberal lefty bleeding heart social justice type is because many of the people in my life I have loved, who have been dearest to me, who have shaped my worldview, have been queer. I want to take this space to say to all of my queer friends: I love you. My world is a better place for you being in it.
This past Monday morning I was at the Starbucks closest to campus, writing my daily entry in my journal. These past several months, I’ve been making a point of writing something every day—even if it’s just a paragraph noting the weather.[i] On this particular morning, I had a lot on my mind, as I had been reading a bunch of articles about the Texas GOP convention that took place in Houston last weekend. It was all through my newsfeeds, especially in regard to the resolution that Texas will hold a referendum no later than 2023 on whether or not to secede from the union; and the addition to their platform asserting that homosexuality is “an abnormal lifestyle choice.”[ii]
I’d read a long thread on Twitter discussing the secession referendum and whether (a) it was legal; (b) it was even feasible; and (c) if refugees from the newly founded Republic of Texas would be supported by a Democratic administration in their relocation. Twitter being Twitter, there was also a lot of sentiment advocating letting Texas go, anticipatory schadenfreude predicting the crash of their economy, and just a lot of general dunking on the stupidity of the whole thing. I had my own thoughts about how Texas Republicans would be making a big bet on being correct in their climate change denial in a state that already has areas very nearly unlivable at the height of summer, as well as a long gulf coast uniquely vulnerable to extreme weather events (to say nothing of a decrepit electrical grid).
Anyway, because I generally avoid tweeting except for the rare occasions when I think of a witty Wildean aphorism, I was sorting my thoughts out in my journal when, looking idly around the Starbucks, I had an odd moment of defamiliarization.
The Starbucks in question is not my favourite coffee shop to work in;[iii] evil corporation aside, I’m generally amenable to Starbucks so long as they at least have the feel of a comfortable café—soft lighting, warmly coloured décor, that sort of thing. This one is new, just opening a few months ago, and is unfortunately very bright and austere, bordering on institutional. But it is also the most proximate coffee to campus,[iv] so I find myself there sometimes.
I had paused in my writing for a moment and was staring into the middle distance, lost in thought. In that moment, Gloria Gaynor came on the sound system—“I Will Survive,” a song that is impossible not to bob along with. And a staple of the Gay Pride soundtrack. Looking around, I suddenly became aware of all the Pride Month paraphernalia decorating the place: there was a big Pride Progress flag behind the counter, another over the chalkboard at the front, crossed with a Trans flag; a row of Starbucks cups was arrayed on the counter in front of the espresso machines, each with a piece of tissue paper corresponding to one of the colours from the Pride flag. There was also the staff themselves, many of whom were, if not actually queer, then certainly rocking the aesthetic.[v]
To be clear: I hadn’t not noticed any of this before. I’ve been there at least once or twice since June began when the profusion of Pride décor went up, but I seem to think they’ve always had a Pride flag at the front of the store, and I had previously taken note that the staff would not be out of place behind the bar or on the dance floor of a gay club that would be way too fashionable for my basic self. But that was the nub of my moment of defamiliarization: I had noticed all these things without noticing them. As I sat there listening to Gloria dunking on her ex, I was taken out of the moment and thought about how when I was the baristas’ age this kind of décor would be limited—even during Pride Month—to specific spots on campus and the “gay ghetto” (as it was then called) of the Church & Wellesley neighbourhood in Toronto. That it was unremarkable that it should be on display in a corporate franchise coffee shop[vi] in St. John’s was, it suddenly occurred to me, remarkable … or remarkable to someone who grew up in the 1980s while attending a Catholic high school, some of whose teachers were quite vocal in their opinion that HIV/AIDS was divine punishment for homosexuality.[vii]
It was an odd moment: what should have been a warm glow of vicarious pride in suddenly seeing such cultural progress that literally snuck up on me sat in stark contrast to the recent full-bore attacks on queer people epitomized in the Texas GOP’s delineation of homosexuality as “an abnormal lifestyle choice.” This specific language is telling, as it hearkens back to an earlier era of anti-gay rhetoric, when it was a point of homophobic common wisdom that being queer was purely a matter of choice. The Texas GOP’s phrasing effectively elides at least thirty years of hard-won progress whose signal event, when Obergefell v. Hodges established federal recognition of same-sex marriage, felt less like revolutionary upheaval than simple confirmation of prevailing attitudes.[viii]
One of the frequent rhetorical recourses made by people opposed to social justice progress—or those who profess to be all about social justice but worry that it is progressing too quickly—is to point to all the obvious advances that have been made in terms of feminism, gay rights, cultural diversity, civil rights, and so forth, as evidence that the current crop of “social justice warriors”[ix] and activists are overreacting, making mountains out of molehills, or otherwise being disingenuous in pretending society hasn’t improved over the past decades and centuries. “So what you’re saying is there’s no difference between today and the Jim Crow era?” is how a typical argument attacking Black Lives Matter might go.
One hears such a tone, for example, in critiques of The Handmaid’s Tale when its misogynist dystopia is dismissed as alarmist fantasy; but then a SCOTUS leak reveals the un-edited version of Samuel Alito’s Gileadean thinking about abortion … and then, somewhere halfway through the writing of this post, the Court strikes down Roe v. Wade with nary a word of the opinion edited. For the better part of my adult life, but especially since Obergefell, when the rainbow flags come out (so to speak) in June there have been predictable harrumphs wondering why Pride is even necessary anymore. Haven’t those people got all the rights now? Why do they need this display?
But then the reactionary Right pivots with the agility of a very agile thing from anti-CRT campaigns in schools to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and the broader attempt to associate any mention of LGBTQ people, history, lifestyles, or art and literature with the “grooming” of children. Actually, I shouldn’t say this was a pivot “from” anti-CRT campaigns, given that it’s not as if these people have given up on excising mention of slavery and systemic racism from curricula; it’s more a matter of a broadening of the battlefront, with cynical operators like Christopher Rufo setting the plays. What started as the targeting of trans people has, not unpredictably, exploited the momentum of the Right’s broader culture war to open fronts against what has become assumed to be settled issues—gay rights in particular.[xi] It is telling that none other than Donald Trump Jr. rebuked the Texas GOP for, presumably in accordance with their plank about homosexuality being “an abnormal lifestyle choice,” did not allow the Log Cabin Republicans to set up a booth at the convention. “The Texas GOP should focus its energy on fighting back against the radical democrats and weak RINOs currently trying to legislate our 2nd Amendment rights away,” he said, “instead of canceling a group of gay conservatives who are standing in the breach with us.” That this weak tea was almost certainly the noblest sentiment Don Jr. has ever voiced says as much about the Frankenstein’s monster the MAGA movement has become as it does about Trump’s most toxic spawn.
All of which is by way of saying that, however much progress we as a society have made, there is never cause for complacency. Progress is never inevitable; though there is a tendency to think that it is,[xii] I’d be interested to see how that assumption breaks down on cultural and national lines, and if those who have benefited most from prosperity and the attention to cultural issues that often affords are the most complacent about the moral arc of history bending in their favour. I started writing this post earlier in the week; I picked it up again on Friday and worked on it at one of my favourite downtown spots.[xiii] Whereas Monday morning I’d looked up, lost in thought, and noticed the Pride paraphernalia, on Friday I looked up at one of the televisions over the bar to see the news that Roe v. Wade had been struck down. It was an odd set of bookends to the work week.
As dire as things seem right now—and they are dire, from the worsening climate to the revanchist culture war to the not-zero possibility that Pierre Polievre could be our next Prime Minister—I do still have hope. I have hope because my local Starbucks, in spite of its unfortunate austere design choices, was decked out more queerly than most gay bars I went to in my 20s. I have hope because my students have hope: this generation is earnest and determined, and they have no patience for our prevarications. I laugh, often out loud, when I read shrill screeds about how youth are being indoctrinated with woke ideology by postmodern neo-Marxist (to coin a term!) professors like me. Dude, I want to say, they’re not the ones being indoctrinated. I am.
[i] This on the premise that it takes my attention away from the computer and my phone and their endless doomscrolling, and also that it will help center me (especially if I get to it early in the day) and make me organize my thoughts. All this has been moderately successful, if for no other reason than when I start missing days that functions as a bit of a canary in the coal mine for my mental state.
[ii] In addition to secession and their homophobic throwback to the heyday of Jerry Falwell, the Texas Republicans also declared that the 2020 election was corrupt and Joe Biden is therefore an illegitimate president; called for the repeal of the 16th Amendment, which established a federal income tax; declared that students should be required to “learn about the humanity of the preborn child”; the abolition of any and all abortion; the abolition of the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and the reinstatement of school prayer. John Cornyn, the senior Senator for Texas, was booed during his speech because he had indicated he was open to voting for the minimal gun control bill currently before Congress; and perhaps most remarkably, Congressman Dan Crenshaw and his entourage was attacked in the corridors for … being Trumpy but not Trumpy enough, I guess? Crenshaw, who was a Navy Seal and famously wears an eyepatch because of a wound he received in Iraq, not long ago released a genuinely bonkers political ad featuring himself in full military regalia parachuting out of a plane to attack “antifa and leftists.” He has also tied himself in logical knots while trying to be a “reasonable” conservative while not ever saying a bad word about Trump. Apparently this wasn’t enough for his Texas detractors, who harangued him as an “eyepatch McCain,” an epithet they took from Tucker Carlson.
[iii] Coffee shops and pubs will always rival both my home and campus offices as a preferable work space. One might think that now, in contrast to undergrad and grad school, I do in fact have actual offices—and very nice ones, too!—such public spaces as a local café or pub wouldn’t hold quite the same allure. But they do, for me at least; I like the white noise of these places, and the fact that people-watching can be very zen when you’re paused in thought. I have long been that person you see ensconced in a comfortable seat or booth with a latte or a pint, scribbling in a Moleskine or tapping away at my laptop (though usually the former—working longhand without internet distraction is another point in the coffee shop’s favour).
[iv] For all that Memorial University has to recommend it, it weirdly lacks for cafes and pubs on campus. This, I feel, is contrary to the academic educational process. My undergraduate degree was massively enhanced by the endless discussions and arguments I had with friends at the Absinthe Pub of Winters College at York University; and I’m reasonably certain I wrote at least a chapter’s-worth of my dissertation at UWO’s Grad Club.
[v] When I shared this story with my students in my grad seminar later that morning, one of them helpfully said, “Oh, don’t you know? Everybody who works at Starbucks is queer.” I’ll assume this is at least a slight exaggeration and there are a handful of closeted heterosexuals making lattes, but I’ll take his authoritative word on the subject.
[vi] Not that corporate coffee franchises should be antithetical to queer culture: one of the rabbit holes my mind went down in the immediate aftermath of this reverie was the memory of the infamous steps in front of the Second Cup on the corner of Church & Wellesley in Toronto. On pleasant days, the steps would be full of queer folk (with a few straights like myself occasionally thrown in), drinking coffee, chatting, watching the street, as much spectacle as spectators. To anyone who’d ever been on Church Street, those steps were instantly recognizable in the series of Kids in the Hall sketches called, well, “Steps.”
Curious if the Second Cup was still there, I did a quick Google search and discovered that the steps had been removed (how, I don’t know) by the owners to “discourage loitering,” and the café itself had departed in 2005—but that a new Second Cup took up residence just down the block six years later.
[vii] No, seriously.
[viii] Which is not, I hasten to add, to downplay its importance or the enormity of the victory it represented; but the fact that it was met more with a shrug from the balance of straight people than with outrage is pretty extraordinary in itself.
[ix] This is by no means an original observation, but you’ve gotta hand it to the forces of reaction that “social justice warrior,” or SJW for short, was turned so quickly into a pejorative, and that anything and everything related to or involving social justice became so resolutely understood as the precinct for the shrill, the sanctimonious, as well as being synonymous with the suppression of free expression. Ditto for critical race theory (or CRT—is there power in reducing something to a three-letter acronym?), and the more recent retread of Anita Bryant’s association of homosexuality with pedophilia, this time with the handy epithet “groomer” attached to anyone committing the sin of admitting to queer identity in the presence of children.
[xi] It would be entertaining, if the circumstances weren’t so distressing, to watch such gay conservatives as Andrew Sullivan—who have taken “gender critical” positions on trans rights—suddenly gobsmacked to find their own subject-positions under attack. Sullivan is a particularly notable example: he has become increasingly strident on what he characterizes as the tyranny of pro-trans discourse, and recently had Christopher Rufo on his podcast in which he agreed on many of Rufo’s attacks on critical race theory. More recently however, he has thrown up his hands and said (figuratively) “Whoa, whoa!” in response to Rufo’s most recent rounds of anti-gay rhetoric.
[xii] Personally, I blame Hegel.