Love Wins?

Hey friend,

By now, you know the news. We can get married. We can be just like them. I suppose we should feel validated and victorious, but don’t you feel the tiniest bit patronized, like they condescended to allow the fags to have “real” relationships, because someone has to help us poor things.

I’m glad gay couples can be with each other at their death beds and get the legal protections that come with marriage. That is right. But our relationships have never needed the official stamp of that heterosexual institution. I’ll say it: Our relationships are better without their seal of approval. Ours are rogue, unwilling to be boxed in. We’ve never needed their paper to be real. We never will.

Still, it was a big day — and a beautiful one.

Jose and I were back together. I wrote him a goodbye letter, tried San Francisco, and failed. I came back after a few months, and he, for some reason, took me back. That morning, the gays of Savannah erupted in threaded text messages, hastily-planned parties, rallies, and celebrations. Everyone hugged and kissed each other in the street. By evening, I was in the town’s lone gay club, tossing back whiskey-gingers, when a drag queen sauntered up and kissed me on the cheek.

It is a beautiful thing to celebrate with one’s people — the same feeling I imagine football fans feel when their team wins. I hoped I was able to remember the feeling — not so much the victory of the day but its sensation, how it felt to be united with everyone I loved. The United States Supreme Court had declared same-same marriage legal in all fifty states.

I was very tired. There had been a celebration rally that afternoon and a dance party after that. Then the bar. After living in Savannah for years, I was now a familiar face at the bar and had met many men there. Most of them I’d never see again. They were visitors passing through town, vacationers en route to Florida. Some had become friends, some lovers. The queen who kissed me on the cheek performed at my first drag show when I was 19 years old, slipping into the bar with a fake ID.

She watched me grow up through college, and then, there I was, graduated, working at Barnes & Noble, still in the same town. She knew my name. I knew hers. We loved each other the way one can love people who only exist as faces in a gay bar.

I knew documentaries and TV specials about marriage equality would come later. At that moment, I just wanted to look at the day as a strange moment of bewilderment and, more than that, a kind of cultural hinge. What would faggots be now?

I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that so many people saw our new rights as a moral defeat. The Supreme Court’s decision was close: 5 to 4. Many people fought very hard to keep us from enjoying something so simple — so unremarkable — as marriage. I wasn’t much of a celebrator; I could only hate back all the people who hated me, who fought and lobbied against me. I would never forget them. As my friends partied, I wanted to scream. I wanted to punish those who thought we should not be allowed this thing. What an absurd issue to take a stand on — but they did. I wanted to do more than beat them in the courts — as, apparently, we did. I wanted to wipe them out.

And I was drunk. The dance floor was empty. The queen was in a red dress and full face, and when she kissed me, I could smell her makeup. How many dollars had I given her over the years? How many times had we talked — about men in town, sex, people we knew?

We started talking about blowjobs in the bathroom. “I’m still surprised there’s not a backroom here,” I said.

She rolled her eyes. “Honey, there was one. Once upon a time.”

She pointed a jeweled finger across the empty dance floor to the far wall. “This entrance to the bathroom is new. Years ago, when I first started coming here, you went into a door on that side of the room, and you took this long, dark hallway all the way around to the bathrooms here. Down that hallway was one red light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Use your imagination.”

The club, she explained, was redesigned to be more “community-friendly” — to be safer for bachelorette parties and straight tourists. When I heard this, my heart broke. This scrubbing of gay spaces was exactly what I hated most, and I knew in a profound way — in a way I could not clearly articulate then — that this shift had come arm-in-arm with the day’s Supreme Court ruling. I’d never taken with the idea of marriage, but the win wasn’t for me. It was for the kids, all the little queer kids in the closet. If the ruling had not happened, it would have sent a message to them that we were less than our fellow citizens. History had to go this way.

But with this shift — as with the historical shifts that preceded it — would come change, and I wasn’t sure I would like what that change would be. I didn’t want my culture to be scrubbed or my backrooms to go, but they were — they already had. And the generation of men who enjoyed backrooms wasn’t mine. My generation brought in the era of social media and hookup apps. I was too young to know what that previous world was like, but I dreamed about it often: cruising Central Park in the 1980s (AIDS made no appearance in my dreams). I wanted that. Maybe that’s a privilege — being on this side of that loss, young and ignorant enough to romanticize it — and maybe that’s naive, but that is how I felt. With marriage equality, we were facing a new stage of gay life, and I wasn’t sure I wanted it. I wished — foolishly, perhaps — that the rest of the world could go forward and I back. I wanted to go back to the bacchanalia of Fire Island and easy sex, back to when cities were cheap and dangerous. I wanted to live dangerously, outside the law, not in it. That fantasy, more than anything I saw around me, felt like the clearest description of the gay life I wanted for myself.

“Let me buy you a drink,” I said to her. And I did. We clinked our glasses together. We were in our sacred place — a ratty gay club with a disco ball over the dance floor, mirror walls, a pool table, kitschy Christmas lights, and sleazy urinals. The bar was empty but she said it would pick up again with the night crowd. But we knew it was also empty because gay men now had apps like Grindr and Scruff, and because they could go home to their husbands and lovers. Who needs a sanctuary when your existence is no longer forbidden?

My day ended late at night. I went to bed with Jose, a brown-skinned immigrant. We didn’t have much money, but we had a creaky old bed and a window that looked out over a courtyard. In that courtyard was an oak tree and potted lilies and a rhododendron and buckets of ferns. In the night, like every night, a bird came to a branch outside our window and sang. That night, we listened, drunk, naked in the dark. And we fucked and fucked.

Faggots will replace the fervent. When their children rise again to meet us, when they mount their own social wars, our kind will be there to fight them. They have dragged us from our beds and beaten us in the yards of America. They have beaten us in the streets with police clubs, stabbed us with knives, and set us on fire. All for love. That’s the danger of love, and it’s ours.

“Love wins” has remained a common Gay Pride slogan, but I’ve always had mixed thoughts on it. Throughout history, there were many times indeed when love did not, in fact, win. The slogan presented love’s power as an automatic fact, not “love wins if we do X” but “love wins,” period. If love always won, surely that win must be met with its inverse — hate, fury, retaliation — and those opposing forces would never go quiet. Love had to stay bared, ready to fight back.

Their love may be fueled by faith and churches and an antiquated idea of America that should never exist again. They may see my love as the soft, limp-wristed thing it looks like on TV. Or they may see it as a disease, a sin, a recruitment tool to steal their children, or all the above.

But my love is a beast, sharp-clawed, eyes black as coal, and it’s coming for you.

Love, Beastly


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