This is a picture of my 5-year-old son Bennett wearing his favorite hoodie. It was a gift somebody bought for him, so I’m not sure where it came from, but it does appear to be an officially licensed product.
He loves this hoodie because it has the Minions on it, of course, and because of that, he doesn’t really care what the words say. If it said, “I love naps”, he would still wear it. Or “Feed the boy wearing this shirt broccoli”. Yup, he’d put that on, too, because it’s the Minions, and anything associated with them must automatically be cool.
But it doesn’t say those things. It says, “We’re here, we’re yellow, get used to it.” My 5-year-old son wears a shirt that features a rewriting of a chant used by so-called radical gay rights activists in the early 1990’s. “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” In 2015, somebody thought the slogan was a) well-known enough and b) child-friendly enough to use on an article of children’s clothing.
Just think about that.
Queer Nation, the group that originated the slogan, was formed in 1990 in New York City. They were tired of gay bashings and of people ignoring AIDS because they thought it only affected some deviant subculture. There were no “straight allies” back then, no TV news coverage for gay rights. In those days, you could be a loveable mainstream person in the public eye and openly say things like, “Those people got that disease as a punishment from God.” Say that, and you’d still have a career. But if you said, simply, “I’m gay,” you were finished.
The people in Queer Nation weren’t just saying it, they were shouting it, and they were letting you know the problem was yours, not theirs.
In 1990, I was a college student in New York City, and I remember what it was like for battalions of angry gay men to march through the streets yelling, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” It scared the shit out of people.
Of course, my kid doesn’t know his shirt features an (admittedly not very clever) play on a confrontational gay chant. He just likes the colorful corporate property depicted in the graphic.
Last night, my daughter was reading the words on his shirt, over and over, and cracking herself up. “We’re here, we’re yellow, get used to it!” She thought it was hilarious, but I knew she didn’t really get the joke. And it’s not like I could explain it to her.
Then I thought about when one of their African-American friends came over for a playdate. I was going to turn the TV on for them, when this sweet little preschool-age girl informed me that she wasn’t allowed to watch a certain network because they don’t have any African-American characters on it. My kids didn’t know what she was talking about, so I explained it to them. “It just doesn’t seem fair that there are so many different kinds of people in the world, but they don’t always get shown on TV. We know lots of people who look different from us. Don’t you think there should be TV characters who look like them?” I kind of loved that this girl’s mom was so frank with her about racism even at her age, and that, as a result, my kids got a lesson in it, too.
So why not gay rights?
We’re gay dads, after all. It’s not like this issue isn’t going to come up at some point. I’ve resisted discussing homophobia with my kids for a while because, among other things, I didn’t think they would believe me. We really don’t get treated badly because our family is non-traditional, at least not that I think my kids would have noticed. Sure, sometimes, people are confused by our family. Kids tell them that two men can’t get married, and even grown-ups sometimes think my children are lying when they say they don’t have a mom. But as far as I know, they’ve never actually witnessed homophobia. Everyone we know and deal with regularly treats us just like every other family.
I also thought about something else my daughter had said at dinner. “A boy in my class today did this with his hand.” She held up her middle finger. Some kid in her kindergarten class had apparently flipped the teacher off. We had a talk about how that wasn’t a nice gesture to make, something she had already figured out when the boy got sent to the principal’s office. So my kid now knew how to flip the bird… and I was worried about her hearing the word “queer”?
Then I realized this didn’t need to be some big angry rant about The Man keeping us down. It could just be a history lesson. It’s a topic that’s all over TV. Why shouldn’t my children hear about it from their own parents?
“Do you know what Bennett’s shirt means?” I asked them at dinner. They shook their heads. “You know how some men are like me and Daddy and they fall in love with other men? And some women fall in love with other women? Well, there’s a word for that, ‘gay’. And some people don’t like that. They don’t think people should be gay. They think men should only marry women and women should only marry men. So they made up a mean word so they could be mean to people like us, and that word was ‘queer’. Well, a long time ago, some gay people got tired of people being mean to them, so they made up a chant that went, ‘We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!’ It was like saying, ‘If you want to call us names, go ahead, but we are who we are, and we’re not going to let you be mean to us anymore.'”
I think that’s about as far as I got before they started asking what was for dessert. I felt better, though, because, if nothing else, I had shared something truly amazing with my kids. In just 25 years, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” has gone from a defiant middle finger to the mainstream to something alluded to on a sweatshirt that a 5-year-old boy (a boy with two dads, no less) wears to kindergarten.
I can’t help thinking how many of the original Queer Nation activists didn’t survive the AIDS epidemic. They weren’t here for gay marriage, gay sitcoms and the Supreme Court striking down sodomy laws, for a time when an openly gay man can host the Oscars and an openly lesbian woman can have a beloved daytime talk show. When you can finally say “I’m gay” and still have a career, but if you say, “I wouldn’t go to my friend’s gay wedding,” then everyone thinks you’re a major weenieburger.
If I could show those fallen heroes one thing to illustrate how far we’ve come, though, it wouldn’t be any of those things.
It would be this picture, of my son in his favorite hoodie.
“Holy shit,” I imagine they’d reply. “They got used to it.”
* * * * *
Do you like the things that I say and the way that I say them? Did you know you can read a lot more from me in my book “Mommy Man: How I Went From Mild-Mannered Geek to Gay Superdad”? Do you have any idea how happy it would make me if you did?
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