When I first moved to Portland, a gay co-worker asked me to participate in “Queer For A Day” a national Act-Up event. I happily agreed, not realizing that meant all day. I blithely pasted on my florescent green and safety orange stickers that boldly proclaimed “Dike” and “Queer” in huge black lettering and enjoyed my latte at Pioneer Square with all sorts of other temporary queers. Then I went to work.
Like many people in political activism, I began as a canvasser, one of those people who go door-to-door talking to folks about the issues and raising money to fund organizing campaigns. I had no fear of reprisals from my employer over my bold signage, but when I learned we were going to canvass in East County in a particular neighborhood we canvassers called “mean dog turf” my stomach began to churn. This was no liberal bastion of tolerance. I was terrified. My friend who had invited me to join the Queer For a Day action assured me that no one would blame me for taking off the stickers given the circumstances. However, I decided that gay folks don’t get to take off their gender orientation and truly, part of the purpose of Queer For a Day was to expose gay rights supporters to the un-fabulous reality of gay life – bullying, violence and homophobia.
So, I wore my sticker and approached every door with trepidation and anxiety. I did not suffer any physical violence other than some spit at my feet and only got a smattering of verbal abuse during the night. On the contrary, most people were very nice and friendly, supportive of the national health care campaign I was working on and curious and intrigued by my stickers and my explanation of the Queer For a Day concept. I did get warned away from particular houses – neighbors telling me that so and so was an OCA member (the virulent anti-gay organization responsible for several anti-gay ballot measures). I happily took their advice since I was not looking for any excitement. However, even though the night was successful and mostly uneventful, I have never forgotten that feeling of fear as I knocked on each door, anxious over every single encounter, afraid of verbal abuse, hatred and violence.
Queer for a Day began as a lark to please a friend, but in many ways it changed my life. I took the stickers off at the end of the day and returned to my relatively safe straight life, but I learned that night that tolerance is not equality. That human rights and human dignity are meaningless if even one person is denied them. If they are not innate and immutable, they are nothing more than privileges subject to the whims of those in power. I had been one of those Saul Alinsky style activists who believed that if we only sorted out the economic justice issues, oppression would lose its power, but I learned then, that oppression is not just an economic wedge, it is the foundation of political division and disempowerment. The oppression of gender minorities, women and people of color are the foundation of economic oppression, not the other way around. So long as we can be divided and disempowered by social wedges, the future is bleak.
It’s been about 17 years since I was Queer For a Day and a lot has changed. Not enough. There’s so much more to be done, but I am hopeful and optimistic and I am wearing purple for Spirit Day –. It’s much more fashionable than neon stickers and not nearly as frightening. As to why purple – I think I will just play the Lavendar Song from 1920 for you.
What makes them think they have the right to say what God considers vice
What makes them think they have the right to keep us out of Paradise
They make our lives hell here on Earth
poisoning us with guilt and shame
If we resist, prison awaits so our love dares not speak its name
The crime is when love must hide
From now on we’ll love with pride
We’re not afraid to be queer and different
if that means hell — well, hell we’ll take the chance
they’re all so straight, uptight, upright and rigid
they march in locksep we prefer to dance
We see a world of romance and of pleasure
All they can see is sheer banality
Lavender nights are our greatest treasure
where we can be just who we want to be
Round us all up, send us away
that’s what you’d really like to do
But we’re too strong, proud, unafraid
in fact we almost pity you
You act from fear, why should that be
What is it that you are frightened of
The way that we dress
The way that we meet
The fact that you cannot destroy our love
We’re going to win our rights
to lavender days and nights
Mischa Spoliansky and Kurt Schwabach, “Das Lila Lied” (1920). Performed and recorded by Ute Lemper, Berlin Cabaret Songs (Decca 1996).
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