Ben Kawaller at L.A. Pride in 2023.

Can a Boring Old ‘G’ Still Hang with the LBTQIAs?

Twenty years ago, I was a rare gay teen at Pride. Now, I’m not even sure I count as queer.

My first Pride parade was around the year 2000, when I was 15. My parents and I marched with PFLAG—Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays—a now quaint-sounding organization my folks joined after I came out, to help my mother accept the idea that her son would die of AIDS. 

I was hoping, of course, that I would meet some boy at the parade. Sadly, no such person materialized, and the only member of the family to turn any heads at this thing was my bearded, hirsute father, who, if that’s your type, is an absolute knockout.

Things have changed a great deal since those Clinton–Bush years. 

Earlier this month I strolled around the L.A. Pride parade in Hollywood. There I met a gay eleven-year-old boy who had to contend not with being routinely bullied, but with the fact that the two other gay boys in his class were dating each other and not him (and who’s to say which is worse, really?). I met a whole slew of gay-looking girls who identified as everything from queer to lesbian to trans, and who very politely tolerated my interrogations on everything from their pronouns to their chest-bindings. I met a ten-year-old who told me she was nonbinary and pansexual. Or rather, they were nonbinary and pansexual.

I felt approximately 90. It’s not like the various identities comprising “LGBTQ+” are totally new to me, but at the end of the day I’m just a boring old G who came of age at a time when most of these labels had yet to be invented. Walking around Pride, I wondered if these new letters are a reflection of immutable characteristics—remember born this way?—or rather, a new way of categorizing oneself based on aesthetics—a kind of performance.

Whereas I don’t think of homosexuality as a performance. Sure, it’s a showstopper when I practice it, but it has nothing to do with my hair color or my clothes.

I had this thought, while talking to a 25-year-old lesbian who was still “figuring out” her gender identity: there’s a tribe out there that plays a game, an optional way of thinking about oneself, called “gender,” and the opt-in nature of this game is reflected in the tribe’s own language. For instance, GLSEN—once the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, now just a thing called GLSEN—proclaims that “Everyone gets to decide their gender identity for themselves and this designation can also change over time.” Can anyone imagine such a thing being said about sexual orientation? It must also come as a surprise to people with gender dysphoria that their internal sense of gender is a choice.

I wonder what our fellow citizens think of all of this. Most Americans supported gay rights when it meant equal rights. In 2015, the year gay marriage was legalized across the country, 57 percent said they were in favor of it, and last year, 71 percent of Americans said they believed same-sex relationships were morally acceptable. But now there’s a backlash to gay rights, and I wonder if it’s rooted in Americans’ sense that something more than “love is love” is going on here. A recent Gallup poll shows a seven-point overall drop in Americans’ belief that same-sex relationships are morally acceptable—it’s down to 64 percent. The drop is larger among Republicans (56 percent to 41 percent), but holds for Democrats too: we were at 85 percent support last year; now we’re at 79 percent.

Is this so surprising? If the gay activism I grew up with was about securing equal rights, LGBTQ+ activism looks more like a cultural project aimed at reforming our ideas about gender and sexuality. It also doesn’t seem to be able to help itself from looking absurd: according to Google, we’re now a community that can be described as LGBTQQIP2SAA. Hell, that makes me want to cancel gay marriage. 

All of which is to say, I have become a crabby gay picking apart the reality that people ten or twenty years younger than me take for granted. And I wonder, if I were growing up now, if any of these letters would speak to me. When I was 15, I dyed my hair and wore lip gloss and flared jeans. When I was younger than that, I’d stroll around in my mother’s nightgown. I still enjoy the womanly feeling I get when I put on a dress; I am as able as the next homo to tap into my femininity. Does that make me “genderqueer”? According to the rules of this game, it does if I want it to. But do I? Of course not: I’m nearly 40.

But once I was a teenager who ached and pined and wrote awful poetry and sometimes wore makeup and wanted very badly to be a different, better version of himself. I wonder what place that kid would find for himself if he lived in this new world. I’d like to think he could happily conceive of himself as a gay boy. . . but who can say? At the very least, I’d hope he’d have a better shot at finding a boyfriend at Pride.

Ben Kawaller writes about culture and hosts an interview series for Los Angeles magazine.

For more on this subject, we recommend James Kirchick in Liberties on the current setback to the gay movement; Andrew Sullivan’s essay on the rise of homophobia; and Bridget Phetasy in The Spectator on how Pride lost the public.

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