National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Why Only The Bears?

At the annual gay pride parade in Washington, D.C., last week, all the usual color and happiness was on display, but it struck me that the contingents that best “let it all hang out,” metaphorically speaking, were the bears. I’ve wondered why that was.

To explain the lingo of the gay world, bears are the big, burly types, tending toward lots of body hair and body fat. If anything, they project an image opposite to the popular gay stereotype of an effete hairdresser or interior designer.

At the gay pride parade, their floats and marching groups, including contingents representing leather bars and motorcycles, were the most “outrageous,” by standard tastes, more along the lines of what such parades became famous for in places like New York and San Francisco going back to when this annual tradition began in the early 1970s.

Maybe, I think, it’s because this was in Washington, D.C., where everyone conforms to what they think will translate into maximum political clout. After all, the parade was led off by contingents and convertibles full of elected officials waving to the crowds, showing how politically correct they were by being there. And that’s fine.

But there is a problem with the notion of “political vanilla,” too, especially in the context of a celebration where folks have traditionally flaunted their joy over not just being gay, but being free to be however they want to be.

Some “gay leaders” frown on behavior that may “turn off” voting constituencies, insisting that to “gain acceptance” means to act as “mainstream” as possible. Some call that the “Just Jack Syndrome,” referring to the “Will and Grace” TV show, where being cutsy but otherwise non-threatening sets a standard that could tend to stifle the kind of originality and creativity that many gay people would rather exhibit.

The whole point of gay and lesbian rights, it used to be argued, is not only that gays want the same rights as everyone else, but that they’re affirmed in their right to be however they want as long as its not breaking any laws or keeping them from performing in their jobs.

Accepting conformance with a dominant social standard amounts to gay people dancing to a drummer different than their own, and that drummer may set a tempo and a pace that may well hold back the movement for equality.

The Virginia Democratic Party leadership is a case in point, demonstrating this election season behavior that is anything but gay-affirming. Top state party officials talked an enthusiastic, intelligent and energetic openly-gay candidate, Jeff Dion, out of his plans to run for the state legislature in Prince William County on grounds that his candidacy would hurt the party in that more conservative area.

Then they turned around and failed, completely, to field any candidate to run against homophobic Republican Del. Dave Albo in a Springfield district that may have turned “blue” this year because of the general disaffection with Bush. Can you believe that in this changing political environment, Albo is going to be unopposed this November? If they were so concerned about Dion running in Prince William, why didn’t they ask him to run against Albo, instead?

Finally, Dem leaders are backing to the hilt a nominal Democrat, Chap Petersen, running for State Senate in Fairfax County, even though he made a conscious decision last fall to remain loyal to his Truro Episcopal Church as it voted to align with a Nigerian bishop that advocates jailing people of the same sex who as much as hold hands in public, and anyone at all who meets to even talk about gay marriage. I don’t know if he personally voted to align with the Nigerian bishop, but he is still active in the church.

Openly-gay Democratic elected officials in Northern Virginia are being asked to back this candidate even though he apparently considers them second-class citizens. How anyone could do that is beyond me. Others might, but I never would. The goal should be to drive such people out of political office once and for all. Let this guy lose, and elect a better Democrat next time.

Getting back to the bears, their paraded lack of inhibitions not only challenged “political vanilla,” but the “sculptured body Nazis,” as well. Maybe that’s why they seemed to be having more fun. By flaunting, rather than hiding, their hairy bellies, they took the political point for the 90% of us who have less-than-perfect physiques but too often feel intimidated by prevailing social norms to enjoy them as is.

Food for thought, perhaps, for all who’ve come into the summer season having failed to live up to New Year’s resolutions to hone the perfect body for the beach. Be brave like those bears, and enjoy!

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