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Nothing Angers Quite Like Joy
Joy is restorative. Joy is resistance. Joy is punk as hell.
On June 10, 2020, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin issued its first-ever Proclamation recognizing LGBTQ Pride Month.
At the time, I was serving as Board President of our local LGBTQ+ advocacy organization. The City Clerk contacted me on June 4, told me the City wanted to recognize Pride Month, and asked if I would be willing to write a proclamation. I said I’d be honored and sent her a completed draft the next day. After staff review and the Council President’s signature, the final version was scheduled for presentation at the next City Council meeting.
This was a purely ceremonial document that carried no legal weight and had no financial burden attached to it. Proclamations are not official actions or policy statements by the governing body. Unlike other neighboring cities’ Pride Month Proclamations, which were issued in perpetuity for every future June, our document would only be effective for a single month, or really only 20 more days.
All applicable rules of procedure had been correctly followed. The City Clerk published the meeting agenda, our organization promoted the event through our social media channels, and I personally invited local LGBTQ+ youth and their families to attend and participate.
And then, Gentle Readers, all hell broke loose.
One of the Council members opposed to the Proclamation notified Wisconsin Family Action, a statewide political action committee with a long history of anti-LGBTQ+ lobbying. WFA issued an “Action Alert” on their website and social media accounts, encouraging people to contact the City Council and demand that the Proclamation be removed from the meeting agenda. Area clergy members from non-affirming churches asked their congregations to protest. Our local newspaper published an article about the opposition to the Proclamation, as well as my statement calling for community support and reminding readers about the differences between church and state. Within two days, City Council members had received over 500 emails and phone calls about the Proclamation.
Proclamations and other ceremonial proceedings are typically scheduled early in the meeting agenda, right after the Call to Order and before any public hearings or items of business. Had City Council maintained that practice on June 10, the following two and a half hours would have gone much differently. Instead, they voted 5-2 to waive the established rules of procedure and amend the agenda to hear audience remarks and hold Council deliberation before deciding as a body whether the Pride Proclamation could be presented.
During discussion of that vote, the Councilperson most vocally opposed to the Proclamation called it a partisan issue and claimed it unfairly favored a special interest group. Another Councilperson asked what the LGBTQ+ community had done to deserve recognition. She said she was concerned about the precedent issuing this document would set and asked whether a similar proclamation would be given to the KKK if that group had done a service on behalf of the City.
Let me elaborate on that last part: Less than ten minutes into an open, televised meeting, an elected official representing over 43,000 people, a Black woman born and raised in Mississippi (whose state flag design at that time still included a version of the Confederate battle insignia), invoked the name of the oldest and most infamous white supremacist hate group in American history in her analogy about who deserved to receive a ceremonial piece of paper.
Have you ever been so angry that your ears are ringing and you are visibly shaking?
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My spouse and youngest child were in the audience with me, as were several families of queer and transgender youth. Most of those kids were Offspring’s friends and school classmates. We sat together and listened while multiple City residents and community members complained that the Proclamation was divisive, inflammatory, and offensive to them because it forced them to endorse or approve of a “lifestyle” that was against their personal religious beliefs. Some said that the Proclamation actually created inequality by promoting a small portion of the population above others, and amplifying differences instead of similarities and common traits like American citizenship.
Many others told us, in two-minute doses, that we were sick, perverse, unholy, unworthy, incapable of having committed relationships, and that higher rates of mental illness, substance abuse, incarceration, and suicide among LGBTQ+ populations were evidence of our defectiveness and inability to lead healthy, successful lives. One person went so far as to claim that these things were being said as a sign of love and concern for us. It didn’t matter that they had never met us before, or that in most cases they didn’t even know which of us in particular they were talking about.
Despite all their protestations, the Pride Proclamation really didn’t personally affect them. Like us, it just existed in a way that didn’t require their permission or seek their approval, and they simply couldn’t stand that.
None of us were actually violent or predatory. We hadn’t attacked anyone physically or legislatively. We’d never gatecrashed their church services to tell them they needed to change what they believe or how they worship. We weren’t advancing any laws to limit their access to public spaces, prevent them from becoming parents, or invalidate their marriages. We surely hadn’t spent any time at all speculating about their genitals or their sexual activity.
No, what we did was much worse than that. We dared to be visibly, vocally, unapologetically different from them, and we had the unmitigated gall to happy about it. More than anything else, that joy was what they could not abide.
Pounding the Podium
When my turn at the podium came, I demanded that the public see and hear me with all of my labels applied and accomplishments acknowledged. I confessed that I had spent years of my life being invisible, silent, and utterly miserable for the convenience of other people, and said I would never do that again for anyone or anything. I asked the Council if the intent of this public comment period was to subject the Proclamation’s merit to scrutiny in the court of public opinion. I told them that by allowing this, they were also inviting public scrutiny on the worthiness of its recipients. I said that this was not only harmful to the LGBTQ+ community but also to the Council’s own integrity and reputation.
Did I mention I was angry? Beloveds, I was furious. I was also fighting a considerable amount of guilt.
I had invited young people and their families, including my own, to an event that was supposed to be a celebration, and now felt more like a trial by trauma. The friends and allies I had called upon for support were now being put under attack as well. The document I had written was being used as a justification for saying aloud all the terrible things that Midwest Nice™ usually demands be kept quiet.
Rationally, I knew that the prejudice and ignorance on display that night were not my fault or my doing. Accusations that I and other LGBTQ+ folks had brought this backlash on ourselves by daring to seek positive acknowledgment were textbook DARVO gaslighting abuse tactics. I couldn’t stop anyone from saying these things, but I could at least try to counteract it. I closed my comments with as much affirmation as I could muster in my remaining 30 seconds:
“To the local LGBTQIA+ community of all ages, faiths, races, colors, abilities, and statuses, nothing said or done at tonight’s meeting can lessen your worth. Acknowledging the history and the contributions of an undervalued segment of our community should not be partisan or controversial. Making it so was this Council’s choice, and that is not your doing or your fault. You are not in any way comparable to the KKK and anyone who would say so should be ashamed. I want you to know I see your strength, your beauty, your love, your talents, and your value. I celebrate these things with you and for you, and so do lots of other people in our city. No amount of public comment or Council debate will ever change that.”
At the end of the public comment period, there was brief recess before Council would begin their deliberation. I sent my family home so they wouldn’t have to sit through any more ugliness. I truly thought at that point that the Proclamation would be delayed, if not outright retracted, and I wanted to spare my spouse and child from seeing that happen firsthand.
During the Council’s turn for discussion, the City Manager said that tonight’s controversy indicated a possible flaw in the Council’s rules of procedure regarding proclamations. Some Council members wanted all proclamations to be reviewed and approved by a vote of the full governing body, while others felt this would only be necessary for issues with “partisan ties,” and not for “normal” proclamations such as those recognizing employee retirements or local student athletics teams. Ultimately, the Council directed staff to develop possible procedural rule changes for future meetings instead of revising the current rules that night.
So, the Pride Proclamation could go ahead now, right? Nope!
The Councilperson who had spearheaded the opposition against the Proclamation tried three more times to stop it from being issued. He first moved to strike the Proclamation from the meeting agenda “in light of its partisan nature.” When the Council President informed him that a two-thirds supermajority vote would be required for that action, he retracted and replaced his original motion with one that would instead block the Proclamation from being presented. No other Council member was willing to second that motion. After receiving a text message from an anonymous third party, the Councilmember then moved to set aside the Proclamation until Council had reviewed and adopted any recommended revisions to the relevant procedural rules. That motion also failed to receive a second.
Since it had become clear that further efforts to block or delay the Proclamation would not be supported, the Councilperson made no additional motions. Finally, after all attempted roadblocks had failed, the Council President was able to issue a Proclamation recognizing June 2020 as LGBTQ Pride Month in the City of Fond du Lac.
That’s me with the microphone, along with the friends, colleagues, and neighbors who joined me to accept the framed Proclamation. I dedicated it to the entire LGBTQ+ community, and most especially to “the people who were brave enough, who were open enough to revel vulnerable parts of their identity to share that gift with us tonight in front of such a hostile audience.”
While the Council meeting moved on to the remaining items of business, we relocated to the lobby for hugs, photographs, and interviews with the press. The mood was a mixture of celebration, relief, and post-disaster damage report. Walking wounded, see to the stretcher cases; shock blankets, hot beverages, and washrooms are down the hall. The radio station and newspaper reporters would like a quick word if you’re agreeable.
I’ve spent a lot of words on describing all of the ridiculously awful things that happened that night. There were also some truly beautiful moments. Allies from all over the city showed up for us, filling the chambers and overflow area to capacity to voice their support for the Proclamation. Partners, parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, and community elders spoke of their love and support for their queer and transgender friends, family members, and students. For every comment opposing the Proclamation or expressing intolerance, someone else was there to insist that people of all orientations and gender identities deserved to feel safe, loved, and to have a sense of belonging. Two people used their allotted public comment time to share their bisexuality publicly for the first time.
Within 24 hours of the meeting, there were official statements from three community organizations specifically recognizing Pride Month for the first time. By the end of the following week, two local businesses had agreed to join the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce’s Welcoming and Inclusive initiative by displaying rainbow decals in prominent locations at or near their facility entrances. Our nonprofit gained its first annual corporate sponsorship from an artist who donated 50% of the annual proceeds from a series of Pride flag prints.
While the Councilperson who made the KKK analogy spent the next few days doubling down and criticizing me and others via Facebook, my friends and neighbors sent their congratulations and dropped off flowers, baked goods, and treats for my dog in care packages on my front porch. Two kinds of people, I suppose.
Struggling for a Spark
I tried to forget about all the ugliness and just be happy that the Pride Month Proclamation had been issued. I kept getting stuck on how it should have been simple and straightforward, instead of complicated and messy. I wanted joy and celebration that didn’t have to happen in spite of frustration and struggle, and why did that always seem like such a naïve thing to hope for or a selfish thing to ask?
I spoke with the families of the young people who attended the meeting to apologize for all the ugly things they endured that night and see how everyone was doing. I had a similar conversation with my own pre-teen. One family said they wanted to talk with their therapist about certain comments that had struck particularly close to home, but overall, the kids were alright.
When I talked with cisgender, heterosexual adults who had attended the meeting or watched the simulcast, the majority of them told me they just felt drained. They had been shocked to hear their own colleagues and neighbors express such barefaced bigotry and ignorance so openly in a public place. Most of them had never witnessed firsthand the kind of prejudice and hatred that gets directed toward LGBTQ+ people all the time: in legislative forums, during protests against Pride festivals and Drag Queen Story Hours, from behind keyboards on internet comment sections and over beers at the corner bar. They had thought their community, or at least their own social circles were different, and it disturbed them to find out otherwise.
I’d be willing to bet that very few of the LGBTQ+ people in that room were shocked. Most of us expected that some degree of ugliness was going to happen, even if we didn’t know the full extent or what form it would take. We’ve been there before, and the things said and done that night weren’t even the worst that some of us had experienced. It’s still entirely possible, and normal, for something that isn’t a surprise to still be disappointing, frustrating, and enraging. Hate doesn’t have to be novel in order to hurt.
Part of me understood how my CisHet friends were feeling. Another part of me wanted to scream, “Now do you believe me and other LGBTQ+ people when we say yes, some people really are this awful when they’re not being worse, and this city is no exception? The question is not whether or not anyone is surprised. The question is: now that you know, what are you going to do to help change it?”
I didn’t say that to them, though. Cynicism doesn’t motivate, and there had already been more than enough yelling. Instead, I said that now they knew what some people in our city really thought about LGBTQ+ people, they were better prepared to help push back against those stereotypes and myths. They could use their understanding to help advocate for inclusive policies and practices in their workplaces, and more visible and tangible allyship efforts throughout the community. Positive action is better than despair any day.
Everything Everywhere All at Once
There are so many things happening in the world right now to make us feel scared, or angry, or hopeless, and all of them are exponentially more serious than a Pride Month Proclamation. There’s a lingering pandemic, another war in Europe that might go global, the beginnings of a recession, and a new mass shooting event at least once a week. School board members are receiving death threats, library books are being banned, and transgender youth are being denied access to sports teams, bathrooms, and gender-affirming medical care. As of this writing, all odds are on Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey being functionally overturned this summer.
We actually talk about Bruno quite a lot, but we’d better not mention comprehensive reproductive health education, sexual orientation, or gender identity unless we want to be called groomers or accused of indoctrination.
Groups of bigoted people using their collective power to marginalize, oppress, and eradicate is perhaps even more American than apple pie. Prejudice and discrimination, particularly against queer, transgender, and gender non-conforming people has very little to do with us as individuals. It’s about what we represent, which is a direct threat to the idea that there’s only one right answer, one correct path, one way to present yourself to the world, one way to be a family or have loving, healthy relationships. It’s about the fragile insecurity of a limited perspective. It’s about protecting the delicate bits of fake superiority built on suppression and forced conformity. It’s about accusation being a projected form of confession.
The same revolving door culture war against LGBTQ+ people has been spinning through history since the Weimar Republic. How in the world are we supposed to keep on finding the mental, emotional, financial, and physical energy to protest escalating versions of the same old thing over and over again? Knowing the context and the motivations provides perspective and helps with strategy. It doesn’t make the impact hurt any less.
Embrace the Suck, But Do Not Surrender Your Joy
If you haven’t noticed already, I’m not a “Good Vibes Only” kind of girl. To me, all vibes are valid. You’re allowed to let bad things bother you without pretending that they don’t. You can still be angry or scared or frustrated or disgusted. I’m never going to deny you whatever emotions you’re feeling or tell you that any of them are forbidden or inherently bad. They’re human. Name them and claim them. Refusing to say “this is bullshit” in the clear presence of it is intellectually, morally, and spiritually dishonest and solves nothing.
I’m also not going to tell you that you can bootstrap, bubble bath, and sheet mask your way to world peace. Self-care is not a standalone solution to systemic problems. If the world is heavy for you right now, it’s not because you’re too sensitive or you’re not trying hard enough. It’s because we’re in the equivalent of a dumpster fire in the middle of a flood with a tornado siren going off, your toothbrush fell in the toilet and there’s gum in your hair. Somehow, you’re going to have to find a way to laugh about that. If you don’t, you’re going to burn out and drown. Your pain will start looking like a reason to give up or an excuse to hurt other people. At that point, you’ll have become part of the problem.
Mary Oliver was a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. She was also a lesbian from the small-town Midwest who survived childhood sexual abuse. In 1993, the same year that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was signed, she told us not to hesitate if we suddenly and unexpectedly found joy. She told us that joy was not meant to be a crumb, and she was right.
If I can be so presumptuous, I’ll say “Yes, and”: if crumbs are all you have at the moment, don’t turn them down just because they’re not the whole cake.
Whatever “happy” is for you that doesn’t hurt you or anyone else, go find it and do it on purpose. Find as many of those things as you can. Collect them like treasure. That way, if one happy thing gets compromised somehow or stops working for you, you’ll still have options. Find ways to share your happiness with others who also make you happy.
Wear the outfit. Get the haircut. Dance in public. Ask if you can pet the dog. Start a new hobby or pick up an old one. Give yourself permission to do it badly. Let “because I do” be reason enough to like something.
Listen to the podcast. Don’t read the comments. Watch Bob Ross marathons. Hold serious conversations with babies and pretend that they’ve said something profound. It’s entirely possible that they have.
Say no whenever you can to the things that drain you. Refuse to be defined by any terms or roles you haven’t chosen for yourself. Decide whether you actually even want that person’s approval, and what it would mean you if you had it. Set boundaries without feeling guilty. Don’t let your boundaries become walls on all sides.
Joy is also not meant to be weighed. If it rains and you get to go splash barefoot in the puddle in your driveway, go do it. Don’t worry about whether this joy is larger than that misery. Don’t measure or compare it, just live it. The misery can wait.
Joy is restorative. Joy is resistance. Joy is punk as hell.
In the words of Oscar Wilde, “the best revenge is to live well.”