A Strange Journey Into Queer Power

To borrow a line from one of my favorite cult movie classics: I would like (if I may) to take you on a strange journey… into queer power.

Raymond G. Neal
Human Parts
Published in
10 min readOct 5, 2023

--

TW: bullying, anti-queer slurs

I spent most of my childhood being bullied because some 5th grade mouth breather named Ricky Swartz figured out over the summer between 3rd and 4th grade that my name rhymed with “gay.” And that’s all it took. I returned to school at the beginning of 4th grade with a new nickname I didn’t understand at first because I didn’t know what gay meant. But the kids wasted no time in educating me on exactly what it meant, and why it was bad and how it justified their bullying and harassment of me. The name stuck with me through middle school and didn’t wear off until my junior year in high school.

Mid-80s Me: Going for a Love & Rockets look.

1982: the summer MTV came to Orange County, CA. The effect MTV had on the social scene of my high school was seismic. I was inspired by the many new wave bands and performers on MTV to embrace my queerness, stop hiding it, and in fact throw it back at everyone who’d weaponized it against me for so long. I wasn’t the only androgynous kid at my high school that year, and I embraced my queerness with the same ferocity with which I’d been suppressing it up to that point. I felt my queer power and aimed it back at anyone who attempted to torment me, because what were they gonna do? Kick my ass? Were they sure they could kick my ass? And what if they couldn’t? Did they wanna be the one who got their ass beat by the fag? Did they really wanna fuck around and find out? Apparently, they didn’t.

Not one of them escalated our interactions when I challenged their verbal attacks, or when I didn’t move for them to get out of their way while walking through the halls. I even did something I later came to regret: a guy in my history class was teasing me for my clothing and hairstyle that day. I was sporting a head full of hair slathered in Dep and blown out upside down-it literally defied gravity. He was drawing a caricature of me on the chalkboard, and I said, loudly and clearly in the deepest and most derisive voice I could muster, “Mike, you’re a fuckin’ fag!” The teacher heard me but said nothing. I think the teacher may have been gay, based on a retroactive assessment of his mannerisms and fashion choices, and for all I know, so was Mike. But no one reprimanded me or denied what I’d just said. At the time, I considered it a victory.

And it isn’t as if anyone was wrong about me during those years. I knew I was different from a very young age, I just didn’t have a word for it until the other kids bestowed one upon me. Gay Ray. The other kids thought it was hilarious, especially the boys. It’s the first taste I had of how weak most male members of the species are, how terrified they are of being singled out, ostracized. They’ll single out and ostracize an agreed upon target to save themselves from the mob they’ve become a part of. Not one of them ever had the balls to stand up for me, not even the ones I considered friends. One or two of them expressed concern for me on occasion, but only outside the presence of others, never publicly. I had no support system, no internet, no gay straight alliance, no queer allies. Just a bunch of asshole kids going out of their way to make life suck for me every day that they could — at least that’s how it felt.

As a young man, I faced and fought back against homophobia and abuse from straight people, men and women who thought I deserved to be targeted because I had the nerve to be gay and take up space in their world. In the summer of 1983, after I’d escaped high school during my junior year by taking the GED, I remember going to see Jaws 3-D on opening weekend with two gay friends. The theater was packed and festive (this was before the movie started and we all came to realize how bad it sucked) and the guy next to me called me a fuckin’ fag. I looked at him for a good 10 seconds while he avoided my gaze. I mean, he was sitting right next to me, we were inches apart. I can still remember his weaselly face and the way he kept clenching his jaw. I turned to my friends and said, loudly, “Hey you guys, guess what? I’m a fuckin’ fag. This guy just called me a fag.” I laughed as I said it, just to piss him off. Daring him to do something about it. My friends were mortified but I was quite drunk and appropriately fearless. Besides, the guy was no match for me. He was clearly more afraid of me than I was of him.

After the movie we were hanging out by the car and a pair of dolled up mean girls started calling us fags from across the parking lot. They were also trying to talk their boyfriends into kicking our asses. The boyfriends sized us up, but there were three of us; I was tall, and my friends were solidly built. Their cost/benefit analysis of trying to beat up three fags while their girlfriends watched (and who no doubt would have joined in if given the opportunity) didn’t add up the way they wanted it to. They didn’t try to kick our asses, and I was somewhat disappointed because that night I really needed to unleash my rage on somebody. Due to the social rules of the time, I couldn’t open up a can of verbal whoop ass on the girls calling us fags, even though I wanted to, and even though they deserved it. Starting a fight with their boyfriends didn’t occur to me either, and when I think about it now, I guess it’s because my mindset at the time was that whether or not we fought was up to them. Gay guys like my friends and I didn’t start fights; we fought back when we needed to, and we finished them, but that was it.

I carried this rage, which wasn’t new, for many years. It grew within me with each passing year, with each gay bashing and murder I read about, each time some christian grifter spit out all his bible based bullshit about the gays on television, each time some UCLA frat boy called me faggot in WeHo when all I was trying to do was go out and have a good time. I participated in activism, simply by existing, against the discrimination, gay bashing and general assholery put forth by politicians, religious figureheads and heterosexuals that I crossed paths with while just going about the day-to-day business of living my life.

I protested when Republican CA governor Pete Wilson vetoed Assembly Bill 101, which would have prohibited private employers from discriminating against employees due to their sexual orientation. It was in early October of 1991 and I was 25. Protests erupted across the state, and these were the first queer protests I took part in. I remember my very first protest fairly well. We were to meet in West Hollywood on Santa Monica Blvd., right in the heart of Boys’ Town. For the life of me, I can’t remember how we all found out about the protest. I parked my car on a side street and walked hurriedly toward Santa Monica Blvd. I was furtive and walked quickly, aware of my surroundings, because back then (just like today), even in WeHo, you were a potential target until you made it safely into one of the bars or clubs. But this time I wasn’t going to a bar or a club, I was going to a protest.

I got up to Santa Monica Blvd. and immediately felt exposed under the bright streetlights. I was breathing heavily, my heart was racing… and no one was there. I got nervous, aware that I could be seen in all this light, all by myself on this queerest of boulevards. I wondered how many people there would be… 10? 20? Or if there would be any people at all. I was wondering: Am I the only person who cares, who’s outraged, who’s sick of this shit? Where the hell was everyone?

And then I saw them coming. Up over a slight incline in the street. Their heads first, their signs, and I could hear them making noise. I could hear them shouting, I could hear them blowing whistles. And the closer they came, the more of them there were. Dozens! Maybe more. Walking up the street toward me, taking up the whole boulevard, chanting. I just stood there, flooded with relief, and with excitement building inside me. Until they engulfed me like a wave, and I surrendered to the wave and let it carry me, and I became one of them. We were outside, in the open, being queer, claiming our space, together. Not asking, not apologizing, not being polite about it in any way. Not limiting ourselves to the gay pride parade, not even staying safely in West Hollywood. The boundaries that had been set for us were breaking. Because we were breaking them.

The details of that night are a little fuzzy. I remember chanting “Out of the bars and into the streets!” as we passed several gay bars, and the patrons clutching their cocktails, looking back at us as if we were insane. I think we marched to Silver Lake and back. At one point we stopped at a freeway onramp and debated whether or not to stop traffic by marching onto the 101. We decided against it and continued back to WeHo. We did stop traffic at La Cienega and Melrose (I think), right outside the Beverly Center, a big mall that was very bougie at the time. We brought a huge intersection to a complete standstill, holding up signs, chanting whatever it was we were chanting, walking through lanes of stopped traffic, the drivers in various states of excitement, curiosity and distress at being stopped by a bunch of queer people in such a disorderly and confrontational fashion. I tried to make eye contact with as many drivers as I could. I wanted to make sure we were being seen.

Later on, after we’d marched up La Cienega, we stopped at Barney’s Beanery, a famous straight establishment that had a well-known sign inside that said, in essence, “No fags allowed.” We needed to let them know we’d arrived, that we saw them, and that we weren’t going anywhere. At least not quietly.

As I was recalling this experience I found myself wondering why I hadn’t thought to take pictures of that night. Of course, it was a different time. Before cell phones it was cameras, and the mindset of recording our lives day to day hadn’t set in yet. I was there to experience the event, not document it. The photos included with this story are from the march on Sacramento that we attended a week or so later on October 11, 1991. This march was also in response to Pete Wilson’s veto of AB101 and was attended by queer people from all over the state of California.

AB101 Veto protests in Sacramento on 10/11/91. Bottom left pic is of Tod (my bf at the time) and me.

It was empowering to march in the streets, to chant, to fuck up traffic and get the anger out. It was a peaceful protest, overall, we didn’t damage any property. The cops left us alone, although they followed us the whole night. No one called us names that night, at least not to our faces. They didn’t dare to. There’s power in numbers.

And the power in numbers doesn’t come from just being a collective source of strength that’s bigger than any one individual; or the idea that we could pounce upon a solitary gay basher or even a group of them and kick their asses if push came to shove (this was before guns became so ubiquitous, so the threat of gunfire wasn’t a thing we considered). The power comes from the collective queer energy that occurs when we come together for a shared purpose. When we see how many of us there actually are, how strong we are, and how beautiful we are.

Our presence in this country and around the world, our existence, our willingness and ability to engage in the daily life of the societies we live in, is nothing less than a triumph. We live, we engage, we thrive in this world, in spite of the patriarchy, in spite of the hostile forces of organized religion, and in spite of the default settings of homo- and queerphobia that we’ve been raised and continue to live in. Our strength is so powerful, our queer take on the existing social hierarchies is such a threat, that they spend untold hours and countless millions of dollars to use lies, disinformation and propaganda to suppress our collective voices and erase our presence. And yet, in spite of their efforts, they fail. Time and time again. Queer strength, queer resilience and queer power survive, thrive and continue to grow. The right-wing bigots are no match for us: they know it, and so do we.

Now more than ever queer people around the globe have access to each other. We have the ability to come together, organize and take action against our adversaries like never before. Let us utilize this opportunity to pool our queer strength, fortitude and energy, to not only meet but vanquish the challenges we now face. Our enemies have declared war on us, and the time for pearl clutching, handwringing and cowering in the corner in the hopes that it will all go away, has come to an end. Now we must come together, agree on a battle plan and fight back. Have faith in your individual queer strength, and in the collective queer strength of our community.

And above all else, trust me when I say to you: they aren’t going to know what hit them.

If you have stories to share about your activism experiences, I’d love to hear them.

Contemporaneous L.A. Times article about the AB101 Veto protests.

Link to Wehoville article recounting L.A. AB101 Veto protests.

I was unable to find video of the Los Angeles AB101 Veto protests but here’s a link to video coverage of the AB101 Veto Riot that occurred in San Francisco.

The Stonewall Inn Gives Back Iniative

Movement Advancement Project’s List of Organizations Working to Improve the Lives of LGBT Americans.

--

--

Raymond G. Neal
Human Parts

Queer Power, Politics, Pop Culture + more. Wordy wordsmith, stories tend to run a bit long. Author of "forever ago." Upcoming collection is "minis."