Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: Generational conflicts in our movement, and me

One of the curses of liberalism is the generational tension that almost destines today’s radical to be perceived as tomorrow’s sellout.

The Mattachine Society had been advocating for “homophile” equality for more than a decade before the Stonewall Inn was aflame, with such revolutionary goals as trying to decriminalize sodomy a half-century prior to the U.S. Supreme Court nullifying the laws nationwide. In the mid-1960s, the group, strategically requiring gay men to don suits and lesbians to wear dresses to dispel stereotypes about sexual subversives, helped stage the “Annual Reminder” marches that used the symbolism of the Liberty Bell and Fourth of July to appeal for a homosexual bill of rights.

Mattachine members turned the boarded-up window of the burnt out Stonewall Inn into a billboard urging their fellow gay people, “to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village” following the historic riots in June 1969. Mattachine’s staid dress code for its protests, its use of the term “homophile” because it thought any inference of “sex” would trigger the prejudices of straight people and its billboard plea for peace at the flash point of the gay revolution all help explain why the organization, once among the vanguard, is largely remembered as embodying respectability politics.

It’s an unfortunate, although sometimes deserved, fate for many leftist pioneers to grow into the uncool parents of even more rebellious youth. It’s also regrettable that young people — in this instance, young LGBT people — are considered ignorant and unappreciative of what their predecessors endured for the freedom to be fabulous.

As a gay man in my mid-30s, I sometimes feel part of a sandwiched generation, and a couple of Netflix shows divided my allegiances between our elders and those coming behind us. In the South African film, “Inxeba,” which is streaming domestically under the title, “The Wound,” a teenage boy whose father describes him as “soft” undergoes a tribal initiation into manhood that includes an immersive mentorship from a hired “caretaker.”

After spending several weeks together, the soft teenager rebukes his caretaker’s hypocrisy, supposedly instilling the virtues of manhood into the boy while being too afraid to live with authenticity and dignity. The conflict reminded me of how young stubbornness has advanced not only the LGBT movement, but the sit-ins of the 1950s, the Arab Spring and countless other social revolutions.

For all of the LGBT youth who don’t know about Stonewall, Harvey Milk or just the general terror of being queer in pre-’70s and post-1981 America, there are just as many members of the generation that heard Milk’s call to, “Just be out,” who did that and nothing else, and think being an openly gay bruncher was the equivalent of marching to Selma.

I felt a little more crotchety watching the episode of the reincarnated “Queer Eye” where the team helps a young Atlanta gay man embrace his sexuality and eventually come out to his stepmother. In an otherwise precious story that included many reminders of my own journey through these gay rites, after the young man reveals his sexual orientation to his family, he makes a joking aside about possibly getting married.

It broke my heart to accept that every generation of LGBT youth from now on will enter dating with a mind toward marriage, and presumably monogamy. I’m not so bitter I can’t recognize the progress in that, but I’m grateful that wasn’t the way to be gay back in my day.