When I told people where I was going this weekend to address the student LGBTQA Center’s 7th annual dinner for LGBTQ History Month, everyone raised an eyebrow: “Nebraska??” In truth, I raised my own internal eyebrow when I got the invitation through Campus Progress, the youth arm of the Center for American Progress in Washington. Like many New Yorkers, I had a vague sense that people in the middle of our country tended to be polite but not exactly over the moon about gay people. Still, I gladly accepted the invitation and worked closely with Pat Tetreault, the director of the LGBTQ Resource Center at University of Nebraska at Lincoln, to plan the talk, “Is Queer the New Normal?”
Having spent four lovely college years in the mid-west, I did come to Nebraska with a somewhat clearer understanding of the reality in between the coasts than some fellow Easterners have in their imaginations. Having also recently researched an article on same-sex marriage for which I spoke to many people involved in the successful effort to win marriage equality in Iowa, I also understood that the old-fashioned values of respect and freedom that characterize many in the red states can go far toward securing a positive climate for gays and lesbians. Sure, hate and intolerance, fanned by the hollering and screaming of the religious right, mean the national climate is far from positive enough for far too many. But the vast middle of the country may be doing a bit better on this front than many think.
I wasn’t disappointed. Lincoln is a university town in Eastern Nebraska, so it is, like many college towns in red states, something of an island of tolerance and enlightenment in an ocean of, well, not so much. That said, the whole lesson here is to not assume that gays will face hostility any time they find themselves outside a coastal metropolis. It’s the same argument many of us have been making about the military, and the new social realities among gays and straights serving together in uniform. Far more than it used to be, gay is ok.
Of course, the thrust of my talk was that it’s not enough for gay to be ok. GLBT have not spent decades fighting for freedom and equality just to become more like straight people. And no, this does not mean, Pat Robertson, that we want to destroy America’s institutions and cast away all restraints to make way for a Dionysian paradise that will take America down like the Roman republic. All it means is that the experience of being a sexual minority may help us nudge the majority to realize better, healthier ways of organizing society—like, say, not basing future laws, policies, and practices on outdated models of repression and denial. This is the outrage of “don’t ask, don’t tell”—not only that it offends notions of American equality and undercuts our security, but that it flies in the face of our noblest aspirations toward freedom, honestly, and integrity.
In Lincoln, I was a guest at Professor Barbara DiBernard’s introductory class on gay studies, where I was treated to smart, hard-hitting questions about Michel Foucault’s influence on Queer thought and public policy, among others; I addressed 30 students at the Queer Students Association, where I spoke about the Palm Center’s model of high-impact research; and I read from my book at the campus bookstore. And last night I addressed 200 students and other members of the community at a Marriott ballroom. It’s hard to imagine getting that kind of crowd for a queer talk in New York!
What moved me most about my trip to Lincoln was the support of straight allies there. From the het couple who asked me to sign a book to their infant daughter in hopes that, when she was old enough to read it, discrimination against gay people would be history, to Steve Vossler, the towering straight Army veteran from the tiny town of Friend, Nebraska, who introduced me before my talk and honored those fighting to lift the ban as “warriors for social justice.”
So in 48 short hours, I’ve become a Cornhusker. Perhaps only in Lincoln, Nebraska can you wait to board your plane in a lounge full of red-clad football fans watching a game against Iowa State (where gay couples live marriedly ever after) eating a muffin that the airport woman (having actually answered, “peachy” to my “how are you?”) took the time to heat up.