We’ve Got Work to Do

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“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” – Leo Tolstoy

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hand down a decision on whether or not same-sex marriage will be the law of the land.  Let’s hope they don’t do something stupid (like Citizens United).  It would be a mistake to think that our work is done, even if the Supreme Court does the right thing and makes gay marriage legal in every state.  We still have a lot of work to do, much of it on a very personal level.  We won’t be in a post-homophobic era, just as we are not in a post-racial, post-feminist, post anything era.  To think so is incredibly myopic, and plainly insensitive.  We are right in the muck, where we have always been.

A prevailing statistic is that ten percent of the population identifies as gay.  My shrink believes it may be closer to 25 percent.  From my own vantage point, I think many, many people are at least a little bisexual (and I include myself in that category, as well).  So it is understandable that so much of the hate comes from so much fear. Fear of one’s own feelings.  Fear of what you have a hard time understanding, even in yourself.  We need to work on that.

Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist, and a gay man, has made this call in a piece he wrote last week:  “Do Gays Unsettle You? Same-sex marriage, Republican Scorn, and Unfinished Work.”    

In his piece, he says we seem to have come so far, and yet.  And yet.  “When (my boyfriend and I) are walking down the street after a long dinner or a sad movie and he slips his hand in mine, I tense. I look around nervously: Is anyone staring? Glaring? I feel exposed, endangered, and I’m right to, even here in New York, even near my apartment on Manhattan’s epically liberal Upper West Side. Just two years ago and two blocks from my home, an inebriated young woman who spotted us shouted: “So you’re gay? These two are gay!” She went on and on like that, for what seemed an eternity.

It was the booze talking, sure. But sometimes alcohol is a truth serum, stripping the varnish of etiquette to reveal the ugliness beneath.”

Snark and shaming seem so often to go together.  Now I’m going to tell you some of my own stories.  They are not nice stories, but I want people to think about their own reactions to gay people, and for those who have similar stories to know that they are not alone.

Last fall sometime, I went to the opera with my father.  We were sitting up in the balcony in a middle row, my dad to my right, and some empty seats to my left.  While we were waiting for the show to begin, I heard very distinctly a young woman behind me to my left say “Big dyke”.  It was so clear that I’m guessing she would have had to lean down a little bit towards me for me to hear it.  I don’t think my father heard.  I just ignored the comment.  I don’t know if that was the right thing to do, but I thought reacting to it would just get ugly fast.

I live in a nice, upper middle class liberal neighborhood. I often hear words like “dyke” and other hostile discussions of gayness in this neighborhood.

Now, if you’re using the “d” word, (or any slurs used for gay men), that is not only rude and unseemly – it is aggressive.  You are aggressively putting down a whole group of people.  If you are loudly and belligerently trying to guess who is or isn’t gay – that is aggressive.  You are trying to shame someone for not conforming to some silly notion of how you think people should look or act.  And in all of this – it says more about you than the people you are targeting.  You’re a bigot, plain and simple.  Gay people (and people you think are gay) make you uncomfortable.  Not only do they make you uncomfortable, you don’t think they have a right to exist, in many cases.

More stories.

I attend a Unitarian Universalist church (UU) – the most gay friendly church there is, right?  Last year the youth group performed a song for the congregation, Macklemore’s “Same Love” which in its lyrics supports gay marriage.  It was nice.  They did a good job.  But – the girls in the group sang the first verse, when in fact it is Macklemore, a male, who sings it.  The verse goes like this:

When I was in the third grade I thought that I was gay,
‘Cause I could draw, my uncle was, and I kept my room straight.
I told my mom, tears rushing down my face. . . .

Now, it’s true, I don’t know the back story.  Maybe the girls wanted to sing the verse.  Maybe it was out of range for any of the boys.  Or – given the context in which we live, was there some fear of singing it because of the lyrics?  Afraid, even in a UU church, that someone would think they were gay?  That is how powerful this societal fear is.  It infects us all.

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(A side note here:  I saw on Facebook that Macklemore performed in concert in a Hasidic Jewish costume, with an exaggerated nose.  Obviously he is not bigot-free either. )

Once, in this UU church, I went to sit down before the service.  I heard some whispering behind me, but I didn’t hear what was being said.  When another friend came and sat down beside me, I heard the man from behind say loudly, “There’s another one.”  In a separate incident, I was leaving the church, and a young boy was holding the door open.  He said, “Here’s a big one,” to one of his friends, as I thanked him for holding the door.

I hope I’m not being petty for sharing these stories.  And I have a lot more stories than these.  My point is – even when you think you are liberal and open-minded, ARE YOU REALLY?  This is the kind of tough work I’m talking about.  This is the work we need to do.  We need to go to the (figurative) desert, wrestle with our demons, and come out the other side.

There are plenty of things I need to change about myself – not letting others’ bad behavior bother me so much, for starters.  I admit to being constantly disappointed in humanity, and I need to fight against that.  Still, I know each of us can be better.  We shouldn’t just rest on our liberal-minded laurels, but struggle with the darkness in our hearts.

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It’s All Greek to Me

What do we know and when do we know it?  I worry about these questions.  In fact, I have an on-going discussion with a friend about this, and we puzzle over what we truly know in life (less and less, it seems, as time goes on).  Some people seem to know what they’re talking about, but do they really?  In the broad scheme of things, do we really know shit?  Possibly not.  Some of this may be that we have too much information swirling around, and it’s hard to retain any of it.

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For example, my sister and her husband came for Christmas, and since they drove from the Boston area to Indiana, listened to The Odyssey on the way.  This may not seem the lightest form of entertainment, but my sister is a theatre director and is always looking for back story when she directs plays.  And her husband is an incredibly patient man.  So – The Odyssey.  My sister had lots of questions for us – figuring out who is who in the mythological Greek world.  She told us the story of Tantalus, who stole ambrosia from the gods, and was punished for it (I don’t know what the punishment was – I’ve been on Wikipedia THREE TIMES already).  In a fit of pique, Tantalus decided to show his displeasure to the gods by cooking up his son in a stew and serving it to them at a banquet.  The gods, being pretty smart, knew what he was doing, and punished him again, this time sending him far down into Hades, to stand in a pool of water that disappears whenever he is thirsty, and under a luscious vine of grapes that is always out of reach when he is hungry.  We get the word “tantalize” from him.  Tantalus was just the beginning.  He was the father to Atreus, who was father to Agamemnon and Menelaus.  I think it was Atreus who served up his nieces and nephews in a casserole to his brother because his brother was sleeping with Atreus’ wife.  Hence the term “Curse of the House of Atreus” and it just continues from there.  Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia so that there will be a wind to take his army to Troy.  His wife, Clytemnestra, is understandably upset by this, and plots to kill Agamemnon.  Then their son kills Clytemnestra to revenge his father.  Man, this stuff is better than Dr. Phil.

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But it took me THREE TIMES looking it all up to get it right.  And, I bet you, a year from now, I’ll have to look it all up again.

I went to the great city of Chicago last weekend, and made several trips to the Art Institute.  It’s a wonderful museum, filled with old favorites and new treasures.  Thinking about my lack of knowing anything, I was determined to find something in the museum, some interesting tidbit, that I would remember for all eternity.  So – while looking over the beautiful things in the American Decorative Arts section of the museum, I came across little silver boxes.  At first, I thought they were snuff boxes.  But no – as the write-up stated – they were “Patch Boxes” – a place to put your facial patches that were all the rage early in the 18th century.  People – both men and women I think- at that time would carry around little pieces of black paper or black cloth to use as beauty marks to cover up blemishes.  The write-up also said that these beauty marks meant different things, according to where you put them on your face.  For instance, a black mark by your eye would indicate “passion”.  Fascinating!

An old friend I visited in Chicago, to whom I was complaining about not knowing anything, said that it would take a PhD in some field to have access to that kind of minutiae at your fingertips.  Perhaps that’s true, but I don’t want a PhD.  I don’t want to be focused on just one area for my entire life.  I’d much rather remain a dilettante, knowing a little of a wide variety of things.  But the point here isn’t just to show off your knowledge.  That’s not what I mean.  I think a broader knowledge of history, religion, societal mores – all kinds of things – informs our decisions today.  I think we do things better if we have a broad understanding of life, the world, and its people.  The more we know, the better we can be, the better we can make things for everyone.  I think, too, that knowing something of the past can be humbling, and we, as a society, could use a little humility.  We are not the apotheosis of civilization, after all.  People did many amazing things long before we were around.