Notes from a talk delivered in January 2017
I was asked to give a talk to the January meeting of the Business Women’s Round Table, due to my having received the Q Award at last year’s Quadruplicity conference. I didn’t know where to start, so I went back to basics: I started with the here and now, the year it’s been since the conference, the time we’re in right now.
The first thing to say is thank you to the BWRT for the Q award. It was huge, not just for me, but for the gay women in our area for whom this was a big symbolic statement about the ability to be accepted by the mainstream. It was also important for the whole lgbtq population. And it gave visibility and credibility to Cville Pride. While I definitely felt personally proud, the lasting feeling was that this was an honor earned by and gifted to the whole gay community; I just happened to be a representative.
What followed the Q award last February was an odd year. Before New Year’s, it seemed like everyone was decrying 2016 as the worst. But for me, it was more like the Paula Abdul song, two steps forward, two steps back. Like, there was the Pulse tragedy – awful. But then the vigil here in Cville – over 600 people showed up – a beautiful statement of support. There were killer clowns on the loose – but there was Ken Bone at the presidential debate. Our beloved dog got diagnosed with cancer, was given 18 months to live – but then we started spending more time with him, and now we’re going to get a puppy. I got married to the love of my life in a fun and gorgeous celebration – but none of our parents showed up or even want to talk about it, because they don’t “agree” with our “lifestyle.”
And there was the local, controversial issue of the Lee statue.
But this isn’t about the ideologies at war. And don’t worry – I’m not trying to argue one way or the other here. But what happened was the beginning of a personal and painful revelation that is still continuing.
We’ve had the annual Pride Festival in Lee Park now five times, and I’ve lived in Cville since 2001, and truly, I figured my position on race and the Confederacy were “correct.” I was and still am all about taking the sucker down.
But I had never actually heard what it could feel like to see the Lee statue and other images as a person who was black. It never occurred to me that doing so would make it look any differently.
One of my best friends grew up in Georgia and had the confederate flag waving around and symbols used very much as symbols of oppression. Mind you, she wasn’t hellbent to have the thing removed – you get used to it, she said.
And that’s what killed me. She wasn’t horrified by it, like I was. She was used to it. She was used to constant reminders that she lives in a culture that deems her a second-class person because of her skin color. She’s numb. And I felt very dumb.
One of our mutual friends very adamantly reveres the statue and his idea of tradition and history – and told us this, with a sense of panic almost, a sense of threat. She didn’t fault him. I’m used to it, she shrugged. I talked to another friend, and another, and heard the same thing – yes, I see it and I see it as a symbol of oppression, of slavery, of a congratulatory Amen to a system that persecuted people like me. But I’m used to it.
I wasn’t used to it. I felt broken apart on the inside. I cried. It’s one thing to acknowledge, from a conceptual distance, how race or disability or age or anything else affects a person. It’s another to feel oppression from the inside.
I didn’t want her to be used to it – to anything left around out of laziness or erected out of will – that at all reminded her that she lives in a place where people believe and are tolerated in their beliefs that there was something justifiable, laudable, honorable at all in a fight for a way of life whose crucial key was the enslavement of people based on their skin color. And that honoring that is more important than honoring the experience after.
I grew up in California and I will confess that I was a Martin Luther King Jr fan and all my friends were a rainbow of colors and ethnicities and I came to Virginia and thought all this Southern black-white stuff was old and ridiculous and I had an arrogance to me that I didn’t even see that I was beyond racism. Not to mention, as an advocate for equality for LGBTQ people, I thought, isn’t it obvious that I am for social justice for everyone else, too? I thought that was a given. I didn’t just have black friends, I’ve dated black women! Talk about impeccable credentials. Right?
Another definitive experience that i’ve mulled over in my mind. During a Human Rights Commission meeting, I was presenting a proposal to look at bringing together nonprofits and other organizations addressing sexual violence, mostly against women, and I was not getting support from a few women of color. This pissed me off. Not only because they are also women, but because women of color statistically experience rape and sexual assault much more than white women. If it was a cause they should care about, this was it. And yet they were glaring at me. I was livid.
I said something and tensions rose and at a peak moment, this one colleague of mine, in a fury said to me, “You don’t know what it’s like to be born with a black face. From day one, to be treated like you’re lesser than everyone else.”
I actually held my tongue. I was very proud of myself. I was also righteously indignant. I hate when people play that popular game, Who’s More Oppressed? After all, who really wins? Who wants to win? I whined and complained. In my mind, I DID compare the black and the gay experience. Yes, you can’t necessarily hide your skin color; but when you can hide your identity, you carry a burden of silence that can be internally toxic. And sure, maybe racism oppresses you, but does your family kick you out for being black? And anyway, whatever our difference, don’t we share a marginalized status in society? Do we have to choose one over another as more important?
Whatever the right or wrong of my internalized arguments, what I wasn’t doing was actually paying attention to what this dear woman was telling me. For her, there wasn’t a way to separate out being a woman from being black, and I was doing that, unintentionally, with my proposal. I could do it; why couldn’t she? Again – and this was the crucial false obstruction – it didn’t occur to me that looking at things from her perspective would make anything look different.
And I should know better. I have found, over the last five or so years, that my audience as a voice for LGBTQ equality isn’t a bunch of homophobic meanies, but all the people in this area who see themselves as liberal and accepting and don’t care to discriminate and wonder what the big fuss is all about and don’t see how their cushion of privilege separates and defines their perspective.
I had a coworker say to me, There’s no racism in Charlottesville. This white, male, straight, upper middle class, UVA-educated bro nice-guy with a fulltime job, a house, kids, intact family, looked around and didn’t see it, and HE wasn’t a racist, of course, he was a democrat. So why were people complaining? HE didn’t care if I was gay, so why all the fuss?
I was interviewed last year by a reporter who told me how some of her best friends were gay men, so she was ‘in’ on the LGBTQ experience. But I shook her up when I told her about the times that I am afraid to call my wife my wife because I don’t know what kind of reaction I will get. How, even in this blue bubble of Charlottesville, I constantly have a security camera inside my head, watching out, scanning the situation, determining if I’m in a safe space or not. My mother kicked me out when I was 16, and even though we’ve somewhat reconciled, when I got married this last June, she only sent her regrets. That people get fired and beat up, in our area. In Louisa, the gay kids wanting to march with a rainbow in the homecoming parade have faced rocks being thrown at them, and when Cville Pride started planning to support them, a lesbian family who lives in Louisa begged us not to come, because they were afraid it would expose them even more to their already hostile neighbors.
I tell these stories, because I want you, I want people who don’t know, to know and understand why I do what I do, why I am as open and vocal as I am about my sexual orientation, even though I could, if I wanted, keep it under wraps. Because I don’t want tolerance. I don’t want acceptance. I want understanding.
And what I finally realized was that that was what was wanted of me from my friends of color. What I hadn’t done, for all my well-meaning intentions, was see things through their eyes. It was like putting on a pair of glasses. The world looked very different. Through the stories told by my friend, by Brian Stevenson, in a book about the violence experienced by LGBTQ people of color, and I entered into the exercise of empathy. Entering another person’s skin.
Of course, that is the thing. We can’t enter another person’s skin, subjective experience, etc.
We can’t put on a different identity and walk through the world and say we’ve got it. So what do we do? Sometimes activists stop there and leave the fact that we all have limited subjective perceptions as a barrier that no one can overcome. Some people stick with the ignorance, then. This lack of transference becomes a barrier, a divide.
But I think there’s more. I think there’s another way.
Because I believe that, no matter what, we human beings DO share suffering, love, joy, shame – different amounts, different reasons, different shapes – but the essence of being human is something all of us knows.
In October, I met with the Jewish youth group and discovered that some of them also had moments of deciding it was better not to ‘come out’ about their identity – like times when other kids were making anti-semitic jokes – it didn’t feel safe. I had no idea.
After the election I was, like many, full of grief. I felt wiped out. I got pretty depressed. On the one hand, I wasn’t surprised; and when people started to organize to fight for people’s rights in a Trump era, like many, I was a bit affronted – people have experienced the negative affects of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. before Trump. It’s nothing new to us to feel afraid. I was pretty angry and annoyed that somehow NOW people were ready to rise up and fight.
But then I was listening to a radio show. People from around the country calling in, reporting that, since the election, they had seen more violence, more anti-Semitic vandalism, felt more afraid. But then there was one voice. It was a Hispanic, gay man living in Savannah. And he spoke about this fear, but then he said something else. “I didn’t understand the people who voted for Trump, but then I realized, they are afraid. And I know what it’s like to be afraid. So – I get that. I get fear.”
And that changed me. It woke me up. I was feeling so rejected and threatened and rebuffed by the election. Kind of how my mom makes me feel. But I was only thinking about my own experience, and I was letting barriers of experience stand in between me and people I view as not like me.
Which is why women, I think, tend to be more open to people different than themselves. Not because we inherently have more tendencies to empathize, but because we are encouraged to practice and develop it as a skill throughout our lives. And while I think at times we are faulted for this, seen as weak, even among ourselves, I think it is not only a strength but it is the key and critical quality that we as individuals and as a nation need to favor if we are going to grow together and not apart. We need to reframe it – empathy – as powerful.
Maybe empathy becomes weak when we think mistakenly that only one voice can be heard, only one vision followed. And that is our downfall. When our understanding becomes a way to lower our expectations of other people’s behavior – boys will be boys! – giving excuses and pardons to disrespect or to those in power – when we don’t speak truth because we don’t want to offend or disturb or cause problems – our empathy is not then a strength, but the mat we are laying down on. We have to hold people accountable.
Michelle Obama exemplifies this kind of strong kindness that doesn’t stoop to the threats and assaults of haters. It stands up to them and refuses to fight back in the same manner. She remains grounded in her truth, acknowledging other’s, and not feeling like one version has to win.
So I am challenging myself and all of you to develop your empathy, your strong empathy, to live a while in someone else’s story, to find the emotional connections with your fellow human beings. Read books, listen to podcasts, watch movies about/by people different from you. Go to events outside your comfort zone. We have to find a way to connect as humans, to have compassion and empathy for others’ experiences while completely honoring our own.
And we have to give each other a chance. There’s a lot of bashing going on right now on the Left – a lot of resentment, it seems, against do-gooders, mostly white women, who are trying to stand up for others without a lot of input from those ‘others.’ I personally understand what it’s like to be included in forums for women that ultimately leave me out – because the straight experience is just so different from the gay one.
And it feels crappy to have your experience labeled as an “issue” that’s on the appetizer tray or the buffet, for activists to choose to digest at a particular meal.
But as much as I want these people to understand my experience, I have to understand and ultimately forgive them because of theirs. It is annoying to have to educate the straight majority about the queer minority. All the time. Coming out every day multiple times is exhausting.
Yet I would rather be exhausted and annoyed while helping to enlighten and learn and be in relationship with people than off in a self-created, insulated ghetto. Not to say there aren’t times when all I want to do is be with LGBTQ people. But I can’t say I agree with all the judgment of others for not seeing all of their ignorance. I certainly have been ignorant. She who is without sin cast the first stone…