Today I sent poetry books to reviewers across the continent. I gave thanks that I’ve finally found a home in the world of nonprofit literary publishing. I felt honored to serve our poets and readers—to be the loom that holds the warp and the woof of our community together. Today I took comfort in words of power, wisdom, and joy.
Today I threw back a shot of whiskey with the bearded, beefy bartender at a gay bar. He’d spent his whole life in this city, while I am still a stranger, yet he welcomed me with a drink and a hand of friendship. Today I took pride in my brotherhood of mutants and weirdos.
Today I ate a cupcake named after the Devil, which I bought for the sole purpose of pissing off the Vice President. In another place, in another time, it would have been called a “red velvet,” yet here and now, it has been renamed to take ownership of our grievous faults. Today I feel no guilt for this delicious, red-velvety goodness.
Today I sent messages of love and support to my loved ones near and far. Our bonds are stronger than the miles between us; our friendship deeper than those who would revile us. We are young; we are not as young as we once were. We are financially secure; we are barely scraping by. We are male; we are female; we do not believe in binaries. We are people of all faiths and unfaiths. We are immigrants and emigrants. Today I reaffirmed that we all belong here.
Today I made breakfast and took out the trash. I did the dishes and balanced my budget. I scheduled an eye doctor appointment and responded to emails. I checked the mailbox and swept the floor. I brushed my teeth and added items to my grocery list. I drank more than two cups of tea. I continued to do what needed to be done.
Today I sought out new communities and ways to get involved. I beefed up my cyber-security and brushed up on my Constitution. I read up on ACT UP! and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. I reminded myself that patriotism means never settling for an imperfect union, and that justice is not justice until it serves all.
Today I read a powerful theological statement by #DecolonizeLuheranism, written in the tradition of the 95 Theses, defending my faith from those who would sell out Christianity to a false doctrine of hatred. I reminded myself that the Gospel’s message is Love and service and Light for all people, and that anyone who preaches different does not know Christ.
Today I gave thanks for the earth that provides for us, for the arts that feed our soul, for the journalists who keep us informed, for the teachers who keep us thinking for ourselves, for the doctors who keep us healthy, for the soldiers who have sworn to keep us safe, for the officers who protect our communities, and for the protesters who hold them accountable. Today I gave thanks for all the blessings and joys in my life.
And I will do all of these things again in four years. No matter what happens, no matter how the winds may blow, I promise myself here and now that on January 20, 2021, I will have as boring and mundane a day as I did today. I will not let history destroy the seeds I am planting today.
My life in four years will not look the same as it did today: no two moments can ever be the same. But I will continue to love and create, to share and pray, to lift up and fight back, and above all give thanks.
Steinbeck is never quite able to bring himself to say that he was often disgusted by what he saw on his journey, but the reader is left with that impression. Indeed, one puts down this book aware only of how prophetic it really was, and how America continues to wrestle with the problems raised in its pages. –Jay Parini
My summer book this year was John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie In Search of America. I meandered through the memoir over several months, savoring a chapter or two before bed in between my own travels and tribulations.
Travels With Charlie is one of Steinbeck’s most popular books, so I’ll refrain from writing a detailed overview of his journey. Instead, I’ll say that on the whole, I thought it was a delightfully charming story of a writer and his dog on an Epic Road Trip across these United States at the turn of the 1960s.
Two things stuck with me about Steinbeck’s memoir: 1) Steinbeck seemed very much ill at ease with the growing conformity of American culture in the ’50s and ’60s; 2) that man sure did love his poodle.
Towards the end of their journey, Steinbeck and Charlie arrive in the South. Steinbeck admits that he has not been looking forward to this leg of the trip: “I am not drawn to pain and violence,” he writes, acknowledging the bitter fight over desegregation, yet Steinbeck knows that he must see this pain and violence first hand if he is to find an answer to his guiding question of “what are Americans like” in the year 1960. Steinbeck continues: “And the South being a limb of the nation, its pain spreads out to all America.”
To a certain extent, this seems true of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, given how Selma and Montgomery lead to demonstrations across the country and eventually to the iconic March on Washington. Conventional wisdom holds that the South was the heart of racism in this country, and that ending segregation there would eventually lead to a land of equal opportunity.
Trouble is, racism was never just a Southern problem.
Note that two of those hyperlink citations in that last paragraph were from official US federal statistics, namely the Bureau of Justice and the 2010 Census.
Now, this is a complicated sociological issue—one that I am hardly qualified to explain. I’ve tried to keep my personal biases out of this post as much as possible, sticking only to personal observation (“they are tired”) and hard statistics (anything with a number). We can debate the causes and solutions for these numbers until we’re blue in the face, but the fact remains that they’re there.
Fifty years past the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement, and we still do not live in a country where blacks and whites are treated as equal. If we did, those numbers would be roughly the same.
At this point, an unapologetic racist might bring up these numbers as evidence that black folks are inherently inferior to white folks. I don’t buy that for a second.
Neither did Steinbeck.
In Travels with Charlie, Steinbeck tells the story of the Coopers, a “Negro family” (remember, this was the 1960s—that word was acceptable then) that lived in his hometown of Salinas, California. Mr. Cooper ran a successful trucking business, and Mrs. Cooper was a mother hen of sorts for the neighborhood kids: “good for a piece of gingerbread anytime we wanted to put the hustle to her.” Their three kids were the pride of the town: the eldest son was a star athlete, the middle son was the smartest kid in his grade, and the youngest “was all smiles.”
“Beyond this giftedness,” Steinbeck writes, “the Cooper boys were my friends.”
Steinbeck goes on to say that if anyone had spoken to him with horror at the thought of a black man marrying a white woman, he, Steinbeck, would have laughed, because it seemed obvious to him that the Cooper boys were too close to his family to want to marry his sisters.
During his visit to the South, Steinbeck thinks back to the Coopers and his own experiences with race. He writes:
I realize now that there was something else about the Coopers that set them apart from other Negroes I have seen and met since. Because they were not hurt or insulted, they were not defensive or combative. Because their dignity was intact, they had no need to be overbearing, and because the Cooper boys had never heard that they were inferior, their minds could grow to their true limits.
That, I think, more than anything else, is critical. If you tell a child that s/he is “less than”—if you tell a girl that she’s “not smart enough” to become an engineer or a gay kid that he is
an abomination” or a non-gender-conforming child that zie is “a freak” or a young black man that he’s “a thug who will never succeed in life”—it is going to mess that kid up.
As reluctant as I am to buy into the whole “you can be anything you want to be when you grow up” mantra,* I think it’s something that kids need to hear.
We don’t need to tell kids that they’re “special.” We need to tell them that they’re normal.
We need to tell them that no matter what life throws at them, no matter how hard it gets or how much it sucks, they are strong enough to succeed.
Steinbeck’s story of the Coopers struck home for me, because it is very much a reflection of my own formative experiences with race.
As I’ve written before, I did not grow up in a part of the country that you might call “ethnically diverse.” When I was in junior high, there was exactly one black student in the entire school district,* and her name was Chelsea Watts.
Chelsea Watts was a badass. She was lightning smart, she was an all-state choir singer, she was a member of the National Honors Society, and she earned the title of Montana Junior Miss in 2003. She also starred in several high school theater productions, which I suppose isn’t that much of a compliment, but when I was twelve, the high school theater program seemed like Broadway.
She was pretty much my hero.
In my eyes, Chelsea Watts was normal. She was part of the same group of overachieving high school seniors that I one day hoped to join.
Of course, my family moved before that could happen, and then I became a teenage slacker, but that’s a story for another day.
Point is, in my mind, black folks were just as capable of excelling as white folks. It wasn’t until college that I started to recognize how that wasn’t always the case. Under all the statistics, woven into the fabric of all of the stories of hardship in America, I realized that society itself tells a story: white folks in general, white men in particular, are likely to succeed. They were born ready to win the American Dream. If they don’t, they are failures.
As for everyone else? Meh. They’ll accept what they can get. As for the few who manage to “break out” of the box society builds for them, well, we’ll treat them as exceptions–or better yet: as proof that the American Dream is available for everyone.
That story is old. It is tired. It no longer holds up under scrutiny.
It’s time for a new story.
We need institutions that defend the rights of every individual, regardless of the color of their skin. We need institutions that encourage every child to follow their passions, regardless hard it may be for them to get there.
We need more stories like Tiffany Aching, the young girl who decided to be a witch even though she was born to raise sheep and make cheese.*
But most of all, we need to keep searching. Every one of us needs to find our own answer to the question of “what Americans are like.” We need to change not only our institutions, but our actions, our biases, and above all else, our hearts.
And until then, until we can learn to extend compassion to every one of our neighbors, our search for “what Americans are like” will continue.
The other day, I saw a link to Mr. Roger’s final speech on my Twitter feed. Fred Rogers defined compassion for generations of American children, including me. In his show, he taught children not to be afraid of people who are different, and he encouraged children to believe in their dreams.
Way to go, Chelsea! I, for one, am looking forward to your next role.
~~~ *In a nutshell: my basic problem with this mantra on its own is that it ignores aptitude, access, socioeconomic status, and skill—all of which can, I think, be compensated for to some degree, but it takes a lot of hard work, determination, assistance, and luck.
Hence the concept of “privilege”—or, to put it in nerd-friendly language, some players get to start life on Easy Mode by default and their choices affect future difficulty levels. Others don’t have that option: they have to start life on Overkill Mode. BACK TO POST
* That I knew of. There may have been others, but I don’t remember. BACK TO POST
* Did you seriously expect me to miss an opportunity to give a shout-out to my favorite Discworld character on the day her final book was released in the United States? BACK TO POST
Caution: This post contains tongue-in-cheek media criticism, casual activism, extreme nerdiness, obscure comic book characters, and an excessive use of adjectives.
So lately, I’ve been reading Marvel’s The New Mutants. They’re an X-Men spinoff, only instead of fighting super villains like Magneto and bigotry, they have slumber parties, inter-dimensional hijinks, and teenage feels.
So in the hope of heading off yet another instance of questionable Hollywood casting decisions à la Aloha, I offer my dream cast for the New Mutants movie:
Devery Jacobs as Danielle Moonstar (a.k.a. “Mirage”)
This one was tricky. Danielle Moonstar is the tactical leader of the New Mutants. She is fiercely independent, righteously angry, and immensely proud of her cultural heritage. Danielle is Cheyenne, one of the Plains Indian tribes, so the ideal choice for this role would be a Cheyenne/Plains Indian actress.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find any. (Smarter than Google? Leave suggestions in the comments.)
I was, however, able to find this:
1:45: “You two have got to be the dumbest Indians since Bugs Bunny put on a headdress.”
If that’s not a Danielle Moonstar line, I don’t know what is.
Olivia Tennet as Rahne Sinclair (a.k.a. “Wolfsbane”)
I’m cheating a bit here, because the only redheaded Scottish actress I’m familiar with is Karen Gillan, and she’s already been cast in a Marvel-related property. Also—I’m sorry, fellow diversity advocates—I can’t really buy Gillan playing a young teenager at this point in her career.
I cast Olivia Tennet for three reasons: 1) she’s a terrific actress, 2) she’s capable of portraying teenaged characters with awkward social skills and interior conflict, and 3) she’s pretty much the only reason I watched Power Rangers: RPM.
Rahne is the youngest member of the New Mutants. Her power is that she can turn into a werewolf, and her secondary mutation is deep-seated psychological trauma. Rahne was raised to believe that she was a demon, which led to her isolation and stunted emotional development. Even after joining the New Mutants, she doesn’t quite know how to relate to other characters.
In short, she’s Dr. K with mutant lycanthropy.
Tristan Wilds as Roberto de Costa (a.k.a. “Sunspot”)
I’m putting my foot down on this one: Roberto de Costa is a) black and b) Latin American. He should be played by an actor who is a) black and b) Latin American.
“I get offered a lot of black roles, because apparently I don’t look Latino enough.” (New York Daily News circa 2003)
For those of you who need more convincing, Bobby de Costa is also devilishly charming. Here is an interview with Tristan Wilds in which he is devilishly charming:
Constance Wu as Xi’an Coy Mahn (a.k.a. “Karma”)
Xi’an is a difficult character for a number of reasons. She’s been inconsistently written, her name is unpronounceable in Vietnamese (disclaimer: I’ve forgotten my source for this one—feel free to “well, actually” this in the comments), and her backstory has more than a few unfortunate implications.
So I say this movie is the perfect time to reinvent her. She could be the New Mutant’s sardonic mentor: a mutant who is very much like the rest of the team, only couple years older, wiser, and with a wit so dry that her one-liners have been known to cause droughts.
What better way to reinvent a historically problematic character than by casting one of the most visible Asian-American actresses in American media?
Justin Deely as Samuel Guthrie (a.k.a. “Cannonball”)
Good lookin’, all-American boy from Kentucky. Nigh invulnerable while blastin’.
Josh Hutcherson as Doug Ramsey (a.k.a. “Cypher”)
I almost cast J-Hutch as Cannonball, but then I remembered how Peeta’s feelings of inadequacy in The Hunger Games line up perfectly with Doug’s feelings of inadequacy in The New Mutants. Few actors can pull off the self-deprecating shy kid act as well as Josh Hutcherson.
Cypher is a great character. He has one of the most useful superpowers (he can hear/read any language and understand it almost instantly), he’s a programming wiz kid, he’s self-sacrificing, and best of all, he’s best friends with my favorite New Mutant…
Danny Pudi as Warlock
Oh, yeah! Now that’s what I’m talking about.
Warlock is the best Marvel Character of all time period. He’s an alien computer organism who has difficulty with pronouns and tries to make friends with an airplane. Everything he says in endearingly awkward.
I’m guessing that Warlock will be entirely CGI, and I can’t think of a better person to base his looks off than Danny Pudi. Pudi’s already proven that he can do endearingly awkward, so all we need now is a vocal synthesizer, a few million dollars worth of visual effects, and we’re golden.
Last but not least, we have…
Dakota Fanning as Illyana Rasputin (a.k.a. “Magik”)
A sweet, innocent child corrupted by a hell dimension into a sarcastic, semi-demonic young adult who is constantly struggling to overcome her dark past. If you don’t see the resemblance, I’m not sure I can help you.
So there you have it: my dream cast for The New Mutants movie. I don’t expect 21st Century Fox to follow all (or any) of my suggestions—eight main characters is a lot, even for a superhero movie.
If nothing else, I hope that Boone and company stay true to the spirit of the New Mutants: these are characters whose ethnicity informs their character but, when they’re well-written, it does not define them.
The New Mutants are native, Asian, mixed race, European, alien, female, male, gay, straight, and everything in between. And as many (many, many) critics and social commentators have said countless times before, so is the movie-going public.
It’s about time we had a superhero team that looks like the rest of us.
Bonus casting not pictured: Hayden Panettiere as Amara Juliana Olivians Aquilla (a.k.a. “Magma”). They can save her for the sequel.
Okay, not really, but I did go for a walk just about every night. On my own. In the dark.
This wasn’t a big deal to me. The streets were well lit, for the most part, and it seemed safer walking at night in the suburbs than in the woods near my parents’ house. For one thing, I was far less likely to run into a mountain lion.
Others saw things differently.
One of my friends insisted that I send her a text after every time I visited her after dark, so that she’d know I walked back across campus alright. Every now and then, the adviser to our school’s LGBT group would encourage us to practice the buddy system. Once, a member of our group admitted that he didn’t feel safe walking around the city on his own.
I’ve written about queer issues before, which is weird, because I honestly don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my life through that lens. But every now and then, I’ll see something—or I’ll hear something—and it’ll resonate.
I’ll hear it, and I stop for a moment. I ponder.
And then I write.
Last month, Brandi Carlile released her fifth studio album, The Firewatcher’s Daughter. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, the best flarking album I’ve heard since 2012. There is not a single song on this album that I don’t like—and that’s sayin’ something.
Admittedly, I’m biased: Carlile’s style fits perfectly in the middle of the Venn diagram of my musical interests. It’s a little bit country,* a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, with soaring vocals, booming instruments, and lyrics you can sink your teeth in.
It’s pretty great.
I could easily do a track-by-track review of The Firewatcher’s Daughter, listing every single reason why you should be listening to this album. But I’m not gonna do that. For one thing, I don’t have the time.
But I do want to talk about one song.
At the very end of the album, after all the ups and downs, the head-boppin’ rockabilly sing-along tracks and the quieter, more introspective love songs, Carlile closes with a cover of the Avett Brothers’ “Murder in the City.”
This song hits me hard every time.
I can’t speak for other queer folk—as usual, I can only speak for myself—but man, oh, man, does this resonate.
I started this post with an anecdote about how I used to walk alone at night. I still do, sometimes, but not often. See, I’ve moved a few times since then. I don’t know my new neighborhood all that well.
When I walked alone at night in college, I’d be lying if I said I was afraid. Likewise, if I’m walking alone in the city, I may stop for a second to pull the rainbow bracelet off my wrist, but it’s not because of fear—not exactly.
See, there’s this little voice in the back of my mind, and every now and then, that little voice calls out, “Hey! Unknown territory. Better be careful.”
‘Cause something could happen.
I’m sure some of you have already figured out where this is going. If not, look down about a paragraph. You probably won’t be surprised.
In 1998, Matthew Shepard was murdered. He was found tied to a fence post, pistol-whipped, his brain stem crushed, his shoes missing. He died a few hours later.
Regardless of why it happened, Matthew Shepard’s murder caused a wave of outrage, calls for tolerance, and debate about the safety of queer folk in America. Even ten years later, as I was slowly starting to peek out of the closet, the LGBT community continued to talk about Matthew Shepard.
“That could’ve been me,” I thought. That could still be me.
Now, settle down, kids, I’m gonna put on my lit major hat for a moment and pull out another familiar LGBT-themed story. Again, you probably know where this is going.
The tragedy of Brokeback Mountain isn’t that Jack Twist dies. It’s not a Romeo & Juliet story—well, it is, actually, but not in the way that most people think. See, Romeo and Juliet didn’t die of the inexorable forces of society. They didn’t die because of fate. They died because of their choices.
Brokeback Mountain is a tragedy because its characters chose to end it that way.
Throughout the short story, Jack asks Ennis to start a new life with him. The two of them And every time, Ennis says no. When Ennis was young, he was told that if two men were to ever shack up together, they’d be beaten to death by a tire iron. For Ennis, being “a queer” can only end in death.
After years of unsatisfactory rendezvous and a falling out that both men knew was coming, Ennis gets the news that Jack Twist is dead. And the tragedy is, because he never took Jack up on that offer, because he let the two of them drift apart, Ennis will never know the truth of what happened to Jack.**
In Ennis’s mind, it was the tire iron.
I read Brokeback Mountain for the first time back in 2009, shortly before I came out. I knew I was gay, though I didn’t want to admit it, and this story helped me figure out why.
I was scared.
I got over it. Eventually. Most of the time.
I walk the city streets more or less without fear, but every now and then, that little voice in the back of my mind reminds me to be cautious. Because if it happened to Matthew Shepard and Jack Twist, if it’s happened to other queer and trans* folk in my area, there’s a tiny chance it could happen to me.
It’s an anxiety that I don’t think is shared by most straight, white, cisgendered folk—not straight white men, anyway, I’m guessing.
“If I get murdered in the city,” sings Carlile, and it’s an anxiety that feels real, even if it’s remote. It’s something we have to think about. We can’t control that little voice in the back of our minds.
For the most part, Carlile sings the song exactly as it was written.*** Except for one line:
Make sure my wife knows that I loved her
Make sure my daughter knows the same
And always remember there’s nothing worth sharing
Like the love that lets us share our name
Brandi Carlile is married. She has a wife. And they have a daughter. More than anything else, that’s the line that gets me. That’s the line that resonates.
*By “country,” I mean the ol’-timey Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn brand of country, not that bro-country stuff comin’ out of Nashville these days. **Proulx’s text, and to an extent Ang Lee’s movie as well, is purposefully ambiguous on this point. We, the readers, never know which version of Jack’s death is true. ***By a straight, white, cisgendered man, oddly enough.‡
‡As far as I know.
Okay, this essay on protests is taking longer to write than I had hoped. Bottom line: I hope, with all the protesting going on in regards to Ferguson and New York, that this outrage might be channeled into a movement for lasting change.
My hope is that, eventually, the communities of Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere will turn their anger into action. I hope that the protests will transition into dialogue—that protesters (especially white protesters) will listen to the stories of both people of color and the law enforcement officers whom they are protesting.
I hope that community organizers can identify specific policies that they want to change or implement: insisting, for instance, that every police officer must attend mandatory anti-racism trainings, or that the grand jury process be investigated for (and potentially restructured to avoid) racial biases. I hope that protesters will be willing to form broad coalitions with existing organizations who may already be working to make these changes. I hope that the people protesting will meet with their lawmakers in person to convince them to act.
I hope that these communities will eventually find a way to rebuild trust between the police and the communities they serve. Most importantly, I hope that this movement will focus on how these communities can move forward.
Moving forward does not mean forgetting. It doesn’t even mean forgiving, necessarily. Moving forward means accepting the pain of what happened and using that pain to work for the future.
My other thought on all this is that, while I absolutely agree that racism and police brutality are systemic issues that affects many different communities, I question the idea that we can find a blanket solution to End Racism And Police Brutality In Every Police Department Everywhere All At Once. I don’t think we can wave a magic wand and solve this problem overnight. I don’t think the solution will be the same for Ferguson as it will be for, say, Pittsburgh*.
I think every community in America is going to have to figure this one out on its own.
Also, while we’re on the subject of acting locally, Seattle’s new police chief was hired specifically to address issues of excessive force and biased policing. I ain’t even know why y’all are protesting. Yes, it’s a work in progress, and yes, I get the solidarity factor, but hey, at least the city is trying. Let’s give them credit for that much.
*Re: Pittsburgh: I honestly have no idea what’s going on in Pittsburgh right now. I’m using the city as a rhetorical example. Please do not blame me if the next news story to come out in all of this is about the shooting of an unarmed black man in Pittsburgh
God bless Michael Brown.
God bless his family.
God bless his friends and his loved ones.
God bless every person who knew him and loved him and grieves his death.
God bless Darren Wilson.
God bless this officer of the law who has dedicated his career to protecting his community.
God bless this man, whom I truly believe acted in the way that he thought was proper.
Please understand that I am not condoning his actions; I only mean to say that, while I cannot know his thoughts in that moment, let alone understand them, I think that he thought he was doing his duty.
God bless Dan Wilson’s family.
God bless Michael Brown’s family.
May neither live in fear of harassment, retribution, or vigilantism.
God bless the protesters who are shouting for change.
God bless these women and men of all colors who are tired of injustice: who demand an end to the systems of oppression that tear us apart.
God bless these protesters who, in their righteous furor, have been known to disrupt traffic, damage property, and frighten small children.
Bless them in their righteousness, yet help them to keep peace in their hearts at all time.
God bless every officer who has acted in the moment, trusting his or her instinct to serve and protect.
God bless every person who has been wounded or killed because of officers trusting their instincts.
God bless our lawmakers who decide the policies that govern our communities.
God bless the officers, lawyers, judges, and juries who uphold our laws.
God bless every citizen who participates in America’s democratic process, be they a voter, a taxpayer, a protester, a lawmaker, a police officer, a social critic, or all of the above.
May we one day learn to write laws of compassion: laws that work to restore our communities, instead of laws that punish the guilty or presumed guilty.
God bless every mother who fears that her children will be sold drugs in school.
God bless every mother who fears that her child will be kidnapped, injured, or murdered by gangs.
God bless every mother who fears that her child will be arrested under false charges or slain by a person claiming self-defense.
God bless every mother who fears for her child.
God bless every person who feels anxious about crime.
God bless the homeowners who worry about property damage.
God bless the mortgage payers who worry about the cost of their home depreciating.
God bless the shop owners who worry about their stock being stolen, because that lost property will make it that much harder for them to stay in business.
God bless these men and women for their financial concerns, because I know that deep down, they are worried about losing what little they have.
God bless every person who believes that racism is over.
God bless every person who knows that it isn’t.
God bless every person of color who lives in fear of police brutality.
God bless every police officer who lives in fear of being killed in the line of duty.
God bless every person of every color who desires to live in peace.
Help us, O God, to heal.
Help us to learn how to talk about race.
Help us learn to recognize the deep wounds that racism has created in our communities.
Help us learn to recognize that these wounds have yet to heal.
Help us to learn how to have difficult conversations about acceptable levels of police force, about public safety, about how we can work together to make our homes safe for everyone.
Help us to understand each other’s feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, bitterness, sadness, and joy—yes, joy. Help us to celebrate our joys together, in those rare moments that we recognize them.
Help us to learn that no one’s feelings are invalid.
Help us to learn to acknowledge each other’s pain.
Help us learn to forgive.
Harper Lee once wrote, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” She is a very wise woman. Please help us learn how to follow this wisdom.
Help us to understand each other.
Help us to heal.
Disclaimer: this post contains broad generalizations, unpopular opinions, and potentially incendiary language. The author apologizes for any factual errors or misrepresentations. He makes no apology for his plea that basic human decency be shown to all parties involved in this tragedy.
Warning: The following is not a traditional coming out story.
It has been roughly five years since I came out of the closet. A lot has changed in those five years, both for me personally and for the world around me. When I came out, I made a list of all the things I wouldn’t be able to do: get married, join the military, visit my partner in a hospital, give blood, adopt. I could get fired from my job in most states, including the one I grew up in. I could get thrown out of my home.
Things have changed since then. DADT was repealed, DOMA’s been struck down, the Ninth Circuit is striking down states’ same-sex marriage bans left and right; adoption laws are still wonky, but at least hospitals that receive federal funding (which is most of them) allow same-sex couples to visit their loved ones and make end of life decisions.*
By all accounts, life is better for most—not all, but most—lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in America. Even transgendered individuals, who for so long had been thrown under a bus by the “LGB” equality movement, are slowly finding recognition and acceptance.**
I mean, the blood ban on men who have sex with men is still in place, but who cares about that? Saving lives? Pshaw.
A lot has changed in the last five years. One thing that hasn’t changed: people are still coming out.
Today, October 11th, 2014, is the 26th Annual National Coming Out Day. HuffPost describes Naitonal Coming Out Day as “a time for both celebration and contemplation” for queer folks and their allies. They describe today as an opportunity to engage in conversation about identity, as well as a time to encourage others to be honest about who they are.
I’ll leave that last one to Sara Bareilles:
This song is now stuck in your head. You’re welcome.
It’s been five years since I started telling people I was gay. Five years. That should be enough time for me to have gained some perspective on the whole coming out thing.
I’ve heard people talk about how coming out was “liberating” for them. I don’t understand that. On one hand, yes—absolutely yes—opening up about who you’re attracted to makes life so, so much easier.***
But I wouldn’t use the word “liberating.”
I’ve heard a lot of talk about the “coming out process”—the confusion, the hiding, the anxiety, the decision, the preparation, the moment, the aftermath. I’ve heard people talk about why they came out and how their loved ones responded. I’ve heard people describe their coming out experience as “visceral,” which I think is a way more accurate word than “liberating.”
Liberating, for me, is like that scene at the end of Aladdin, where the genie is suddenly free of his shackles. It’s like that moment in a fancy wedding when doves are released. It’s a sudden moment of exhilaration: a surge of adrenaline, a feeling of weightlessness and joy.
For me, coming out wasn’t like that. What I remember most from that period wasn’t joy: it was anxiousness. If anything, after I started telling people I liked dudes, I felt more anxious than when I was keeping my identity a secret. What if they’re only pretending to be okay with it? What if they’re secretly judging me? I got over it, but it took a while.
There was no “releasing the doves” moment.
I don’t remember my coming out experience fondly. I was lucky in that everyone I told accepted me with open arms. But inside? I was a wreck. See, even when people react positively, just getting to that point takes an awful lot of courage.
How does it feel to come out?
Imagine that a rabid wolverine lives in your chest. Just go with it.
That wolverine has been sleeping for years, which made it pretty easy for you to ignore that it was there. Sure, every now and then it would stir—like when you had to change out in the locker room for the first time—but over the years, you got very good at pretending it didn’t exist.
Then one day, you find yourself in a situation that you never expected. Maybe you fell in love for the first time, or you find yourself in the middle of a conversation about gay rights, one that’s forcing you to take a side, even though talking about homosexuality is the last thing you ever wanted to do. Either way, after that moment, the wolverine starts waking up. Suddenly you can’t ignore it anymore.
The wolverine starts clawing at your stomach. It pokes and prods, making you feel like you’re about to throw up. Then it starts scratching at your ribcage, slowly, patiently, but with growing fervor. It’s getting impatient: it wants out.
Meanwhile, this tempest is raging on in your head. After years and years of denial—”I’m not like that!” “it’s only a phase!”—your mind surges with thoughts and emotions you buried away. Your first thought is “I can’t.” I can’t tell anyone. I have to keep this a secret.
Your second thought is denial: I ignored these feelings for a really long time. If I keep ignoring them, maybe they’ll go away.
Then, if you’re like me, you grieve.
I can never have that life I’d dreamed about now.
Hopefully, eventually, you’ll realize that this is a lie. Your dreams haven’t died; they just need to be adjusted a bit. Instead of a husband, wife, and a white picket fence, maybe it’ll be two husbands, or two wives, or you’ll realize that you can live your dream all by yourself.
But in that moment, you have to let go.
Please note that I am not linking to a certain award-winning song from a certain animated movie, which was made by a certain corporation, which is most often associated with a certain cartoon mouse
You decide to confess. You have to tell someone. The wolverine relaxes—for a moment.
Time passes. Maybe a day, maybe a month, maybe even years go by before you’re ready. Eventually though, you just say, “fuck it” and you start to tell people your secret. And in that moment, that pesky wolverine makes itself known.
Your heart pounds like you’ve just run a marathon. Your palms sweat like a seventh grader at their first junior high dance. An invisible monkey plays bongos on your head. All the while, the wolverine claws through your stomach. It hurts like hell, and you just want it to stop. As the words “I’m gay” pour from your mouth, sounding awkward and wrong when you say them out loud, it feels like a part of you is dying.
In a way, it is. You’re not keeping secrets anymore.
Everyone experiences this part differently. Some people felt like a weight had been lifted off their proverbial shoulders. For me, I felt a mix of anxiety, fear, regret, pride, embarrassment, nausea, exhaustion, and relief. More than anything, I was glad that it was over.
Until the next time. Because unless you out yourself to the entire world on national television (hi, Jodi Foster) or post your coming out video on YouTube (hi, teenagers with way more courage than I had at your age), you have to keep doing it again and again.
Fortunately, it does get easier. After a while, you can even joke about it:
On the whole, my coming out experience was messy and painful, involving way too many internal organs. It was downright unpleasant.
And no, I’m not giving up on that wolverine metaphor. It was that uncomfortable.
My coming out experience wasn’t fun, but at the same time, it was something I needed to do. Five years ago, my life was just starting to come into focus. I’d just transferred to a new school. I’d started writing regularly, hoping to eventually make a career out of it.**** I was living in the dorms, meeting lots of new people, and making some amazing friends. Best of all, I was living true to myself. How many people can say that?
A lot has changed in the past five years. For the most part, I live more openly now than I ever could have imagined back then. I don’t talk about coming out much anymore (to borrow a phrase from my friend Kevin, it’s kind of making a big deal about something that really isn’t). Most days I don’t even think about it.
But today is special. It’s an anniversary of some sort, and a national occasion to boot.
Coming out wasn’t fun. But if I had to go back in time, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
UPDATE 10/28: I forgot to mention one very important thing about coming out. After it was over, after I’d gotten the words out, I no longer felt like I had a wolverine trying to claw its way out of my chest. So that’s good. Not quite “liberating,” but it’ll do.
For advice on how to come out to your family and friends, visit one of the following websites:
~~ *Providing they have a living will, a marriage license, or some other document proving they have power of attorney.
**Transgender equality is, of course, a work in progress. I’m optimistic, is what I’m saying.
***And by “easier,” I mean in the sense that openness and honesty are way less stressful than lying, hiding, and constantly monitoring yourself for Freudian peni slips—I meant slips. “Freudian slips.” Yessir. That’s the ticket.