“Freedoms of opinion and expression are the treasures of America but sheltering one another’s prejudices toward gays or Muslims under the banner of liberty works for the injury of our union.”
This is a guest post from Erik Peterson of Denver, Colorado. He originally wrote this on November 22, 2010. You can read more from him at beholdthesky.blogspot.com.
I was westbound on Denver’s 16th street mall bus last Friday, ready to meet a friend for some adult beverages. The bus approached market street’s transit station and on my right a small-but-mighty gathering of Denverites was stirring, listening to a mo-hawked woman with a megaphone. All the ingredients were there: picket signs, strange but still charming looking punks-my-age, and a smattering of Denver metro police, so I got off early. The first sign to become legibile through the shuffling on the bus and the crowd outside read, “your homophobia will be the death of me.” The second declared, “there were no suicides, just murders.” I’d only stood there a moment, wishing I had a better camera phone when someone blasted into a whistle and the 60 or so listeners hit the deck. On the ground they froze. People whom I suppose were organizers made their way person to person with a bit of chalk and traced each silouhette onto the concrete. They were a garden of 187s. I half expected some passerby to come up behind me, curious, and disappointedly mutter, “god protests are gay.”
I’d stumbled across a flashmob born on facebook. But instead of off the cuff Blackeyed Peas or a fist-pumping Journey rendition, they were there to recognize a war on certain personhoods, to proclaim that when we trade ‘nigger’ for ‘faggot’ and tout our progress, we deceive ourselves something terrible. Five deaths in three weeks, has been the headline, five gay individuals so crushed by the weight of their tormentors that no future peace was worth enduring the now.
Shame is a likely culprit, and guilt very well may have lent itself to the inward-out rotting of Justin, Asher, Tyler and other victims of suicide. You can bet anger played a role, as well as confusion or maybe isolation. And somewhere in it all, wedding together every taunt and jeer offered them by the world as it is, a particular brand of hopelessness refused each request for acceptance. It’d be foolish to think we could really know the nature of their torture; that knowing is gone with the dead.
We Legislate It…
But on the matter of where that tyrrany wells from, there is no question. We legislate it. Worse, we deify it. Until there is an understanding that we author Tyler’s and Justin’s and Asher’s rejection on the very parchment of our ballots, we will underestimate our assault on this piece of America. It does not take the effort of a shouted slur to conjure up vulgarity, only the declaration that a person’s love is unworthy of an instituion granted to everyone else. How foolish are we to think that passive aggression from the pulpit is anything less than the gallows when the norm is a radical love from on high?
On points like this one, those spaces in our lives where we affect each other simply with our language or what we choose to laugh at or tune in to every morning, we have the frightening capacity to become one another’s disease. I think its reasonable to assume that the worst things we communicate between each other will act as the ceiling to our goodness, that if we hand demagogues the microphone or continue to wallow in the mediocrity of outdated anecdotes about what’s “natural” or “godly” we promise ourselves a future of the same failures we had yesterday. Our language is the masterpiece of our species and yet we take such little offense when someone wields it recklessly. At the moment, America’s loudest rhetors are the one’s assuring us of our entitlements, of our protagonism and encouraging the anger we feel so righteously toward what is different and outside our upbringing. I can’t imagine that the America-lost, so bemoaned by the masses today, was an America that only included narratives which made us comfortable. To me that sounds like a weak America, an America devoid of wisdom or patience or a learning ear. That can’t possibly be the object of our nostalgia.
On the subject of young, gay men and women we need to find ourselves again as the compassionate, empathetic people we have all managed to be one time or another. Allies need to strengthen their allegiance, leaving no doubt over our support of the various communities of sexual orientation. And simultaneously, we need to reign in our own fever pitch, constantly prepared to offer a tempered conversation with anyone willing to reexamine their own views (or ours) on homosexuality.
But in the end, the demonstrators on 16th and Market had really devoted themselves to the exploration of a larger idea. If a quiet prejudice is our baseline, then the addition of some explosive event will quickly bring us from our baseline to abject violence. This includes the discourse surrounding our gay brothers and sisters but it expands beyond them as well. If at the moment, in a brief period of domestic peace, we allow ourselves to think that, abroad, we are at war with Islam, and not terrorism, we’ve stacked the deck against any hope for civility following another terrorist attack. And another attack will come; we will be hit again. The next car bomb in Times square will work. We’ll miss the wired cellphone explosive flying toward us from Al Qaeda in Saudia Arabia or the operative with a bomb in his trousers. Some group will suffer the assassination of a leader and somewhere in the agony our prejudice will recognize the face it wants to blame.
Honesty and Sanity
This month’s elections paraded the power rhetoric has to change the course of a nation, and in the same way, demonstrates how its no small thing that our country’s gay members feel exiled. After all, if unarticulated anger can comprise a platform by which we elect the makers of our laws, then how do you project the result of socially acceptable hate speech? It is not a peripheral piece of the American identity. It is a measurement of our maturity and our agility in a changing world; a litmus for our ability to look outward and make decisions in the interest of our neighbor, to recognize other before self. These are values that divide prosperous nations from those handicapped by civil war and on the wings of the right rhetoric we can move from the former toward the latter at a remarkable pace.
Its noteworthy that our comedians are the ones suggesting a return to sanity. Unfortunately, there’s little comical about a country too self-involved to recognize the commencement of its own decline. Focused on the rightness of self, it is natural that we make enemies of our neighbors one by one - the gay man, the Muslim, they are first on a list which will only grow if we discount the power of reckless speech and pre-violent sentiments. If we are only and always the blameless protagonist when we read the story of the world then anyone diverging from the canon of ‘us’ is made our opposition. What a sad vantage we peer from. We’ve elected officials who bare no qualifications outside the convenience of their rage and those we’ve banished to our margins are finding them unlivable. No progress remains possible if we batten ourselves down, our anger as our company, and try to keep out a struggling world.
I often think the America we remember as the America Of Old didn’t actually exist. We imagine our history to be nobler than it was or worse, we imagine it to have been yesterday, whatever best supports our arguments for tomorrow. In viewing the past and in understanding the present we encourage each other to be dishonest with ourselves.
This honesty has been attacked as liberal self-deprecation, a masochistic affinity for one’s own bleeding heart. But to think, as a nation we have not come to terms – or demanded legal consequence – over the reality of something like the Iraq war. Whether America’s war was ‘right’ or not is still considered a poll-able opinion, somehow disregarding the volumes of information that leave the illegality, recklessness, irrelevance, and strategic bankruptcy of that invasion utterly naked. And its only an example. In any of our personal lives we can recognize that not understanding the spring of our troubles makes solving them impossible. But if we ask why America has become contemptable in the eyes of so many, or going further, how America has positioned itself as a likely target for terroristic acts then we’re singing a traitor’s anthem. How does pitting honesty against patriotism help our cause?
Maybe we need to start asking how we can be exceptional again. We’ve done very well at teaching young people about their entitlements and you can see our reflection in their character. We plant the seeds for the brevity of their attention span, their irreverence for nature, the malignance of their language (and I don’t mean “shit, fuck” I mean “that’s gay, you got jewed”) and we tend the garden religiously. We keep from them the best parts of ourselves because we settle for what’s merely understandable when we have the opportunity of what’s exceptional. Its understandable that we’d become angry when someone proposes to build an Islamic community center near Ground Zero. It would be exceptional to encourage the building of the community center and proclaim that our understanding of the greater religion is not so weak as to be shaken by the perversion of a few. It is understandable to be confused by a sexuality that is not our own. It is exceptional to move through that confusion with dialogue, fellowship, and inclusion. We opt for the convenience of traditional pollution over the challenge of better energy sources. We communicate that diffuse culpability excuses our assault on the environment. American exceptionalism is spineless rhetoric, hollowed and drained by our own obsession with our right to mediocrity. We choose just barely understandable, when exceptional is in reach.
The crises, though, hide amongst us in the now; there is no longer a benign option for mediocrity. Our flatlined sense of self-improvement and stewardship has created violence against our own, an environment wading into catastrophe and a world hostile to the Great American Dichotomy. We need fiscal stability, we need jobs, we need better parenting and safer borders, we need to battle terrorism, obesity and hunger and homelessness. But they are all accessories on our humility, entirely dependent on whether we allow wisdom to inform our work and patience to pace our choices. Five deaths, the headlines say, five pushed far enough away they stopped trying to come back. But its five and counting. In a world of interdependence, endemic selfishness is the greatest tool for destruction. Freedoms of opinion and expression are the treasures of America but sheltering one another’s prejudices toward gays or Muslims under the banner of liberty works for the injury of our union. An individual right to prejudice doesn’t have to mean collective complacency toward it and destruction doesn’t have to be America’s best-wielded weapon. We must ask exceptional things of ourselves, we must be better for each other than we were for Justin, Asher, and Tyler.
Additional Photo (CC) Paul M. Walsh