Note – Four months after this post was written Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO. Like everyone else, I’ve been following the reports about that and the many subsequent killings of citizens of color on Twitter and via established news outlets such as Time and MSNBC. Also, sometime in the interim, I began following Victoria Brownworth on Twitter. She reports on discrimination and violence against women. All I can say is that I understand DeRay McKesson’s comment on watching the events in Ferguson unfold: “Nothing I saw looked like America to me,” and one by Shaun King, which I saw just this morning, following the mass shooting at the EmanuelAME Church in Charleston, SC: “LISTEN – If you ever wondered what you would do if you were alive in the Civil Rights Movement, NOW IS THE TIME to find out. NOW. RIGHT NOW.”
Some people may wonder why I’m so concerned about the civil rights of the LGBT population and seemingly not very concerned about those of women, people of color, the Jewish population, or any other group in this country that’s historically been singled out for abuse.
I would be more concerned about those things if this wasn’t here and now, and I am concerned about those groups too, but I’m a product of my environment. I grew up in a middle class household with a stay-at-home mom. We took a weeklong summer vacation every year, National Lampoon-style, piling into the car and driving to an entirely different place: up into Canada, over to New England, or over to California and then down into Mexico. (They gave me the choice of destination for a day trip from L.A. – San Francisco or Tijuana. I chose the latter. You just fell over dead, didn’t you?) The point is, we also happened to have a Latino surname. When offers came in the mail trying to sell us discount phone plans to Spanish-speaking countries, we had no use for them. When the mailings were written in Spanish we took mild offense. Did they think we couldn’t speak English? That we weren’t citizens? Did they treat people with other “ethnic” names that way? Idiots.
When I was four we moved to a Jewish neighborhood. There are several synagogues within walking distance of the house. The Catholic church we attended was too, though we always drove to it. The point is, in this Jenny-from-the-block scenario the majority of my friends were Jewish. At school there were kids from, literally, all over the world. Korea. Germany. Egypt. Greece. Iran. The Philippines. India. Israel. But after school? There was a period of time when it seemed all I did was attend one bat or bar mitzvah after another. When I hear someone stereotype Jewish people, my reaction is always the same: Idiot.
The principal of our elementary school was a quintessential professional who you could tell made education his career because he was passionate about the subject. He was serious and commanding and it was clear that it mattered to him that we all did well. His skin was black. One of my favorites teachers was, too, as were some of my friends. When I encounter someone who says something racist, I always regard them as a cretin. Again: Idiot.
My mother was one of the strongest, most outspoken women I’ve ever met. So was my grandmother. Many of my female teachers were no slouches either when it came to taking charge of a situation. There have only been a few times in my life when I’ve perceived that I was being judged by my gender alone. My reaction has always been surprise, followed by amusement: Wow. What an idiot.
When I was nine, my mother and Michael Kearns became friends. I’ve gone into greater detail about those days in earlier posts, mostly back in 2013, before I started the short story review project. Michael was the first openly gay actor in Hollywood. Coming out almost destroyed his career, and it had already wreaked havoc on his personal life. No one with real authority stood up for him, or for anyone like him.
In case you missed it, that’s the difference. With other groups I’ve always felt as if the members of society at large were all on the same page, and it was just a few backward folks who didn’t get it. But no one I saw on the television or heard on the radio said discrimination against LGBT people was wrong. I watched it happen over and over and over again. Effeminate men were the only visible ones in pop culture, and they seemed to have been given admittance only to be used as the clowns of the sitcoms and game shows or the villains of the silver screen and movies-of-the-week.
If you didn’t live through it, if you are growing up now, I don’t know how you will possibly be able to understand how pervasive the discrimination was, how silent the world was in those days. That’s exactly how it felt – silent. People who were gay were in hiding, and those sympathetic to their plight had to be careful about voicing their opinions, because doing so was likely to stir up the hornet’s nest and get someone they cared about stung.
And then the AIDS crisis hit. I lost three friends. You may have lost a hundred times that. One is too many. The only good thing that can be said about that time is that people were emboldened to throw down the gauntlet and say “You know what? I’m not being quiet anymore.” Silence = Death. ACT UP. I’ve said it before and I’ll surely say it again: Harvey Milk was right. The more that people stand up and let the world know that they or their loved one is “like that”, the faster it will change. And yes, I do remember the day he was murdered. I do, indeed. I’d just turned eleven.
The first “date” I ever went on was with a boy who got picked on for being effeminate. There was never any attraction. We were friends. We went to see a flamenco dance performance by my former ballet teacher, and then we walked along one of Chicago’s many neighborhood beaches and he came out to me. He described a hellish home life. I don’t know what ever became of him. I’ve looked for him online, but can never find him. I hope he is alive and happy. It’s the best revenge.
Right after I moved here a friend of mine lost the job she’d had for several years because her workplace got new management and her new boss didn’t like “that kind”. There was no recourse. There was eight months of being unemployed and nearly ending up homeless.
The guy I was dating back then made a friend at his new job. He invited us to dinner, where we met his wife and young son. Not too terribly long after that the wife left him because she’d fallen in love with another woman, and then that second woman lost her job when her employers found out she was a lesbian. She sued, and it made the national news. It didn’t get her the job back, but at least someone noticed she’d been fired. The case finally was settled six months ago. It only dragged on for sixteen years.
Right before that national news story broke, there was another. Ellen shocked the world by coming out. Now, it’s a throw-away line at the end of an interview. (I realize it doesn’t feel that way to the interviewee.) Then? Missing airliners get less coverage than her decision to speak the truth did. No one knew what that decision would really mean. Had she just gambled everything and lost?
Next, Matthew Shepard was murdered.
This is why I am so concerned about “the new civil rights movement” and seemingly not very concerned about the older ones. I have taken lots of little stands for those populations, like loudly objecting and then walking out of a bar after a person in the party I was with cracked a “joke” based on the color of a person’s skin and her friends saw nothing wrong with it. I was also employed for two decades at a theatre that presented a lot of works dealing with those other civil rights issues. We presented The Diary of Anne Frank three times while I was with the company; another play about the Holocaust; plays about slavery; about a Jim Crow South; the civil rights movement of the sixties; Jackie Robinson’s struggle; genocide in Bosnia; the horrors of child labor, and more. It was work I loved, but do you think I didn’t notice that we never did a play that dealt with LGBT issues, despite it being of personal importance to top tier management? I wasn’t in the room when those decisions were being made, and I can envision only two scenarios. In the first, it was never even brought up for fear of backlash against the aforementioned individual, who, as they say, had a horse in the race. In the second, it was proposed but someone higher up deemed it too risky for a TYA company to cross that line. Someone said no.
No. You will be silent.
Yes, there are lots of battles still to be fought. This is the one that most strongly resonates with me, but make no mistake: if you show up on my turf, thinking to roll back the clock on any of these issues I will meet you at the gate, I will not back down, I will not let you win. Though while I’m at it I will, no doubt, look about as menacing as Justin Bieber did in his mug shot.