As a black man, as a homosexual, Governor Pence, I know what hate smells like, and no matter how many interviews and press conferences you give where you go around in circles, prevaricating when you should be giving answers, the fact is your hate is not new.
Your hate might have worked forty years ago; maybe even yesterday. But no, motherfucker - not tonight.
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Walter Lee: We’re just telling you ‘bout the gentleman who came to see you this afternoon. From the Clybourne Park Improvement Association….He said the one thing they don’t have, that they are just dying to have out there, is a fine family of fine colored people!
Mama: Father, give us strength. Did he threaten us?
Beneatha: Oh - Mama - they don’t do it like that anymore. He talked brotherhood. He said everybody ought to learn how to sit down and hate each other with good Christian fellowship.
Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin In the Sun
Last May I married a man.
When you get married, you have to go down to the City Hall and get a marriage certificate. The Office of the City Clerk is just as bureaucratic and unattractive as any other government office – in fact, it resembles the Department of Motor Vehicles. And like any other government office, you will take your number, you will wait in line, and if your paperwork isn’t in order, you will leave in frustration.
But as you walk up the steps to go inside the building, you are aware that this bureaucracy is unlike any other. A woman sells bouquets of flowers from a small cart, a smiling man offers to take your photograph or act as a witness. When my partner and I find the marriage bureau, it seems as if we’ve walked through the wrong door and crashed an office party. What makes the Office of the City Clerk unique is the celebration in the air, the sense of jubilation and possibility; the first step of a legally recognized union.
I don’t know what it’s like to get a marriage license in very small towns, but in Manhattan, it seems like everyone is represented here - this could be the City Hall in heaven. It’s Friday and the office is buzzing. I stare at the couples around me and imagine the details of their lives: an Asian man adjusts his best friend’s tie, a black woman wears a spray of flowers in her hair surrounded by women who can only be her sisters, her groom flashing a winning smile as they pose for a photograph. There is the small Latino boy, holding onto his uncle’s legs, standing beside his aunts and teasing his sister who wears a white dress and pink ribbons in her hair. And two gay men stand beside each other in tuxedos, with their group of friends, holding hands and laughing as a blonde woman with a Prada purse takes their picture.
I take in the scene with the wonder of a child. I feel I have somehow stumbled on an underground city which I never knew existed. Some of the couples have come for a certificate and will leave soon after, others will stay and get married right there at City Hall. There is a funky little backdrop with an image of the New York skyline for photographs, and even a tiny gift shop. Some families bring plates of food: one woman speaking a language I don’t recognize hands out tiny cakes to the members of her family.
If you want to, you can be a snobby New Yorker and judge the guy who probably didn’t have enough money to buy a suit that really fits him and borrowed one, the woman wearing the stockings that don’t match her dress or shoes, the glitter handbag, the over-applied makeup. You can scan the couples and speculate who “had” to get married, who’s been married before, who looks as if they will probably be divorced within a year.
But somehow you don’t want to be cruel or shady here, because everyone, whether rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, is on the precipice of a life-changing moment, and they all look touchingly vulnerable. Maybe it is the mixture of anticipation, nervousness and hope that makes them all look a little beautiful to me. There are hundreds of stories that walk through these doors each week, and while some will end in disappointment, in this moment we all have in common the hope for real happiness, the promise, at least on paper, of happily ever after.
When our number is called, I watch like a hawk the man who helps us. He’s a burly guy with a gut who looks as if he enjoys his beer while watching the football game. I know even while I’m doing it that I’m stereotyping him, but he just doesn’t look like the kind of guy who has any gay friends. I imagine him telling his wife, laughing, “You won’t believe these two black and white gay guys who came to get their marriage certificate today.” I wait as he pushes the paperwork towards us for the slightly downturned mouth signaling disapproval, the eye-roll to the heavens, the deep, put-upon sigh. There is none. When the transaction is complete, he gives us our copies, and says enthusiastically, “Congratulations, gentlemen, and good luck!” then adds, “You have a great weekend now.” He is so supportive that I’m now wondering if I misjudged: maybe he’s friendly because he’s a big old closeted queen, “a friend of Dorothy” (Gale and Zbornak). It can’t just be that he’s straight, professional, genuinely happy for us, and that the world is changing.
We walk out of City Hall and feelings rush at me at once. As I watch the families celebrating together, a grandmother rocking a crying baby in her arms; the two young women sitting together wearing vests and matching bow ties; a man standing with his brothers, all big macho men joking in their tuxes, and throwing fake punches at each other as the camera clicks, I feel overtaken by a surge of anger. I’m furious because until the laws changed in New York, this place and its magic were withheld from me, and in some cities in America, they are still being withheld from people like me. And I’m thinking, queer people need this place, the fact that we are excluded feels like another assault on the queer body. Mind you, I’m not a marriage pusher, but we need to be able to come here, to support our gay and lesbian friends when they get married and, when it’s right, and if we choose, to get married ourselves. We need someone to bake cupcakes for us, to adjust our ties to make sure we look right, to be able to hold our nieces and nephews in our arms as they smile into the camera. We need someone to say, “I wish you every happiness in the world.” We need to know the law protects us.
I snap out of my reverie, remembering to be happy for my partner and me. He kisses me and takes my hand as we walk down the steps to leave. He’s already calling me “hubby”, and introduces me to colleagues as his future husband. The nomenclature excites him; I’m still fine with partner. Husband, for some reason, grates and feels regressive - probably too many women’s studies courses in college. Having state and federal rights in New York, however, feels like a major victory, historic, and I’m enjoying every minute of it, even when a niggling thought in the back of my mind reminds me that I’m feeling grateful for something I should have had in the first place. Because of discrimination, some gay people have never seen the office of the City Clerk, and if politicians like Mike Pence are able to have their way, never will. It rocks me to the core, the entitlement of it, the deep unfairness of it. It doesn’t make sense - and never will - how someone, because of their “religious belief” or bigotry, can justify depriving someone else of their civil liberties, of their right to joy.
I’ve never planned a wedding before, and I’ve only been to two weddings in my life. So for the first two days as wedding planner, I sit with notepad in one hand and phone in the other, unsure where to start or whom to call, dialing numbers, then hanging up before anyone answers. Now that we have told the world we are getting married, everything seems to need to be done right now, from finding a caterer to designing the invitations, deciding on a cake, choosing the types of flowers, and the final number of guests, always the final number of guests. Finally, in exasperation, I pray for help, find a random caterer, and begin talking to a stranger about mini potato pancakes with dollops of sour cream, proper china versus ordinary plates, and how many people may want coffee at the reception.
There must have been a wedding angel looking after us, because one night early in the planning I went out to the terrace of our apartment building to take a planning break, stretch my legs, and look at the lunar eclipse. A black gay man in my building, a casual acquaintance, was waiting to watch it too, with his camera. He greeted me warmly, as if we’d planned a secret late-night meeting. The subject came up that his husband is a top-tier events planner, which I didn’t know, and that they had just gotten married themselves the year before. Two and half a hours later, on a wooden bench in the night air and under a blood moon, I finally had the advice I’d been looking for, about wedding food, drink, overall etiquette, sending invitations. He shared garden-variety disaster stories, including his own, which were both cautionary and, at times, hilarious. He warned me about hugging people too close, especially women wearing too much foundation (his white suit was almost ruined by a family member), about blustery men who make pontificating speeches at dinners and how to shut them down, and reassured me that I didn’t need spirits - a decent wine and champagne toast were fine. Speaking with Adrian was such an extraordinary coincidence that I joked with my partner later: middle-America may not want us to get married, but God certainly does.
Someone else who certainly did was a thirteen-year-old girl in my partner’s church who, after hearing that we were getting married, offered to be his “groomsmaid”. My partner looked intrigued, laughed and said, “I didn’t know that term existed.” Stacey shrugged and replied, “I just made it up!”
It was an offer we couldn’t refuse, as the package came with her six-year-old sister as flower girl, and her brother, nine-year-old James, as our page. When I met them all in church the following week, the kids seemed more excited about the wedding than we were; James did a clapping, skipping dance to give us a taste of what he had in store for us at the reception. With his straw-blond hair, he looked like a tiny white scarecrow doing an impression of Michael Jackson, and Emma, our flower-girl, simply hugged me outright. They restored my faith that this generation, if they are allowed to, doesn’t want homophobia and hatred; they want happy gay people and to have fun.
On a certain level, planning a gay wedding is just like planning any other; a heady mix of pure elation and pure insanity. And every couple fights over the details at some point. More than once I thought, If you can survive the planning of a wedding, the marriage will take care of itself. There were arguments and adjustments and revisions, and revisions of revisions, and the requisite family drama. And what was supposed to be an event months and months away, was suddenly only a matter of weeks, and then next weekend.
I slept fitfully, at first having lovely fantasies of everyone dancing, eating, and having a wonderful time. But these images were often edged aside by equally compelling nightmare scenarios of everyone tumbling out of the church doors with food-poisoning; the sound guy forgetting that essential power cord which meant no dancing, so we had to sing folk songs all night; someone drunk making one of those interminable, embarrassing speeches Adrian warned me about, forcing me to throw a shoe to knock the offender unconscious; or my partner or I getting hit by a bus on the morning of the wedding. We end up having an impromptu funeral instead of a wedding because, hey, everyone’s here anyway, so why not save on travel costs?
What gay people may contend with, that straight people won’t, are the unanticipated pockets of internalized homophobia that pop up from time to time when you plan to get married. They hit you like airplane turbulence, and force you to sit down. As marriage is about tradition and family, a tradition that has been withheld from us for so long, strange feelings may come up. And you may be surprised and a little ashamed, especially after years of activism, to know that a homophobic voice still exists inside you. It suddenly occurred to me at one point as I was choosing fonts for the names on the wedding invitation that I was a man actually getting married to another man. (I can see my inner fourth-grader, circa 1979, listening to his friends on the playground trading shocking stories about “faggots” at recess. At the mention of two men kissing and getting married to each other, they exclaim in union: “Eew, gross!” and “Disgusting!”)
This is when a phone call from my sister or my best friend, who couldn’t have been more supportive, would restore me to sanity. And like that evening on the terrace with my neighbor, the support sometimes came from the most extraordinary places. The woman at Cartier who helped us surprised me with pre-wedding advice: when I went to pick up our matching rings, she said gently, “Now, there is so much that will be going on that day, and you’re going to be tempted to think about taking care of others or worrying about what’s going wrong or went wrong - and something always goes wrong. But remember, the day goes by so fast. So keep the focus on each other, and just enjoy yourselves. You have a lifetime to worry if you want to, but take your time, because it only happens once. Hopefully.” She winked, and told me that in her case, her third wedding was the charm, and we laughed enough to attract attention from other customers.
I don’t know if my mother would have said those words if she’d been around for my wedding day, but I was grateful to this woman and thanked her. I wasn’t entirely successful at calming down, but her words stayed with me, and got me to slow down from driving in the Indy Five Hundred to just over the speed limit. And she was almost wrong: everything was perfect, just the way we planned, in fact, except we got stuck in the elevator on the way to the church, all seven of us: two grooms, groomsmaid, flower-girl, page, and their Mom and Dad. As the children’s eyes lit up with the thrill of unanticipated adventure, enjoying the semi-panic on the adult faces and our search for the emergency phone, the elevator jerked back to life. And then we were on the street, my partner and I in full morning dress from head to toe with top hats and tails, our small procession behind us, and a church of friends and family waiting a quarter of a mile away.
My beautiful sister, looking so much like my mother, read an excerpt by Madeline L’Engle entitled, “The Irrational Season.” My best friend, Iyatunde Folayan performed Tony Kushner’s’ “Epistomalian”. I only asked her to read it, but in her hands it became a sorceress’s incantation. Our goddaughter danced a breathtaking piece she choreographed herself to "Oh My Love" by John Lennon. Soprano Diana Solomon-Glover sang a moving rendition of “His Eye Is On the Sparrow”, students from my partner’s college provided a string trio and a choir. We were married by a lesbian priest of color. And against everyone’s better judgment and disbelief that I could pull it off, our dog, an all-white border collie/Samoyed mix and his sidekick, my sister’s black Pomeranian came to the wedding, too; no small feet as they traveled from Harlem to the East Village in a Doggy Cab. Kaija wove a path down the aisle as ring bearer with Femi trotting along beside him. When the guests roared their enthusiasm, he lifted his leg and peed on the floor.
After the service we went out to the courtyard to receive people as the reception was being prepared in the church sanctuary, and an hour later, when we opened the doors to re-enter the church, the only way I can describe how I felt is the scene where Judy Garland as Dorothy opens the door to her "black and white" house and finds herself in the Technicolor world of Oz. It seemed miraculous to me how the space was transformed, the white and yellow roses on each table, the matching four-tier cake with similar confectionery flowers, the tables of people eating and socializing, all our friends witnessing and celebrating our marriage.
The first dance was to Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out”, and after the two of us danced the opening part, we motioned for everyone to join us. I’d never seen anything like it; in seconds we were on a packed dance floor, crowded like a popular club at the height of the evening. There was no cajoling, no pulling on arms, begging guests to please get out of their seats and join us. I turned to my right and saw my neighbor Carla’s eighty-five-year-old mother getting down beside me to Cheryl Lynn’s “Got To Be Real”. Mama, as we call her, was enjoying her own private, finger-snapping groove, a cute dance where she lifts her shoulders, drags one foot a little, then the other. Being the musical control-freak that I am, I chose every song on the playlist (Adrian had warned me about the close-to-blows battle he’d had with the DJ at his 40th birthday party). We danced for hours to everything from "I Wish", “We Are Family” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” to “Safety Dance”, "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic", and “Whip It”; a musical tour of my childhood and teenage years. Any song with auto-tune was immediately disqualified.
Before the cutting of the cake and the champagne, I talked about why, on the back of the order of service there was a collage of photos of gay couples throughout history. The people were unknown to us and some of the photographs went back as far as the early 1900s. It is always tempting to give into the fascist gay body aesthetic that holds too many of us hostage in an attempt to seem fabulous, perfect, unassailable, but I didn’t want that for us. The images we chose weren’t magazine models, weren’t airbrushed, no abs or six packs. There were two women standing beside each other, both white, obviously activists at a rally, in what looked like the late Sixties; a contemporary beautiful black lesbian couple, obviously in love, one holding the other from behind; two white men, one in a cowboy hat and the other in a derby, staring at the camera, their heads inclined to each other; two Depression-era black men, holding hands in an aura of pure tenderness. As one of the earliest photographs, I marvel at their vulnerability and defiance, trying to imagine a black gay life in the Twenties and Thirties, what it meant to take the photo at that time, what it means for me to find it online almost a hundred years later. In a final photo, a black man, six feet at least, holds a smaller white man gently in his arms at what appears to be a political protest.
The pictures were inspired by an older woman from church, who said to my partner when she heard we were getting married, “I knew a gay couple who were together over fifty years, waiting for marriage equality to become law in America. Although they didn’t live to see this day, they would have been so happy for you and Max.” We thanked everyone for coming and emphasized how much it meant for them to witness our union as we remembered all the gay and lesbian couples that had to hide their relationships, who never had any support from their families or the government. “We stand in a long line of same-sex couples in history who were brave enough to live their lives with courage, regardless of the consequences. You stand up for them when you stand up for us.”
And we ate, and danced, and drank, and ate a little more, and then it was over. What I remember most was walking into the church, looking at all the faces in the room and seeing so much love reflected back. And it is impossible to give everyone the attention you’d like. In a room of almost two hundred people, you float from one person to another as if in a dream, and like a dream, people who have flown thousands of miles for one day, family that haven’t been in the same room for ten years or more, sit in your living room playing cards and laughing, and then just as suddenly are all gone, the rooms of the house haunted with their memory. The details of our day may be of interest to some of you, unimportant to others. But it was our magical moment and I wanted to share it here.
And technically, we could have had that day at any point in our twenty-one years together - you don’t need laws to have your friends and family witness your union. What I didn’t understand was how powerful their witnessing was, what it means to a couple to bring the community together, to have them say, “We support this couple, we support their marriage.” I hadn’t anticipated that the next time my partner and I had a fight or felt the occasional weariness that every couple feels, that I would see that room full of people rooting for us, that our relationship mattered to them. I hadn’t anticipated that being protected by federal law meant that I felt a little taller walking down the aisle. I wasn’t the “faggot” we boys laughed at derisively on the playground in our budding homophobic imagination. I was an American man, protected by law, marrying the man I love.
Two days after the wedding, my partner ran into a woman in our neighborhood I’ll call Carol. I have often considered Carol a paragon of Christian charity. Many people talk about doing the work of Christ, but she literally clothes the naked and feeds the hungry; people stand outside her home once a week for a food pantry that she runs, at all times of year, in every kind of weather. Having lived in the neighborhood for over ten years, we’ve watched her adolescent boys grow into men, abandoning their skateboards and catch football games at twelve and thirteen for evenings out with their friends, in leather jackets, goatees and too much cologne. Carol has been an inspiration, a reminder to me that it doesn’t take huge campaigns and declarations to decide that there is a need in one’s community and then to fill it. And Carol is no martyr: to see her prepare her table, one would think she was setting up for a family reunion or picnic. I have never known her not to smile generously to the people she helps, and I imagine it gives her great satisfaction to watch the families walk away from her brownstone every month with plastic bags of food, the ones who count on her to survive.
Our exchanges with Carol have always been casual and friendly. Which is why when my partner walked past her house and she asked after us, and specifically asked about me, he said, “He’s great and so am I. We got married on Sunday!”
In the space where one usually says congratulations, or expresses joyful surprise and exhilaration, maybe even a warm, loving embrace, Carol pauses, and looks thoughtful for a moment. While her usual enthusiastic smile never leaves her face, she says very carefully to him, “Well, you do know that your relationship is an abomination before God, right?” Exact quote.
When my partner tells her that our marriage was sanctioned by the church, that we were married by a priest, she is unmoved, and repeats, more definite: “It is an abomination before God”. In my imagination of what happened, she blurs and goes out of focus as he stumbles away from her. An hour later, after telling me what happened, he is in bed sick with a pain in his stomach. He asks several times, “How could she say that to me? Why would she even say that?” Even more bewildering than Carol’s words is the fact that he is disappointed - with himself. “I thought I was past this kind of thing, after all these years, all the activism. I can’t believe she even got to me.”
He curls up in bed and later I hold a cold cloth to his forehead when he throws up twice. I bring him a warm broth and put him back under the covers. I joke that we promised to love each other through sickness and in health, but if I’d known I was going to get the sickness this soon, I might have backed out. The way we’ve stayed together all these years is through laughing together. He gives me a wan smile, but the humor barely penetrates the fog of his distress. I turn off the light and leave him to try and get some sleep.
I’m pissed at everything now; I’m angry that he’s letting Carol get to him, because that’s easier than feeling gay and powerless, and I’m beyond furious with Carol. The aura of celebration that pervaded the house is soured, like someone snatching the needle off a record and telling everyone to go home at the height of a party. The evidence of our wedding surrounds us – we still have a tier of uncut cake in the refrigerator saved for our anniversary, some of the candy roses line the piano, freshly opened gifts are on the coffee table embedded in tissue paper, a stack of leftover programs is in a box by the front door. And yet the feeling in the room is funereal. If Carol had said the words to me, I might have been irritated and surprised, but frankly, I don’t think I would have been devastated - I really don’t give a shit what Carol thinks. And Carol is a black woman, which adds another dimension for me. She might have pushed me to say what I’ve been itching to say to black evangelicals for some time: I might have asked her how many black gays and lesbians she was going to throw under the bus for her white Jesus, that I’m tired of black Christians using religion to justify hateful beliefs, to keep from making the connection between racism and homophobia. I would have told her that when the revolution comes, white Christian politicians, politicians like Mike Pence, would be only too glad to lock her black Christian ass up with me, a black queer, Jesus or not, because racism trumps religion, as it trumps everything else in America.
But it is easy to say what one would have done; the fact is, her “abomination before God” line might have neutralized me too with the power of a ray gun in a science-fiction movie, taking me to that place of childhood and gay shame where the nun, priest, grandmother, teacher, neighbor, family friend pulls you aside and says some variation of “You know, God doesn’t like who you are.” There is something about these exchanges, these private violations by the religious coward of the child who will never tell and is forced to bear the insult alone, that feels like incest. My partner is in bed because of shame, and Carol’s words were an act of violence.
Carol’s ambush has great timing on her side and my partner’s church background; his father was an Anglican priest, he grew up in the vicarage, he was a choir boy, has made his career as a professional singer who excels at singing Bach (particularly the “Passions”), and he meditates in the morning with an icon of Jesus. And while he is not a Bible Thumper, and often espouses non-traditional representations and understanding of Christ, much of the Bible means something to him as a Christian, part of his faith and his history.
Carol, in one sentence, taps into all of this. And the horror for me is, if she had been a raging homophobe at an anti-gay religious rally, ranting and pushing signs in our faces, we might have been able to prepare ourselves. But because we consider her a friendly neighbor we’ve known for years, because she’s seen us together and we’ve returned from trips with the dog, carrying suitcases together, waved to her, because we are interracial, and black men and white men of a certain age usually aren’t intimate with each other in America unless they are homosexuals, we know she’s known “the deal”. Her words go right to the place that people can only reach when your heart is unguarded and open. I’m less tormented by what she said than by the thought of the smile on her face when she said it.
I crawl into bed with my partner and hold him. I consider Carol, consider us. I fondly imagine she might regret her blunt words, but most likely she walked away from the encounter and onto her next piece of business, maybe chalking up the exchange to another victory for her ministry, as she gave a homosexual the word of “God”. I now recalled an exchange that I’d had with Carol when I ran into her at the grocery store several months before. I hadn’t really thought much about it until now. We were leaving the store together, and I mentioned that I admired her charitable work and she said something about the Lord and asked me at the corner as we were parting, “Max, do you know Jesus Christ?” My first thought was to be sassy, and say something like, “Not personally” or, “I’ve been following him on Twitter for years”, but I know better, my grandfather was a Baptist minister. As a black person, you know where the line is drawn, and I respected Carol. I told her that I admired Jesus as a historical figure and he was important to me as a teacher. This seemed to pacify her – sort of - and she wanted to say more, but I excused myself and said I was late meeting someone. But I was aware at the time that in the years I’d seen her in passing, she’d never proselytized to me before. Perhaps Carol’s religious addiction was getting worse.
I marvel at the arrogance it takes, even to assume one knows what God is thinking, and that one has the right to pronounce on someone else’s life and their experience. Carol would have been proud: I may not know my Bible as well as I should, but the rage I felt at her after our wedding was “biblical” - if it was possible at that moment to send pestilence or a swarm of locusts to hover over her house I would have. And if this is what her religion told her to do to people she considered friends, then what compassion could we ever expect to receive from total strangers? I felt hopeless when I considered the young gay suicides that happen every day because of sentences like “abomination before God” spoken by the Carols and Mike Pences of the world, from platforms all over the country, whether it be in the pulpit, across the dinner table, or at the courthouse, signing bills into law.
As my partner sleeps, I stare at the ceiling and consider this tender, fragile thing called God. I imagine God for a moment not as the pontificating, angry white man image most of us grow up with, but as something else; God as an older black woman, Carla's Caribbean mother, Mama, in orange and yellow scarves and dancing that juicy, sexy, private little dance of hers, the one from the wedding - on a beach, barefoot and laughing with joy under the blue sky she made. I wonder how anyone could bring the “abomination” nastiness to us - a couple whose crime is simply trying to love each other - and have the nerve to call that God.
There are some things you can only tell a stranger. There is a place in Brooklyn where men go to relax. We sit in the steam rooms and sauna baths, and occasionally we touch each other. Sometimes the touch is sensual, sometimes it’s not. In our culture, in which it seems that the definition of a homosexual is a boy or man who still wants to be touched by the same sex after the age of eight, this is a place where a man can come - straight, gay, bisexual - and be stroked (furtively), massaged, and even held, by other men.
He and I are in the steam room alone. He is a Hassidic Jew, I am an African American man. We are naked, in towels. His beard is thick, and his payot, the curly locks of hair on either side on his head, are tucked behind each ear. I have seen him before, watched him dress to leave in the many layers of traditional clothing and wondered if he is a rabbi. I look at his life with great curiosity, and perhaps even a little envy. I’ve seen Hassidic men come to this place, speak Hebrew to one another, the intimacy they share, the kinship, and their lives feel deeply private except to each other. I wonder what it would be like to have this kind of built-in community which I’ve never enjoyed, an impenetrable social network. There are pools here, and when the men play, they sometimes tease each other and splash, laughing like young boys.
As an outsider watching, I have a sense that their world is complete, that they don’t need to know me or anyone else. And yet I wonder if this man ever feels suffocated by this life, if he ever just wants to run away to foreign encounters or lands, something not prescribed by religious doctrine. I also feel a kinship with him as men from cultures heavy with the reminders of a painful past. A few of the men here are Jewish cantors, soothing their voices in the thick steam, and occasionally they sing. Their songs, with different accents and rhythms, recall the mournfulness of black American blues. I recognize the survival hidden in the moan.
We stare at each other, and establish from our sustained glance that we are men attracted to other men. Every time I’ve seen him here he’s been with a man who I assumed was just his friend. Now I understand that this is probably his lover. Our conversation goes something like this: he asks me if I am married because he sees the ring on my left hand and I say yes. He asks how long, and I tell him I’ve been with my partner for twenty-two years, but we got married last May. Oh, he says, you’re married to a man? Yes, I say. We discover we are the same age, forty-four. Are you married? I ask him. I was, he replies, and then clarifies - to a woman. But we’re divorced now.
“Your….guy. He doesn’t mind that you come here?”
“Well, it’s not technically a bathhouse,” I explain, and he gives me a wry smile. “He knows. We’re okay about that kind of thing. We know what the boundaries are.”
There is a long silence, which I feel no obligation to fill. His eyes are deeply soulful, and even though he’s a little fat, like me, has too much facial hair by most gay men’s standards and is balding, I think he’s beautiful.
“My family hates me,” he finally says.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because of this.” He gestures, and I know what he means. We talk about his children who live with his ex-wife across the country. She keeps his children from him because of spite; and she is remarried. I ask if she knows about him, and he shrugs. Maybe. I offer that his children must love him, and he tells me that he can never come out as a gay man without losing everything he knows.
As we speak, the man I always see him with comes in and sits beside him, gently touching his leg. I learn their names. Sitting together, with their matching black beards they are like one of the historic gay couples from the back of our wedding program. I understand now that this is where they meet, and possibly the only place they can meet safely. His boyfriend is married to a woman, too. As they sit together, it also occurs to me that this man is probably the love of his life. His friend smiles and leaves, and we sit together for a few more moments. I don’t ask him, “What are you going to do?” We sit in silence.
Feeling a little helpless, I then offer him my stock gay-empowerment speech, but at least it’s something. I tell him he is allowed to be happy, screw his family, that one day his parents will be dead and he’ll have to consider the choices he made, that what is happening isn’t fair to him, that my therapist after college said to me, “One life per customer”, meaning he has to live his own life, not the one others want for him. If he’s happy, he’ll be a better father to his kids. I try to avoid clichés, which is impossible. There is a desperation I feel to “save him” but I’m not sure from what. Even though as another gay man I know what his life is like, I’m aware I have no idea what his life is like.
And despite the differences of his life, I am his and he is mine. I don’t know all the details of his community, but I know the world we both exist in, and even if, because of our conditioning, he gives into racism or if I am tempted by anti-Semitism after our encounter, there is something we will always share, as brothers: a love of the same sex, and a world that continues, in too many places, to condemn us for it.
“You’re not wrong,” I finally tell him. He nods, far away. A stranger comes in and the spell between us is broken. The parting glance he gives me is heavy with sadness, but he offers a tender smile. We may never share this intimacy again, and outside this room and our shared moment, he may become someone else, someone other than who he’s revealed to me here. Men do that. He may even be shut down, sarcastic, or ignore me completely, my punishment for his showing me his soul. He knows, as I do, that I’ll never see him the same way again knowing he has the weight of this conflict on his heart every day. The things people carry.
He and I are aware that there are straight people who support us, but not enough, and not the people whom this man can’t afford to lose. We are in our tiny corner of the world, but I know that there is a gay teen facing his raging relatives, who will be homeless tonight when he runs away from home, a gay woman being pressured into an arranged marriage, a transgender woman, convincing herself, at least for one more day, to resist the seduction of the suicidal overdose, a politician crafting a bill that will deny gay people their constitutional rights. And all of it is violence –socially regulated, government-sanctioned, self-inflicted. The same world that works against my friend is working me over too. So we come to this place, where it is sometimes safe for men to love each other, but only when we hide.
This is what it takes to make a gay man or woman - you begin with a child. Queer children are biological, queer consciousness takes work. Not everyone makes it. If you are of my generation, you begin with a photo album, a naked baby crawling across a bed smiling her perfection, a child laughing on Christmas morning opening his presents, or blowing out candles on a birthday cake, clapping with delight, frosting everywhere. You begin with the assumption of heterosexuality. You move to the awkward years, the missing tooth, the pimples, the junior high school dances. You progress to photos taken at prom, high school debate, maybe class president. You come out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. You split your life in two - what was intended for you, and what you eventually become - which is what you always were.
In order to get angry about what is being done to you, you have to have an “I” that it is being done to; in other words, you have to have a self that hasn’t been annihilated. You have to be able to access your anger, a room of one’s own, a knowledge that a part of you belongs to yourself no matter what happens, and that if they kick you out of the house, stop paying your college tuition, or threaten to stop loving you - maybe even say they no longer have a child - you will make it, one way or another, carrying your suitcase and walking down those mean streets.
Sometimes the consciousness that lifts you comes from rallies, or classes, or conversations, or art, or a courageous friend, but somehow, piece by piece, you construct your queer life. I’ve argued before, an “out” LGBTQ person in this culture is sometimes a hero, not because one's identity is inherently courageous, but because of the resistance one faces in claiming it. (In other words, you’re going to scrape the bottom of that peanut butter jar to find out who are, baby, or you just ain’t going to make that sandwich.) I’m describing the crisis that forces you to ask, If I’m not what they said I was, then who am I? And the fact that for every one of us that can stand and say I am here to tell the tale, there are a hundred or more who never will or can, because of addiction, institutionalization, family silence, religious bullying, or death. That’s why telling our stories is important, why we must stay coherent.
And we claim them all; the suicides, the drug overdoses. We claim those who didn’t make it, or who were unable to withstand the pain, or whose act of rebellion, whose only “no”, was the violence they committed against themselves. We claim all of us who have stood outside the gates as “faggots” and “dykes”. Some of us have been let in from time to time on a “pass”, invited to stand in the inner circle because we were white, or because we were rich, or successful, or beautiful, or famous, or because we lied and pretended to be who they wanted us to be, or because we promised to create laws to harm the others we knew were like us, or because we promised never to tell them the truth about themselves. But in the end, none of us is allowed to stay at the fair; and no matter how many variations there are of queer life, our government’s response to AIDS taught us that in the end, with the Religious Right, it is about hate. The categories and distinctions mean something, but only to us, and not to the people who want us dead. Because at some point the Republican born-again ex-closeted Christian fairy will take the radical black feminist bulldagger’s hand, or we simply won’t survive.
I don’t know all the elements that marvelously alchemized on the night of June 28, 1969 at the Stonewall Inn. But the biggest factor, as many have speculated, was probably the death of Judy Garland. Even though Judy’s death certificate said she died of an overdose of Seconal, we knew spiritually that patriarchal forces had assassinated her, and had been assassinating her all the way back to her early days in Hollywood - the same forces assassinating us. She was our heart, our gay cantor, and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is a song of queer resistance, the theme for anyone who has been “othered” and longs to escape society’s cruelty, to find a place where they are safe, free, protected, and finally able to be themselves.
There has always been gay resistance in one form or another in this country, but when cops used to raid our bars and arrest us whenever they felt like it, some of us may have felt resigned to the abuse, feeling we were powerless, or that we deserved it somehow. And for too many of us, we had everything to lose if we fought back in courts, terrorized by the idea that one phone call to our job, one arrest published in the newspaper, could mean the loss of careers, families, children. As gay people, we’ve been bullied on playgrounds as kids, and as adults in bars by law enforcement- the places we assumed we were safe, by the people we assumed were there to protect us.
It’s no newsflash that the world is often dangerous for those of us who are considered different. Bullies will sometimes push you farther and farther to the edge of the Earth until there is only a tiny space left that you can call yours. It may only be a cardboard box under a bridge. And you learn to exist in that small box. The agreement is that if you stay small, and don’t ask for anything, and know your place, they will leave you alone. But because hate, while wearing a cloak of intolerance, is really about greed and addiction, they simply can’t help themselves. They want more. And one day, because you made a window inside it and even put up cute curtains, they will even want your shitty little cardboard box. And when they take it, it won’t be enough to have you roaming the Earth, only able to claim your loneliness as your own. They’ll want inside your mind, they’ll want to control your relationship to God, to your sexuality, to whom you can love. Where there is no Earth left to inhabit or people left to colonize, the landscape of greed becomes ideological and spiritual.
One of three things then happens. You either kill yourself, ending the movie entirely, or you become what they want - a self-hating consumer, a dead-inside zombie who worships whiteness, heterosexuality, patriarchy, and uses what’s left of your spiritual power to destroy the rest of the “others”, completing the diabolical intention they have for you. You’ll get on prime-time TV and tell the world about how you used to be a homosexual but God “cured” you, as homophobic parents at home grab a pen so they can send their queer kids to the same religious internment camp that “fixed” you. And your eyes will flash at the camera when you testify. You are insane now, of course, and destroyed, but someone will pat you on the back and call that “born again.”
Or - the third option - like an animal backed into a corner, something finally snaps. A voice inside you says, “Wait just a goddamn minute, you can’t have it all, in fact, you were never meant to have any of it, you have no claim here,” and that’s when a high-heeled shoe becomes a weapon. And you may think, as you hurl yourself towards the unfamiliar danger, “Someone may die tonight, and it may even be me, but I know one thing: no more. Just no more.”
I suspect something of that was what happened at the Stonewall Inn when the cops came in for their usual raid to pick on the motley crew that comprised its clientele: faggots, dykes, sissies, negroes, homeless youth, male prostitutes, drag queens. And somebody thought, with a conviction soaked in the grief of Judy’s death, a grief that eventually flourished into rage: “Judy’s gone. She’s gone. And we’re trying to get our little drink and our little tears on, in this tiny little funky gay bar in the gay part of town and on the gayest street in that gay part of town, and you won’t even let us have that bit of peace, that bit of sacredness. You won’t even let us have that. Well, guess what? You’ve stepped into this church with dog shit on your heels for the last time. Not tonight. Maybe yesterday, motherfucker, but not tonight.”
They fought back, and the world was never the same.
There are some people out there who know the world is changing, and will do anything in their power to stop it. They know that there is real potential for the liberation of gay people, and for an end to institutional racism, class warfare and sexism. They know that there are more of us that want to come together, than stand apart. They know the power of people celebrating at a gay pride march, in the sunshine, and having a good time, loving each other, their sexuality and themselves. They know the beautiful kids in our wedding won’t grow up to hate us and vote for legislation against us unless they are brainwashed.
So they pump more toxicity into the culture to keep us stuck and fearful. They flash our daily dose of terror across the six o’clock news, reminding us that black men are lurking around the corner, that gay people are godless predators. As a woman may be our next president, and more women are demanding an end to sexual and economic violence, we get - and perfectly timed last year - the grossly misogynistic film Gone Girl. Rihanna's new song, “Bitch Better Have My Money,” a phrase usually associated with pimps, and women battered by the men who sexually exploit them, has the singer featured on the cover artwork of the song, not looking like the “powerful” woman the song and its defenders suggest she is, but rather as bewildered, with overdrawn eyebrows, jacket open exposing her breasts - a little girl dressing in Mommy’s closet and caught in the act by Daddy; a girl who was been trafficked as part of the sex trade. It's infuriating and more than a little ironic, the blatant sexism that continues to pervade our so-called, Christian nation, when, as the Reverend Winnie Varghese of St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery reminded the congregation on Easter Sunday last week, the resurrected Jesus reveals himself, not to large crowds of people, or his male disciples, but to a woman - Mary Magdalene, and tells her to go tell everyone else that he has risen.
Reverend Varghese says in her sermon, “There are a lot of things easily called perversion in our country. I disagree…most of the time with what is called perversion. But it’s an important word not to let go. It means…that you take a thing that has a purpose, but you twist the purpose. So it’s used most harmfully and I think in a bias and prejudiced way around sexual orientation and relationship. And it’s pretty straight forward…. that’s just wrong.
“But there are many places where there are absolute perversions of teaching and truth.” She considers Mary Magdalene and her relationship with Jesus. “In many ways her identity is perverted in our tradition, she is disappeared…She becomes the first to know the story of resurrection, and clearly something was compelling about her, because Jesus entrusts this message [to] her. It a perversion of our tradition that we don’t look to women as possibly the place where we would find the message of Jesus…how can you read this [in the Bible], and cast women aside?”
It may seem completely random to some, tossing these bits of sexist pop culture and female empowerment into the gay stew, but we need to realize that the assault on one of us, whether she be gay or lesbian, transgender, or black, or poor, disempowers us all. We are required now to stand up and speak out the minute we get a whiff of hate, whatever group we belong to. We have to be vigilant, we must get angry, and immediately: as one of Mike Pence’s Christian friends should have said to him when he drafted his bill (and there are beautiful Christians out there who support justice for gays), “Come on, Mike, we are better than this.”
My friend Iyatunde calls me after the recent murder of Otis Byrd in Mississippi. She is particularly alarmed because the story of Byrd tied to a tree, suggesting a lynching, interrupts the story on CNN of black student Martese Johnson, beaten bloody by cops on the University of Virginia campus for having a fake I.D. Police brutality and vigilante murder have caused grief upon grief, much like the period in the Eighties where AIDS deaths were so frequent, people were emotionally numb and spiritually overwhelmed from attending three of four funerals a week.
Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, twelve-year-old Tamir Rice. And these are the names we know. Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, Miriam Carey, Shelly Frey, Darnisha Harris, Malissa Williams, Alesia Thomas, Sheerise Francis, Kendra James. The men are familiar to many of us, the women are not. Activist dream hampton told Kate Abbey-Lambertz of The Huffington Post in a February 2015 article entitled "These 15 Black Women Were Killed During Police Encounters. Their Lives Matter, Too.": “The reason why it’s important to center girls and women in this conversation is because the other narrative - and it’s not a competing narrative…it’s just not a complete narrative - is that [police brutality] only happens to black boys and men.”
According to the FreeThoughtProject.com, in the first month and a half of 2015, police officers in the United States had already killed 136 people. That is one person every eight hours. In the United Kingdom, only one person was killed by police in 2014, zero in 2013. In 2013-2014, German police killed absolutely no one. In the entire history of Iceland, police have killed only one person ever. I turn on the television and watch Walter Scott being shot eight times in the back by police officer Michael T. Slager, in North Charleston, South Carolina. The clip is shown over and over again, twenty-four hours, on all the news channels and social media. (It’s become a new genre and form of entertainment – police torture porn.) Eric Courtney Harris of Tulsa, Oklahoma was shot on April 2, 2015 by an officer who claims he meant only to tase Harris and "accidentally" reached for the wrong gun. When Harris tells officers that he's losing his breath, one of them replies, "Fuck Your Breath".
It is clear that, as black Americans, we are under siege. When I ironically ask a friend if the police had gathered together and been formally told they could murder us whenever they wanted to with impunity, unleashing their contempt for black life, he replies, “Yes, it was called Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony.” It's clear this isn’t about law enforcement anymore, this is about rage over the fact that a black family calls the White House home. It is about controlling us through terror and police militarization so that we continue to associate change with fear and violence.
Iyatunde reminds me to be careful when driving at night, to carry the proper ID at all times, she encourages me to get extra water for the house, flashlights, as if preparing for the possibility of a riot in the streets. At first her tone seems alarmist, but what she is doing is encouraging me to look at what is happening in this country, to take care of myself, to “stay awake”. And it’s not just a message for blacks; the days are gone where we can all sit at home and wait for them to call our number, triggering our particular campaign or “issue”. The same political force that is killing blacks in the streets, is murdering queer lives and using the courts to deny our rights; and is determined to control women’s reproductive freedom.
I know there are those who would dismiss this fear as paranoia - it’s so much easier just to go shopping or to the movies; until one recalls Germany in the late Thirties, the warning signs throughout Europe, the storm clouds approaching, and the ones who thought, “We’ve been though this before, this too shall pass.” I consider Kristallnacht, when, seemingly overnight, a society you’ve known your whole life can become unrecognizable, and escape or political change may simply be too late. It seems utterly ridiculous, gay people in concentration camps again, imprisoned or murdered simply for being gay in America (even though it occurs right now in other parts of the world, as it did under the Nazis - the pink triangles we were forced to wear in Auschwitz).
When it happens in this country, it’s going to start with legislation like SB 101, “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act”, and a baker denying a gay couple a wedding cake. A lot of people won’t consider that a battle worth taking to the streets – who gives a shit about a cake? (In 1933 the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” was the first major law under the Nazis against the Jews, denying Jewish civil servants the right to participate in state service.)
Then it will be about who shouldn’t be allowed to teach in a school because she's gay, whose foster children have to be taken away for their own “protection”, whose natural children shouldn’t be in the care of a gay custodial parent because of his questionable “lifestyle”, who has to register as “gay” when simply being homosexual is a sex offence, who is arrested for violating sodomy laws after being reported by a neighbor, and must be willing to be “re-educated” or face mandatory prison time. The adage that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, applies to evil as well.
Which is why the Mike Pences of the world, on their religious crusades, have to be watched, and watched very carefully. Why when they propose and sign legislation like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, they must be challenged immediately and forcefully, and if they resist, impeached, voted out in the next election and sent back, as quickly as possible, to private life. I don’t hate Mike Pence, but unfortunately there is a certain kind of religious person who, because of the nature of fundamentalism, feels it isn’t enough for him to sit down quietly and chat one-on-one with his God, while you chat with yours; he’s got to get up from his table and make sure that you’re praying the way he wants you to pray, and to his God, too. He calls this religious freedom and he justifies the intrusion because “God told him to”. He talks about loving America, but his stance towards religion violates everything America is based on. This is the same “religious freedom”, “talking to God” and “loving America” that got us into war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The other day I was trying to figure out why the Religious Right hates us so much, and spreads so many lies about us. What did we do? A few of them justify their anti-Semitism by blaming the Jews for “killing Christ”. (I’ve never understood why, and besides: the Jews gave them their Messiah. Don’t they even get extra credit for that?) As insane as that all is, they hate gays, too, and we weren’t even part of the original story. I don’t remember any drag queens in the Bible standing at the foot the cross, their hair wrapped Scheherazade style, snapping their fingers and shouting along with the rest of the crowd at Jesus’ feet: “Try turning water into wine, now, Miss Thing. That ought to teach Her to mess with Caesar.” Or maybe they figure Judas was gay and that’s why he betrayed Christ: Judas as the first gay romantic-obsessive in history, our biblical bunny boiler. Judas says to himself wickedly, “If I can’t have Jesus, girl, then nobody can.”
Maybe deep down they are angry because homosexual sex doesn’t lead to procreation. By definition it is strictly sex for pleasure – we're “fuckin’ for fun”. If they are jealous, they needn’t be. All they need to do is talk to a few queer people and find out that our relationships are challenging too, that they sometimes end in heartbreak, that we have insecurities and fears when we are dating, and that there really isn’t any difference when it comes to the fundamentals of finding love. We wrestle with the puritan ethic and sexual shame that may have nothing to do with homosexuality, but with simply being American, being human. The real reason why people like Mike Pence resist change in this country is because they understand that any liberation, whether it is about orientation or gender or class, threatens and undermines whiteness, and that’s what really terrifies them. Because if we transform our relationship to whiteness, which means transforming our relationship to justice, Mike Pence might find himself in a country he doesn’t recognize anymore, a country where the American dream of equality is finally realized.
Whatever deep insecurity is inherent in fundamentalist ideology (which is really a case for the therapist’s office), it cannot rest, it seems, until everyone agrees with it, is completely enrolled. Which, by the way, doesn’t even make sense when you consider the diversity of God. Imagine a garden where the daises ran around telling the roses and the tulips that unless they became daises too they were going to hell. Iyatunde, after we compare notes on Pence's disastrous press conference, puts it more succinctly, "They tell us you’re free to be yourself as long as you’re just like us."
People like Mike Pence keep claiming their religious beliefs are endangered, but they seem pretty free, and pretty loud to me. I’m sickened by groups like the Westboro Baptist Church holding signs at Matthew Shepard’s funeral that read, “God hates fags”. I’m tired of hearing the Religious Right saying in television and radio interviews that by allowing gay weddings one opens the door for people to start marrying animals, or that God forgives everyone, and that in His eyes my “sin” of getting a blowjob from another man is no different from His forgiving an ax murder.
I’m exhausted by the amateur ministers in my neighborhood who wait until the doors of the express train close at 125th street, knowing they have a captive audience until we reach 59th, telling carloads of strangers that we are going to hell if we don’t accept Jesus Christ as our savior. I’m worn down by the hypocrisy of the Republican politician who votes for anti-gay legislation and is then caught having sex in a public bathroom, his pants around his ankles, or with gay porn in his desk, or male prostitutes on his credit card - shaming young gay people publicly while getting his private freak on like everyone else. It has been all over the media; a family-owned pizza parlor in Indiana has joined forces with fundamentalist cake bakers and committed to refuse to make pizzas for gay weddings. (The idea of a pizza served at a gay wedding is like a bowl of pork rinds at a Bar Mitzvah – an outrage.) The business has received monetary donations, close to a million dollars, in support of their “courageous stance”.
A friend of mine works for a “Christian” charity. She came to work one day and found out that a third of the office had just been fired, no warning, just pack your things and leave. As it is a religious organization, there aren't required to have unemployment insurance for these workers, or extended health benefits, just thank you and good luck. Moments after her coworkers were led out of the office, their family photos and plants in cardboard boxes, my friend’s boss led the rest of the employees in prayer, asking God to “please look after them”. ("He" didn’t have to look very far, as most of their asses were still outside crying in the parking lot.)
It makes a difference when companies take a stand against bigotry, and it isn’t always the most progressive ones, either. NPR just ran a story on The Civil Rights Movement; in 1964 after Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize, a dinner was organized in Atlanta in his honor. As recounted in Robert Woodruff’s book, Atlanta Rising, Invention of an International City, the elite of the city refused to come to celebrate King; barely a ticket was sold. When J. Paul Austin, President and CEO of Coca-Cola, who had spent sixteen years in South Africa under apartheid and knew how it affected business, saw this pettiness, he made it clear that a city that wasn’t ready for a black Nobel Prize winner wasn’t ready for the growing international company Coca-Cola was becoming. The message he sent to the elite was clear: the dinner sold out, and the vibe that evening was as if nothing had ever happened - at one point white folks were even on their feet singing “We Shall Overcome”.
The story is instructive and proves that in a capitalist society religion matters; but that no matter how bigoted people are, when you start messing with their money, suddenly everyone’s ready to forgive each other, hold hands, and start singing Kumbaya in good old "Christian fellowship". That’s why the message that Wal-Mart, NASCAR and Apple’s Tim Cook have sent to Indiana and Arkansas, the companies that have cancelled their contracts, the mayors of other cities who have banned non-essential government funding for employees traveling to Indiana, and the boycotts by artists and athletes, are so critical right now. The rest of the country is watching, and waiting to see if Indiana will pull this bigotry off, if they can get away with it too.
And the fact is, because this is America, Mike Pence can believe whatever the hell he wants when he’s at home, sitting in his bathrobe, picking toe jam and watching ESPN. What he thinks is none of my business. But what he can’t do is pass legislation that says that if my partner and I want to get a wedding cake from a local bakery in Indiana they have a right to refuse us service because they don’t “believe” in a gay person’s right to marriage, which is the same thing as saying you don’t believe in the Declaration of Independence and that all “men” are created equal. In America, the separation of church and state is supposed to send a message to the wedding baker in Indiana: “If you don’t like homosexual customers because of your religion, that’s your choice. Complain all you want at the church picnic. But if your business is open to the public, you better get your ass in that kitchen, and start cracking them eggs, baby.” (Those founding fathers knew what they were doing - don’t mess with a girl when she’s wearing her powdered wig.)
We need Christians, black and white, to stand up to other Christians. Where are the clergy on this issue and why aren’t they publicly speaking out in droves? Former president Jimmy Carter, a devout Christian, bravely addressed sexism and religion by stepping down from the Southern Baptist Convention because, as he wrote in a prepared statement in 2013, the “convention's leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be "subservient" to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service…At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime.”
At Michigan’s Grand Rapids Community College in 2014, he said to an audience, “I never knew of any word or action of Jesus Christ that discriminated against anyone.” Carter famously compared discrimination based on sexual orientation with prejudice against a person’s skin color, or economic class. “I think discrimination against anyone and depriving them of actual equal rights in the United States is a violation of the basic principles of the Constitution that all of us revere in this country,” he said.
It is disappointing that he then added, “So if a local Baptist church wants to accept gay members on an equal basis, which my church does by the way, then that is fine. If a church decides not to, then government laws shouldn’t require them to.” As a Southerner, Carter should well remember that bigoted people basically said the same thing about black children attending “white” schools, until a law was passed in May of 1954 called “Brown versus Board of Education”.
I listen to Mike Pence’s interviews with the press, the convoluted politician-talk, the Orwellian doublespeak, as he explains why he’s definitely not hating you (while he’s hating you). In an interview on his show, George Stephanopoulos repeatedly asks Mike Pence, like an exasperated math teacher coaching a bored or dumb student: “If a florist in Indiana refuses to serve a gay couple at their wedding, is that legal now in Indiana? That is a simple yes or no question.” Pence simply refuses to answer.
I have to hand it to “Miss George”, Stephanopoulos is tenacious, a pitbull puppy tugging on the butcher’s leg for that bone, but Pence is unyielding, talking instead about “Hoosier hospitality” and the lovely people in Indiana. Meanwhile, I’m at home, screaming at the television screen, “Nigga, ain’t nobody asked your ass about Hoosier hospitality. Answer the goddamn question!” And finally from George: “Do you think it should be legal in the state of Indiana to discriminate against gays and lesbians?” Pence again refuses to answer, and plays the misunderstood victim of the liberal media, by which he accuses George of being influenced.
On March 30, 2015, a woman of color named Purvi Patel was convicted by a jury in South Bend for “murdering” her unborn fetus. (A friend of mine read about the verdict online. She looked at her screen three times in disbelief, thinking “Indiana” had to be “India” misspelled, because it couldn’t possibly be America.) The verdict is unprecedented, and has serious implications for reproductive rights, religion, and control of women’s bodies in America. Now all women in the state, not just gay women, are under attack. The Washington Post reported two days later, “the verdict makes Patel the first woman in the U.S. to be charged, convicted and sentenced for ‘feticide’ for ending her own pregnancy.” Patel has been sentenced to twenty years in prison. (Indiana is really on a roll.) The way you can discern hate is not only by the smarmy arguments and justifications that precede it, but by how it directly affects the lives of those who are on the other side of it. An atheist and a Christian can have a theological argument about God anytime they want, day or night, but when the atheist risks not being served because of his religious beliefs, when a woman goes to prison in a religious state for not being a “handmaid” for fetuses, my friend is right, we aren’t in America anymore.
And the truth is, the man who was called Jesus wouldn’t put up with any of the shit these people are putting down. Hate is the way we attempt to control our fear of death through specialness. We think if we create these funky little hierarchies: straight before gay, whites before blacks, women behind men, God will favor us, and we will be a little further away from dying. As if God or death cared about our distinctions. It’s as desperate as kids trying to cut the lunch line in school: it’s still the same damn mashed potatoes and gravy when you get to the front. I can’t wait for some of these religious people to reach their beloved Saint Peter at the gate, as they try to pull this “velvet rope” shit in the afterlife.
“This is heaven, right?” the Fortune 500 CEO says, stepping in front of the Asian grandmother in her shawl, checking his watch and trying to locate in which pocket he placed his cell phone. “Yeah, this is heaven,” Saint Peter replies calmly. The CEO glances around him, notices the black lesbian with the piercing in her nose, the Guatemalan man standing next to his grandson, the Muslim wearing a long robe and skull cap. He whispers conspiratorially to Peter, “I think I’m in the wrong line, if you know what I mean.”
Saint Peter sighs wearily and tucks his pen behind his ear, folds his arms. Another one of those. “Oh, I know what you mean.” The CEO smiles over his shoulder at the Asian woman who smiles back. He notices the gay white man standing behind her and nods to him as well. “No offense but, these people. I mean, come on. You do know who I am, don’t you?” And Saint Peter replies, “Yes, I know exactly who you are. You’re the person who needs to get the fuck out of my face and take his ass to the back of this line. It’s been a long day, this wig is making my scalp itch, and my feet are tired.” The CEO, indignant and furious, leans forward and growls in Saint Peter’s face: “I need to speak to your manager.”
A friend of mine Jesse and his wife Constance brought their five-year-old son Jake to our wedding. At one point, when Jake was tired and asked his father to pick him up, Jesse continued to dance with his sleeping son in his arms. One of the lasting memories I have of that day is of father and son together on the dance floor. It was a beautiful tableau that moved me when I considered most boys and their fathers, a father’s conditioned fear that if he shows a boy any tenderness he will end up raising a "homosexual", and a generation of straight and gay men who are risking being more vulnerable with their own sons. Constance reminds me later that this was Jake's first gay wedding. Jake has also only known a black president. Perhaps one day as an adult he’ll attend a heterosexual wedding or vote for a white male president, and think to himself, “Wow, I guess the world really is changing.”
If I could speak with Mike Pence, I’d remind him of activists who fought for AIDS funding in the Eighties, who watched their friends die one after the other under a government’s indifference; of Sakia Gunn and Steen Fenrich, and the gay and lesbian people who have died at the hands of homophobic men and women, sometimes parents, murdered because someone decided they wanted to smash them for whom they loved, or what they looked like. I’d tell Pence about Blake Brockington, who recently committed suicide because of people like him, when life became too much, even for an activist, and he could no longer deal with his family’s or society’s hatred. These people were American citizens who deserved to be protected under the law and they will not die in vain.
Although I personally identify as a gay man, Governor Pence, when I wrote this piece, I wanted you to speak to a homosexual. The word binds me to a different generation of men: men who sat in a therapist's office and were told they were "sick", men who were subjected to gay aversion and shock therapy in psychiatric hospitals with the promise they would be "cured".
As a black man, as a homosexual, Governor Pence, I know what hate smells like, and no matter how many interviews and press conferences you give where you go around in circles, prevaricating when you should be giving answers, the fact is your hate is not new. And there is an international uprising of queer power, and queer supporters that will no longer tolerate violence against the LGBTQ community, whether that hate be religious, personal, or political. Christian, Muslim, American, African, Iranian, New York, Arkansas, Indiana, Mississippi, Detroit, Lagos, whether the stage is a bar called the Stonewall Inn almost forty years ago, or your own backyard today.
I look out of my window and I can almost see the spot where two years ago Islan Nettles, a transgender woman, was killed by people who thought exactly like you. And you won’t get away with it. There is a generation of children, pre-teens, and young adults (potential groomsmaids, pages, and flower girls and boys!), who love their gay mothers, aunts, uncles, dads, brothers, and sisters, and want to celebrate us; who are coming out as gay or transgender and want to celebrate themselves. Your hate might have worked forty years ago; maybe even yesterday. But no, motherfucker - not tonight.