“Take it from me, someday we’ll all be free.” – Donny Hathaway
After watching Paul Ryan give his speech at the Republican National Convention, I went online to learn about his position on gay rights — which is really, if you think about it, his position on human rights. I wasn’t shocked to discover on PoliGu.com that while in office he had voted in favor of the Marriage Protection Act, twice in favor of an amendment to the Constitution that would legally define marriage as the union between a man and a woman, and against the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. I was surprised, however, by something else: Paul Ryan and I are the same age.
Ryan is a young politician. To achieve the career milestone of vice-presidential nomination is an exceptional achievement, regardless of one’s political party. And as a conservative, I didn’t exactly expect him to be handing out pink triangles at gay rallies. Yet the longer I sat there reading his record on gay rights, the more rage I felt. This wasn’t the usual anger and disappointment I feel towards Republicans; this bitterness had a different taste.
At first, I considered whether it was just jealousy. I mean, at 42, I’m nobody’s vice presidential pick – the last office I held was student congress in high school, and our biggest decision was the theme for the homecoming dance. After awhile, however, what infuriated me about Paul Ryan became quite clear.
Ryan is the new generation of politicians, and yet, like so many before him, he’s using his political power to deny me my civil rights. Yesterday, September 14, 2012, he gave a speech at the Values Voter Summit. Although several human rights groups asked that he decline the offer because of the anti-gay politics of the event, he attended anyway. As he spoke, a display of the organization’s sponsors, known for their positions against gay teachers, gay adoption, gay marriage, and for encouraging “ex-gay” therapy to “cure” homosexuality, formed a backdrop behind him.
What might have just been an irritating disagreement on gay rights in a high school debate class, or inspiration for a college rally, is now a quality of life issue, my life, as we approach – gulp — middle age. (Being African American I’m approaching it faster than he is – according to some statistics, I may even have already passed it.) If politicians like Paul Ryan keep coming fresh off the assembly line, with the same stale views and prejudices as their predecessors, I could die and never see the equality I’m entitled to as a gay man, as an American. This shit is not funny anymore.
Ryan and I are both children of the Seventies. We may have caught only the tail end of the Sixties, sitting contentedly in the womb, as our mothers waddled from room to room, too hot, and adjusting pillows on couches to watch television, craving pickles and ice cream. It would have been hard to escape the national conversations on black power, women’s rights, gay rights. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been dead two years, Malcolm X five. There was Stonewall. And even if cynicism was settling in – the protracted war in Vietnam, Watergate in a few years – the potential for equality was in the air we breathed, in a country that had been on fire with liberation movements.
And yet Ryan disregards this completely, inviting us back to a time when gay people, terrorized by social violence, could have their bars raided, their civil rights ignored, because of their orientation. And I don’t care that he voted in favor of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, as his supporters like to remind us: it’s just not enough. In fact, in some ways it’s worse. He gets to stay the “nice guy” who just “agrees to disagree.” As he flashes his golden boy , “Richie Cunningham” smile, our fundamental rights are denied, good-naturedly, of course — business as usual. In the game show of life, we may not win the new sports car, but, hey, we do get the Teflon pan set and a lifetime’s supply of soup! Concessions, booby prizes, but never full equality. This is the strategy that allows evil to flourish. Like college administrators who know that the kids protesting on their campuses, taking over buildings and being a general pain in the ass (as some of us were when I was at the University of Michigan in the late Eighties and Nineties) will be gone in four years, Ryan doesn’t really have to confront the effect of his voting record on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people, or the message it sends to others who wish to harm us. It’s basically a waiting game. And one day he’ll step down, his son will run for office, and we’ll hear the same speech, see the same damn grin, another generation will wonder when it is their turn, and another gay woman or man, another family, will be unprotected by the law and left out.
Thinking about Paul Ryan gives me the same sinking feeling that I felt when I watched an episode of CBS’ Two Broke Girls months ago. At first, I was exhilarated by the relationship between the two female leads, and particularly the dark-haired, hard-boiled survivor from Brooklyn named Max. The two women work as waitresses, selling cupcakes on the side, hoping to earn enough money to open up their own bakery. In the episode I watched, Max and Caroline are in a store fighting with a black couple over a sale on cake mixes. One box gets ripped open, and the dark-skinned black man stumbles back, a shelf falls down on him, and he sits on the floor, buddha style, covered head to toe in flour. Blinking in bewilderment, he’s a tar baby for 2012.
Entertainment in America is power. Michael Patrick King, one of the creators of the show, continues to defend the show to journalists, immune, it seems, to criticism, calling 2 Broke Girls “highbrow lowbrow.” In its initial prime-time slot of 8:30 and now 9:00, another generation of black children is going to have to untangle the humiliation of degrading images from television. We really should be past this, we should be better than this by now. As an African-American gay man, I can attest that the marginalization hurts equally, it damages equally. People who would be appalled to be called racist, as I’m sure Ryan would be, have no problem being on the wrong side in the fight for gay equality. He should be an anachronism; a politician from another era, marginalized today for his discriminatory views, not brought to the front of the line in a major election.
It was one thing when this crap came from the politicians my parents watched on Face The Nation. Crotchety rich white men with power who seemed to own the world, men we allowed ourselves to feel superior to because they probably couldn’t dance, or fuck, to save their lives. Men who seemed to come from a starched, conservative universe where their only pleasures were greed and denying other’s happiness; reproductive freedom for women, affirmative action for blacks, and for gay people everything from anal sex to hospital visitation rights.
Those men were remote, restless, men who stood awkwardly beside their wives at parent-teacher conferences, who checked their watches, who always seemed to have important business, men who stood together in conspiratorial clumps outside their churches on Sunday. The fathers, the football coaches, the Boy Scout leaders, men who made the rules in the community. Maybe Paul Ryan had a father like that. I imagine him watching his father shave and putting shaving cream on his face too, pretending to shave with his finger. His father adjusts his own tie for church, and then bend downs and adjusts his son’s. Maybe he got yelled at for making too much noise in the back seat on car rides. He saw the way his father’s jaw would clench when he was stressed, and wondered what it was like to be a man, with a family, and what his would look like someday. Some things are the same between boys and their fathers whether you are white or black, gay or straight.
Once upon a time, Paul Ryan and I might have been friends. We might have ridden the bus together. He is old enough to remember school field trips to the planetarium, stopping at McDonald’s on the way back – which kids had money for food and which didn’t. Eating an exploding candy called Pop Rocks that made your throat tingle. Did he listen to Marlo Thomas’ “Free to Be, You and Me” in the school library – there’s a land that I see, where the children are free? I imagine him walking down the halls in his elementary school, running his fingers over the pumpkins and turkeys made of construction paper for Thanksgiving, sitting restlessly through the same boring school assemblies, and watching girls trade Dr. Pepper and 7-UP Bonnie Bell lip smackers at the back of the class. (Well, maybe he doesn’t remember that part. There were some differences between gay and straight.)
I know he has them somewhere – the plaid-collared, shaggy haired, nappy-haired school photos with the blue sky background that almost no one from our generation escaped. Did he wear Toughskins pants from Sears? He must remember the year that someone was putting razor blades in apples on Halloween, so our moms had to check our candy when we came home from Trick-or-Treating. Someone put cyanide in Tylenol, too, and for a while it wasn’t safe to buy things in bottles anymore. We were ten, and there was a new disease called AIDS; the news said that having sex might kill you. Just as we were on our way to the sexual party, it seemed the party was over. That same year, black children were being killed and kidnapped in Atlanta, snatched off the streets and later found murdered. 30 victims. I was in Michigan, but still I was scared of slow-moving cars, scared to walk home alone.
Maybe he came back from school to an empty house, using his house key worn around his neck, because his mom worked, as mine did. He entertained himself with The Brady Bunch or Gilligan’s Island reruns over a bowl of cereal, helped make dinner until someone came home. Ryan could have been in my fifth grade class in 1980 when we had a mock election. He probably would have voted for Reagan and won, as I voted for Carter, and we both stared in amazement at the kids who were for Anderson. We might have played “Smear the Queer” during recess – the game where all the kids line up against the wall as if they’re facing a firing squad and you throw a ball at them. Whoever catches the ball wins. If you get hit then you’re a queer. Maybe he got called a faggot if he dropped the ball or couldn’t run fast enough in gym class.
Paul Ryan certainly looks like many of the boys I grew up with, boys I had crushes on before I even fully realized I was gay. Michigan isn’t that far psychologically from Wisconsin. There was the same pressure to succeed. To go beyond our parents. To make them proud. To achieve but not too aggressively. The Midwestern humility. I locate Paul Ryan’s betrayal in these years. Even if we did grow up with the same homophobic fear our parents were raised with, even if we were exposed to the same prejudice, our generation was supposed to be different. He should know better.
When your 80-year-old grandpa grumbles, “Those damn faggots” when he sees two men kissing on TV, and trundles off to his room in his bathrobe to take his meds, his age doesn’t excuse him, but may put him in a context for you. You might dismiss him as being old and his thinking as being from “that generation.” Or when you see those fascinating public service announcements from the Fifties and Sixties on You Tube, you know the ones, where white mothers in starched aprons bake chocolate- chip cookies into eternity, and handsome white dads carrying briefcases, walk in and say, “Honey I’m home.” The ad begins in bold white letters on a black background, “BOYS BEWARE” and tells the story of Jimmy or Billy (Jimmy and Billy always look like Paul Ryan) catching a ride after baseball practice from a stranger named Ralph. The avuncular voice-over says,
“What Jimmy didn’t know was that Ralph was sick. A sickness that was not visible like smallpox, but no less dangerous and contagious. A sickness of the mind. You see, Ralph was a homosexual, a person who demands an intimate relationship with members of the their own sex…(so) be careful…one never knows when the homosexual is about, he may appear normal.”
You cringe, laughing at the gay paranoia, and the way they thought “back then.”
But when Paul Ryan says that marriage should only be between a man and a woman in 2012, and uses the full thrust of his political power to enforce that, it’s not back then, it’s right now, and it isn’t those ugly depictions of gay men looking for young boys to corrupt, it’s me and my partner of twenty years not being protected by the federal government if we choose to get married, even though we pay our taxes like everyone else.
Ryan sits in a photo with his wife and boys, and his family, like his clear blue eyes, sparkles. And although he lost his own father at sixteen, he’s now the father at the parent-teacher conferences, standing outside the churches and ice cream socials, adjusting his son’s tie after he’s finished his own, shaving together in the mirror, Daddy and son. While I am happy that he loves and appreciates his children, the kid in me wants to whine to the great Teacher in the Sky, like we’re in kindergarten and he’s gotten seconds on graham crackers at snack: “Why does Paul Ryan get to have federal benefits for his family and I don’t!” And the fact is, if Paul Ryan doesn’t agree with gay marriage because of his religion, fine. As has been said many times before, if you don’t like gay marriage, don’t go to gay weddings. Just don’t vote to deny me my motherfucking rights.
We try to make it more complicated, bringing in religion and “upbringing,” because if we reduce it down its basic components, it’s just plain ugly and embarrassing. Denying gays and lesbians full equality in this country is no different from having separate bathrooms for colored people.
In other words, I can’t dismiss Paul Ryan’s good-natured homophobia as anything else but what it is, a hatred of gays. I can’t blame a generation gap, or that he’s from some other country that isn’t “free” like us, or any of the bullshit excuses that would let him off the hook. He’s just like me. Only he has privileges that I don’t, because he’s heterosexual. It’s that simple. We try to make it more complicated, bringing in religion and “upbringing,” because if we reduce it down its basic components, it’s just plain ugly and embarrassing. Denying gays and lesbians full equality in this country is no different from having separate bathrooms for colored people.
Come on, Paul Ryan: you’re old enough to remember Billy Crystal on Soap, you must have watched at least one or two episodes of Will and Grace in a hotel room and laughed once. Wasn’t there a gay guy on your floor in college that you said hi to, despite the rumors and when no was looking, because he was basically a nice guy? Don’t you feel any compassion at all, given the tragedies we’ve seen in recent years? The suicides of Jamie Rodemeyer, Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas, Asher Brown – all teenagers. And these are the names we know. Tyler Clementi would be alive right now if he’d been straight. In order for filming him secretly to be interesting to anyone, Clementi had to be a “freak”; otherwise everyone would have called his roommate Dharun Ravi the pervert. When I think of these dead boys, I remember being their age and how hard it sometimes was; the humiliations that you take for granted every day, that can break you down slowly. When I was twenty, I ran into a teacher who had been a very important mentor to me as a child. We were in an airport and, having not seen her in a while, I mentioned to her that I’d recently “come out.” I watched as she shook her head as if she’d tasted something bitter and asked me, slightly horrified, “Why?” Several months later, a family friend whom I valued had the exact same reaction. It was painful, but you move on. My point is, coming out ain’t easy, and in some places in this country, depending on where you live, it’s pretty goddamn heroic. These are Americans we should be admiring for their courage, not putting in early graves.
Despite the strides, despite the advances here and there, we haven’t come far enough. And don’t be lulled into thinking things are okay because you may have pals in Log Cabin Republicans and GOProud, who raise their hands from the back of the Republican class and say, “Hey, don’t forget about us,” reminding you that while what they do with their partners in the dark may be unsavory and ungodly in your eyes, white supremacy trumps gay rights, (and, evidently, their dignity.) The fact is gay kids are still getting their asses kicked, and they need your help. I went to an event recently where I needed statistics about violence against gay people in the U.S. I looked on Wikipedia, expecting a paragraph or two, and watched as page after page came through the printer. Gay hate crimes perpetrated all over the country because someone heard a politician say, “I’m against gay marriage,” which is code for, “This person doesn’t deserve our protection.”
Our children are watching, watching, watching. Gay children and those who bully gays see the same channels, and eventually there is violence, perpetrated or self-inflicted, against a gay person as a result. Often it’s the entertainers that are the worst. Kirk Cameron can get on TV, using his star power to make it clear: he doesn’t hate gay people, he just loves Jesus Christ.
What’s getting really boring are the political figures and entertainers who go on TV saying they don’t hate gays, they just don’t want them to be equal. Our children are watching, watching, watching. Gay children and those who bully gays see the same channels, and eventually there is violence, perpetrated or self-inflicted, against a gay person as a result. Often it’s the entertainers that are the worst. Kirk Cameron can get on TV, using his star power to make it clear: he doesn’t hate gay people, he just loves Jesus Christ. He, Paul Ryan and I are the same age. We tickle Cameron under the chin and remember how cute he was on Growing Pains, letting him get away with murder. A spoonful of sugar helps the cyanide go down.
My first boyfriend committed suicide three years ago. We met when I was in college. I found out he was dead when I went to look him up on Facebook and saw a memorial page for him. I’ve gotten so used to the stories of gay teen suicides, I forgot the heartbreak of homophobia can still reach us, even in our forties.
I’d be lying if I said we were a perfect match. There were lots of fights, and we both hurt each other. But there was also kindness. I’ve tried to forgive myself for the mistakes I made. It was a messy time. I’d never had a boyfriend before, so I didn’t know what two men did. I didn’t even know what to do to prepare for anal sex, and I wasn’t sure whom to ask.
Months before, I’d had my first official date with a man from a coming-out group of which I was a part on campus. He was a graduate student. We’d known each other for weeks and had become friends. I remember getting ready for that first date and wondering, Who pays? Who opens the door for whom? Who makes the first move? He picked me up in front of my dorm. There were kids in the common area and sitting out in front, laughing, smoking. As I walked past them I wondered, Is there some tell-tale sign that says I’m going out with another man right now? If they knew, would they laugh at me and think I was gross?
My date had a car. We had dinner in an Italian restaurant off campus and afterwards went back to his apartment. We sat on the couch and talked about school and at one point he kissed me. We started to take off our clothes to have sex, but when I reached for his tee shirt, he said he wanted to keep it on. I think it was because he felt fat. That was the first time I realized that men could hate their bodies, or be embarrassed by them, like some women I knew.
He told me he loved me, which a man had never told me before, at least not like that, but when I tried to go down on him, he stopped me and apologized. He said he was sorry he had to stop and moved to the other side of the couch. He told me a story about how his stepfather used to beat him with a hose when he was a kid. One time he got beaten for not getting up early enough to do his paper route. I didn’t know what that had to do with having sex, but I told him I was whipped by my dad too when I was five. He cried for a moment and said he needed to take me home. I went back to the dorm confused, not sure exactly what had happened.
I hadn’t been out of the closet that long then; I was only nineteen. By the time I met my boyfriend, I had a bit more experience. We met at a bar when we were both home from school on break, and I ended up giving him a ride home. It was winter and we sat in the car in his driveway, with the heat on, listening to Mariah Carey’s first album (the one with only her head on the cover, before she felt she had to take off all her clothes to sell a song) and holding hands. We said goodnight, and said we’d call each other, and two days later he called me, and called me again. I asked him after our third phone call if we were really dating, and he said yes, we were, and that as far as he was concerned, we were boyfriends. Boyfriends! I was so excited and told all my friends that I finally had a boyfriend!
We got into a few fights, and broke up, and got back together. We’d get drunk in bars – the well drinks in gay bars are always strong and “on special” — and one night I got tired of his being so controlling and jealous and I flirted with a total stranger, and made out a little with the guy in the bathroom. When I came back out, he told me he knew what I did and called me a whore. I couldn’t admit it then, but I was embarrassed because we were an interracial couple and I felt people were always watching us, that my political friends would think because I was dating a white boy I was “sleeping with the enemy.” He scared me once when he lost his temper and threw something across the room in anger, and so we broke up again.
At times, I think we sabotaged the relationship because we were still very homophobic inside, despite “coming out.” I wanted a boyfriend, I just didn’t want to be a faggot. And just because two men are gay, it doesn’t mean they stop being men; there is still the competition and fear.
It may seem like pop psychology but sometimes pop psychology is true. At times, I think we sabotaged the relationship because we were still very homophobic inside, despite “coming out.” I wanted a boyfriend, I just didn’t want to be a faggot. And just because two men are gay, it doesn’t mean they stop being men; there is still the competition and fear. But I know he trusted me. When he remembered later in our relationship that he’d been sexually abused by his half-brother, which he’d forgotten and which had contributed to his inability to trust, we found him a therapist together.
(I’m afraid to tell you about three gay men who were abused, who dealt with violence in their childhood, physical and sexual. I’m afraid you’ll assume that that’s what “made us” gay. But I’ve held the straight men in my arms who were abused too, physically and sexually, by the men and women they trusted. Sexual abuse isn’t about being gay or straight, it’s about being a child.)
When I found out my first boyfriend was dead, seventeen years after I’d last seen him, I realized we hadn’t been friends after those years, even though I’d hoped we would be one day. And even when a relationship goes badly or ends, and mistakes are made, there was that day when you ran out of the movie theater together in the rain laughing, or he surprised you with a picnic after work, some time when you both got it right. In the dark, making love, hands reached out and offered comfort, you slept in his arms in a safety that felt like forever; taking in his smell, taking him inside you, the rare moments when you were able to turn off the world, and experienced the closest thing you’d ever known to grace.
I submit these men to you, Paul Ryan, gay men I’ve known and loved — men who were mangled, wrecked, heroic, courageous, loving, broken, and brave — I think of their crimes and their moments of glory, because we all have both, and how their lives can’t be summed up or dismissed in a soundbite from the campaign trail. Phrases like “Marriage is between a man and a woman,” “Reinstate Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” or “I’m for civil unions,” don’t begin to cut it, don’t have any soul, don’t make you think about the people whose real lives are at the end of those words. The gay people I’ve known, men and women, deserve better than that from you as a fellow American, not to mention what you owe them as a public servant.
I see your beautiful boys in your campaign photos, Ryan, and wonder: what happens if one of them has to one day tell his father that he is gay? Maybe they’ve heard you speak or seen you on TV, know your voting record, and they won’t even bother to tell you. Don’t ask, Don’t Tell. Maybe they will hide it inside, something that hurts, but only them. Boys often hide what hurts from their fathers. They want them to be proud. They won’t cry when you beat them, or when they cut their finger. See, Dad, it doesn’t hurt. I can take it. Your little men. Your brave little soldiers. Until the day when a cut finger become a slashed wrist.
The world is upside down right now. I turn on the Republican Convention and watch Clint Eastwood talking to a chair. Clint Eastwood, who has worked for years to prove to us he’s an artist and to distance himself from the racism, fascism, homophobia and cruelty in his vigilante “Dirty Harry” movies. He blows away villainous, faggoty- looking guys who cross him, a cinematic version of Smearing the Queer. One woman screams out and the crowd encourages Eastwood to say his iconic phrase, “Make My Day.” He makes it a singalong, asking them to join in like Madonna extending the mike to the audience while she’s singing “Holiday.” It seems in exceptionally bad taste. The tragic events in Aurora, Colorado aren’t that long ago. I wonder if James Holmes, sitting bewildered in court with that ridiculous red hair that made him less like The Joker from The Dark Knight and more like Ronald McDonald’s illegitimate son, was thinking of that reference as he pulled the trigger on innocent people. Something is very wrong in America at the moment, if you hadn’t noticed. There is one shooting after another; we can barely catch a break. I’m thinking of the potential James Holmeses, sitting in their living rooms, watching Eastwood and the convention. Make My Day.
The only reason Clint Eastwood is up on the stage in the first place is because he’s an actor, and actors have almost as much power in our country as our politicians. Sometimes we are lucky enough to have both in one, and we get a Ronald Reagan. When I heard about Holmes’ spree, I recalled seeing The Dark Knight in London. I was distracted by a seven-year-old sitting in the seat behind me. Parents who bring very young children to violent movies anger me, but in this case, I felt for the father. He knew there would be violence, but he hadn’t expected what was on the screen. His son kept hiding behind his hands and whimpering, anticipating the next act of mayhem, and finally his father decided to remove the boy from the theater. I was relieved, and was grateful the kid didn’t witness the scenes that followed; in one, a man’s head was thrown forward onto a pen driven through his skull, to the audience’s laughter and delight. Good ol’ PG-13. Let two homos in a movie smile at each other across a crowded room for too long and it’s an instant R, but with violence, you pretty much have to rip off the top of someone’s head and munch their brains for it to be restricted, especially if it’s a summer “blockbuster”; and especially if it costs a ton of money to make.
And now Clint Eastwood is leading the crowd at a national political convention in “Make My Day.” The following week, at the Democratic Convention, Gabrielle Giffords heroically recites the Pledge of Allegiance, still recovering her ability to speak and walk after being shot during a public meeting in a supermarket parking lot in 2011.
In addition to the disproportionate number of black people The Joker was killing, the film’s moral balance was off; by the end I was convinced The Joker was the hero of The Dark Knight – he was the only character I could remember when I went home. Heath Ledger’s performance was great, but the movie’s framing of the Joker’s sociopathology was in question, his killings presented gleefully. I thought of the boy in the theater, and how more and more movies include extended scenes of sadism, someone begging not to be killed, how we’re becoming numb, losing our reverence for human life. And now Clint Eastwood is leading the crowd at a national political convention in “Make My Day.” The following week, at the Democratic Convention, Gabrielle Giffords heroically recites the Pledge of Allegiance, still recovering her ability to speak and walk after being shot during a public meeting in a supermarket parking lot in 2011.
As I watch the Republican National Convention, one speaker after another pulls out their poverty credentials; Mom worked day and night to give us this, Dad was so broke we couldn’t afford that; then they turn around and cancel all that goodwill, with no real empathy or solutions to help the working class or the poor. I adjust the sound on my computer when Chris Christie says, “They believe in teacher’s unions. We believe in teachers.” What the hell does that mean?
I marvel that when I look at the convention floor, everyone looks the same. Where are the black and Latino faces? I want to ask the Latino speakers who support the Republican Party, do they feel truly integrated? What do they feel when their fellow Republicans want to build a wall to keep out others who look like them? I hear the speeches, but they are all slogans, they don’t seem to connect to anyone’s real life. The words and ideas are abstract, the suffering is real.
We sit in history class as kids, as the teacher reminded us again and again: “And we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” And so I wonder, for a politician like Paul Ryan, or Mitt Romney, or Sarah Palin, who talk about America, America, America, every chance they get, who wave to crowds standing in front of our beautiful flag; what America do they belong to and is there room for the rest of us? Disgraced presidential hopeful John Edwards went on and on about “Two Americas”; they may have been the only truthful two words he said in his entire campaign, but he was right. For most people, this usually refers to class, or race, but sexual orientation is in there too. And it’s easier for everyone if you stay in your lane. Black. White. Gay. Straight. Republican. Democrat. Veteran. But the lines are blurrier than ever before, and it’s just not that simple anymore.
As the Convention ends, I remember the disastrous conversation Mitt Romney had during the primaries with a man in a New Hampshire diner named Bob Goran. Goran was enjoying a meal with his husband, when Romney noticed Goran’s hat, which identified him as a Vietnam vet. Romney joined them and discovered through their amicable conversation that he and Bob were the same age. Romney thanked the man for his military service. Goran asked him about the legislation at the time to repeal the New Hampshire law allowing same-sex marriage and whether or not he supported it.
Romney: “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman, that’s my view.”
Garon: “Okay, that means that if you are in the White House, you will not support any form of legislation that would change that, so that servicemen would be entitled to benefits like a man and a woman. If two men get married apparently a veteran’s spouse would not be entitled to any burial benefits or medical benefits or anything…the serviceman has devoted his time and effort for this country. And you just don’t support equality in terms of same-sex marriage.”
Romney: “I believe that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman.”
Romney: “The Defense of Marriage act that exists in Washington today defines benefits, whether for veterans or for non-veterans as between married spouses and for me that’s a man and a woman. And we apparently disagree on that…it’s religion…”
Garon: “It’s good to know how you feel, that you do not believe that everyone is entitled to their constitutional rights.”
Romney: “No, actually I think at the time the Constitution was written it was pretty clear that marriage is between a man and a woman and I don’t believe that the Supreme Court has changed that.”
Aide: “Governor, we’ve got to get on with Fox News right now.”
Garon: “Oh, I guess the question was too hot.”
Romney: “No. I gave you the answer…
Garon: “I appreciate your answer. And you know I also learned something and New Hampshire is right. You have to look a man in the eye to get a good answer. And you know what, Governor? Good luck…You’re going to need it.”
Romney leaves looking harassed and ambushed. Clearly it hadn’t occurred to him or anyone on his staff that a Vietnam vet in his sixties could also be a homosexual. When asked by reporters how he felt after Romney left, Goran said, “He’s not getting my vote….He told me I’m not entitled to constitutional rights. I think a man and a woman, and a man and a man should be treated equal.” When then asked why he felt so strongly about it, he exclaimed, “Because I’m gay! And I happen to love a man just like you probably love your wife. I think that he or she (is) entitled to the same rights…I went and fought for my country, I did my thing, and I think my spouse should be entitled to the same entitlements as if I were married to a woman. What the hell’s the difference?”
A friend of mine and I have a conversation outside the gym. He says that’s he’s sick and tired of Americans being so stupid. He’s American himself, born in Brooklyn, and while I consider myself to be a New Yorker after 20 years, he has the effrontery that I associate with New York, the confrontational swagger, the impatience with nonsense; he is, at once, grandiose, angry and fully engaged. Exasperated, he tells me he’s been talking to a friend who is against Obamacare, but who hasn’t bothered to take the time to read about it or find out what it means; his friend is just “against it.” He mentions an article he read where a man in the South, in desperate need of an operation for a tumor in his leg, and without insurance, is still dead set against Obamacare. The man is white and poor. My friend asks, “How do they do that? With people going bankrupt over hospital costs, and families uninsured, how do you brainwash someone into voting against their own best interest?” After this conversation, I am surprised when Jeff Daniels’ character, Will McAvoy, a TV anchor on HBO’s The Newsroom asks the same question of a political pundit, and humiliates the man when he has no answer. Clearly it is a question many of us are asking.
I don’t know how to answer my friend, except that I know it has something to do with race, and people who are too proud, or closed minded , or whatever, to accept anything from a black man who has been advertised as a “Muslim” with a dodgy birth certificate. It has to do with a fear of “communism” and other big, bad wolves hiding in the closet, and not wanting to create a “welfare state”, i.e. to show any solidarity with other poor people, who happen to be black. As long as a poor white man in America feels more allegiance to a man like George W. Bush, (just because they share a racial background, even if that man cares nothing for his economic situation and may work to defeat him,) than he does with the black man who was also laid off at the same plant they’ve both been loyal to for years, America will never move forward.
When I see First Lady Michelle Obama speaking at the Democratic National Convention, it feels like a dream fulfilled. People still try to play bullshit games about whether Barack is really black; I was at a friend’s party last year and a huge argument ensued because the host insisted that Barack wasn’t black…he was “mixed,” as if people were able to vote for the white part and reject the black. No one questions whether Vanessa Williams or Terrance Howard is black, both much lighter than Barack, but Barack isn’t black because of his white mother. And yet Barack Obama grew up in the United States, and when you’re black in this country, and you’re trying to get a job or catch a cab, nobody stops to check if your mother or father was white before they discriminate against you. It isn’t part of the Obama brand to show it, but Barack has known black pain, as a boy, as a man. There are certain altitudes you can reach where you really are alone – one mogul might be able to call another if he faces bankruptcy, but Barack can’t call “the other living black American president.” When he meets resistance from his colleagues, he must wonder if he would have these challenges as a white president, people willing to disrespect the office in order to disrespect the man.
But Michelle is a stone black woman, no one’s questioning that birth certificate! And even as I watch her, I can feel the political manipulation that is de rigueur, the speech that politicians always give about the everyday Americans they have encountered on the political trail; I am pinching myself, even four years later, that there is a sign projected above the stage that says “First Lady” — with a black woman underneath it. Black women haven’t always been protected in this country, to say the least. And no matter what people think of the Obamas, the image of Michelle Obama on that stage is iconic – the most protected woman in the United States is black. It means something that perhaps can’t be articulated in words when the First Lady of America talks about the choices she makes to assure her daughters’ future, or, as she said in her speech at the 2012 convention, as “Mom-in-Chief.” Even for those who have the most cynical view of politics, this is quite a chapter in the American story; a black woman in the White House, drawing her daughters close as she looks back through history at the black mother who could never claim her daughters because they belonged to someone else, who watched her daughters on the auction block, sold away from her like so much furniture, like cattle. This enslaved woman, building our country with her bare hands, raising its white children, never sees her own daughters again, but dreams of the women they will grow up to be. And although she may not know how the story will end, she survives so that it will continue, and now a black woman whose address is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue can have the audacity to claim what was she was once denied: the use of the possessive with her own children. My daughters.
I am grateful to the President. Whatever the motivation or timing, by coming out in support for gay marriage, President Obama has created a wonderful dilemma, and sent shockwaves through the religious black community. And I believe “morally” conservative African Americans who now have to make a Sophie’s Choice whether to support a black president or hold onto their prejudices, will vote for him, and put that prejudice aside. And that is going to save lives.
So, before I step down from this soap box, let’s stop acting as if the motivation for this hate is politics or family values, and just come clean: the reason why people want to deny anyone civil rights, or equal pay, or love, is because everyone basically needs a loser; someone who is inferior so you can feel as if God likes you a little bit better. We’re addicted to being special. Women are too stupid and emotional and were denied the right to vote because men are smarter than they are; blacks were dumb enough to get enslaved, so they must have deserved it on some level, and besides they did get to travel for free (very close to what one history teacher told me). Gay people are sick and inferior and don’t deserve happiness, which means that when I, insert generic politician here, get in my “straight, family values” bed tonight, my wife’s vagina is that much tighter, my penis is that much bigger, our family stays that much more intact, and the boogieman won’t get us.
Sorry to break it to you, but he’s gotten us. Because the result of all this benign cruelty and divisiveness on the political stage is the random acts of violence everywhere. And this boogieman is going into supermarkets and movie theaters and he’s shooting; because it’s the tenor of our times, unfortunately, not to give a shit. If people really felt empathy – the kind that matters anyway – not the misty, sentimental eyes of people standing at political podiums talking about the common man – Paul Ryan would be fighting for me as a gay man, not because he approves of gay marriage, but because it’s the American thing to do.
History isn’t very kind when we look back on who stood in the way of human rights; it may be embarrassing, for example, if you’re white and find your grandmother’s letters where she grumbles about that “troublemaker” Martin Luther King, and how he keeps getting “our Southern niggers all riled up.” Definitely not something little Missy is going to bring to her first grade class for Show and Tell.
So this is where we’ve arrived: if you are truly pro-America, you can’t be against gay marriage, or federal rights for gay couples. Period. What part of “All Men Are Created Equal” is negotiable? Where is the asterisk, the footnote, the missing gag reel where the founding fathers got drunk after writing the Declaration of Independence and Benjamin Franklin turned to Thomas Jefferson and whispered, “Child, please! Do you really think anyone is going to buy this shit?” Or, “Yeah, right, everyone’s create equal, except for them.” When it comes to equality, it’s either all or nothing. That’s not politics, that’s third grade math.
The problem with America right now is not the Us, we’ve got that part down; it’s the Them. And if we are under threat from Iran, or China, or the James Holmeses of the world, then we’d better start realizing that we can’t afford a Them anymore. Which means gay Republicans have to care about the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. Black religious conservatives have to care about gay white teenagers who kill themselves. Sometimes it seems as if only in the face of tragedy do we remember what American really means. It brings out the best in us. We stand together, as the black father did in the Aurora, Colorado theater, over his white daughter-in-law, protecting her life with his because she was “family.” That’s America.
When you looked at the pictures of those we lost on 9/11, the faces of those who were missing or gone, you saw the beauty of our countrymen and women. And on that day, there were no distinctions between the Latina mother of two who was an administrative assistant, the black man who cooked in the cafeteria, the lesbian police officer, the white firefighter from New Jersey, the gay lawyer from Queens. America is divided, by race, by class, by sexuality, 365 days of the year, but on that day it didn’t matter. The black stockbroker never thanked (or even saw) the Mexican man who made his lunch every day; the black woman who cleaned the bathroom and met the glance in the mirror of the white female executive never had a conversation with her; the homeless white man who begged outside for help as the Asian businessman adjusted his watch and walked past him, never knew each others names. But that day we became one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Ashes know no race, no political party. We claim each other, whether we agree or not, because we have to. Our survival depends on it. And because we are American –it’s who we are supposed to be, it’s who we are.
I come from a people who were a source of free labor in this country, people who belonged to someone else, as a mother watched her daughters on the auction block, sold away from her like so much furniture, like cattle. I come from a people who wore pink triangles in concentration camps, who were stigmatized because of who we loved. I come from a people whose blood littered Southern dirt roads, hanging from trees like limp Christmas angels, because we wanted economic freedom or the right to vote. I come from a people who couldn’t use a public bathroom or drinking fountain, no matter how desperate we were, if it said, “White Only.” I come from a people who knew their bars could be raided at any time by police, with no rights to privacy. I come from a people who sat in psychiatrist’s offices to be cured of our “sickness,” who still go to special religious camps to fix our “problem” with Christ, as those who claim to love us smash us in the name of God. I come from a people who can receive the death penalty in some countries for what God made us. I come from a people who are sometimes driven to suicide by self-hate. I come from a people who kill each other on the streets because of self-hate. America, I won’t choose sides, I can’t choose against myself and neither can you. I will not make it easier for you by going away, by staying quiet, by resolving this for you – this, our wonderful dilemma.
“….If women could be dragged to jail for seeking the vote…if a young preacher could lift us to the mountain with his righteous dream, and if proud Americans can be who they are and boldly stand at the altar with who they love then surely, surely we can give everyone in this country a fair chance at that great American dream.”
– Michelle Obama, Democratic National Convention Speech, 2012
Max Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996) and Mixed Messages: An Anthology of Literature to Benefit Hospice and Cancer Causes. His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally.
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