The rainbow flag waving in the wind at San Francisco’s Castro District, San Francisco, CA, August 5, 2010. (Benson Kua via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-2.0.
It’s Gay Pride Month, or LGBT Month, or GLBT Month, I guess, depending on one’s perspective. I have nothing directly to contribute, being the semi-well-adjusted heterosexual I am. But I do have something to say about what it means to me to have moved from a world where homophobia and heterosexism was a part of everyday speech (and sometimes action) to a place where it’s actually easy for me to embrace others of a different sexual orientation. Of course, I’m not talking about the world at large. I’m talking about 616 and the folks I knew growing up in Mount Vernon.
This isn’t easy for me to discuss. It means revealing more about myself and some painful memories growing up than even I’m used to doing. Still, it’s important for me and for others to understand that uncomfortable as folks may be about the reality that some people aren’t strictly male, female or heterosexual, these so-called others exist, and are a part of our family, among our co-workers, and deserve our acceptance, love, friendship and support. Or at least, our tolerance.
This story starts with an exchange I had with my father Jimme a couple of weeks before the start of my senior year in high school, August ’86. In a summer when my sexuality was no longer a question — at least to me — my father still had his doubts. I’d hardly seen Jimme most of the summer, only coming over occasionally to see how he was doing or to bum a few bucks off of him. I saved enough money from my job to cover the cost of my three AP classes — $159 to cover the $53 fee for each of the three classes. The College Board and MVHS didn’t grant fee waivers for these courses. Even though I had put that money in my mother’s checking account, I knew that with our money issues my savings were gone. So I found Jimme one Saturday morning near the end of August hanging out on the street corner and having drunk his fill.
His mood was especially foul that day, like his body odor. He refused to give me any money. “I don’ give my money to no faggats!” Jimme yelled at me as he came walking down his block toward me. He’d seen me come out of the front yard of the house he lived in. I wasn’t in the mood for his crap. “I’m not a faggot and I’m not gay,” I yelled back. When he got closer, I could see that he’d been out too long already. Jimme’s clothes were a mess, and his face was in a twisted rage. He grabbed me by my arm.
“Did you get yo’ dict wet?,” he asked as usual.
“Even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you,” I said.
“YOU’RE A FAGGAT,” he yelled again.
I was so pissed with him that I said, “Forget it. I don’t want your money. I’ll find a job somewhere.”
That was when the conversation got ugly.
“Ain’t no one gonna giv’ a faggat like you no job.”
“You’re a drunk and you’ve had a job for years.”
“Watch who you talkin’ to bo’. I da boss of the bosses. No one tell me what to do.”
“Why should I? I’m a faggot, right? Faggots don’t have to listen to an alcoholic like you”
“I yo’ father, an’ if you want my money, you do what I say.”
“I don’t have to listen to you or anybody else.”
“Come here bo’!”
At that point, I came over and Jimme grabbed my arm. Then he tried to punch me in the face. I caught his right arm, twisted it away from me and toward him, and then pushed him away. The push sent him to the ground, tipsy as he was.
“I can’ believe you hit yo’ dad”
“I didn’t hit you, I pushed you. Besides, you tried to hit me first. You’re not acting like much of a dad right now, anyway.”
I started to walk away, only to be hit in the head with folded up money, about $200 in all. “Take it all, faggat. I don’ want you aroun’ here no more,” he said.
This time I grabbed him and stuffed half the money in his pocket.
“Don’t you still have to eat, pay rent, get some more to drink?”
I kept all of the rest because I figured I earned it that day. Darren, par for the course, just stood around and watched.
That was a scary conversation and confrontation for me. It meant seeing myself for the first time as someone not only defending myself, but defending unnamed others. I could’ve easily said that I love women, and only women, that there was something wrong with gays and being gay. But I didn’t. I guess because at least gays hadn’t chased me down the street, calling me a “faggat” in the process.
I was also ambivalent, though. My mother, for all of her quietness about my lack of dating and friends in the five years before I went off to college, would make weird statements basically daring me to say that I was gay just so she could somehow un-gay me if I was. For her, the mixed signals she received from me started when I was seven. We had just moved to 616, and after a summer camp at Darren’s Clearview School, we went outside on 616’s grounds for the first time, in August ’77. The kids at 616 and 630 harrassed us, chased us around while throwing rocks at us. Scared, we hid behind the big, wooden, dark brown front door and huddled, hoping that the kids wouldn’t find us.
Instead, a couple of young Black Turks saw us, took us to my mother and stepfather, and declared that they saw us doing “the dukey.” I had no idea what they were talking about. All I knew was that my mother and stepfather proceeded to whip us as if we’d gone to the grocery store and stolen $100 worth of candy and soda. Besides “dukey,” the only other new word I picked up that day was “faggot.” That, and an incident one year earlier, one in which an older boy attempted to force me to suck his penis, was about all I knew about how others were “different” and how others saw difference until high school. Even then, I understood at some level the difference between someone attempting to force you to into a sexual act and someone simply being themselves. It didn’t necessarily make me feel better, though.
There were others who dropped the F-bomb on me over the years. Most of them were Black and Afro-Caribbean guys whom I’d shown up in the classroom or in gym class. All of it made me feel as if there were something wrong with me, like a target had been painted on my forehead that said this fool is so different that we can see in him the worst of our homophobic fears.
Even when I started to date, and even after I started having sex, I would occassionally run into women and men who assumed I was gay. Or at least, “asexual,” “sober,” “boring.” It was partly due to my overintellectualizing sex as a distraction, combined with a well-developed habit of protecting myself emotionally, that led to others making these cosmic-leap assumptions.
By the time I had reached my junior year at Pitt, I knew full well that not only I wasn’t gay, but that I was comfortable being around gays, lesbians, even transgender folk. And that made me uncomfortable. I was also a Christian, and between my mother, televangelists like Frederick K.C. Price, Kenneth Copeland, Jimmy Swaggert, Oral Roberts, as well as some of my friends, I found it difficult to reconcile their interpretations of scripture with my own natural comfortability with people of different sexual orientations. Even in grad school, if someone asked me — I certainly didn’t volunteer this — I’d trip over my own words quoting scripture while saying that it’s none of my business what other people do in their private lives.
It took an interview I did with an office at the University of Maryland in ’98 to finally see what I was doing. They asked me flat out if I had a problem advising LGBT students. I actually didn’t, but I also didn’t want to come off as gay myself. So I kind of tripped all over the place while answering the question. Not only did I not get the job. The phone clicked about five seconds after I gave my answer.
I realized that I was still being heterosexist myself, that I had yet to confront the issues I had around sexuality growing up. I made a few decisions around this issue after that interview. One was to stop spouting out-of-context scriptural rhetoric about homosexuality, and to stop attending churches where gays and lesbian were blamed for high crime rates and poverty, like the church I used to attend in Wilkinsburg back in the ’90s. I realized that there was a higher law, one that says “judge not, lest ye be judged,” and “do unto others…” Beyond that, it’s okay to say “I don’t know” when it comes to Christianity and to say “I’m comfortable” when I’m at work or in conversation with someone who happens to be gay or lesbian.
For those wholly uncomfortable with what they’ve been reading, let me say this. Uncomfortability with someone different is hardly unusual. But your uncomfortability shouldn’t mean that someone else’s human and civil rights should be trampled in the process. On the spiritual front, we aren’t supposed to pass judgment on others because we’re uncomfortable with who they are or even how they live as Christians. What do we know, anyway? Otherwise, we’re no different from the White bigots who rapped themselves around a Confederate flag while killing, maiming and intimidating Blacks and others of color out of their rights. Oh well! I guess I’m out of the closet now myself.