Carrying Forward, Clumsily

stepping-on-toesA week or so ago, I was in a cab from Chicago O’Hare into the city to speak at the National Alliance of Musical Theatre conference.  The traffic was heavy and the cabbie was chatty, and at one point he ended up asking me whether I was married, and I said yes.  He then, logically but erroneously, assumed that I was married to a woman, and with that assumption he then carried on the conversation, asking me first just generally what she did and whether she minded me traveling so much, and then—as his girlfriend kept calling him about this and that—he started good-naturedly complaining about how “nagging women can be—am I right!?”

This all became deeply uncomfortable.  In the beginning, I simply avoided responding with pronouns, weary at the reality of coming out in the back of a cab, dreading the widening of his eyes, just for a second, when he connected what I was saying with who I therefore was.  And then, as the conversation continued, because I couldn’t not respond for fear of being rude, my casual omission had to transform into active deception, and I said “she,” and I felt a tremendous pain at my cowardice.

I am proud of who I am, and I am infinitely proud of my husband, who is a wonderful man, strong and intelligent, braver, I think, than I was in that moment.  I, as evidenced by many of the posts on this blog, am not generally opaque about who I am—I gave that up when I discovered how damaging it was to me, how much pain it meant I had to carry in me, and how much more freeing it was for me to simply allow everyone to know me for who I am.  And yet there I was, sitting in this cab with a stranger—a man my age, university-educated and from northern California, back in Chicago having been laid off from a Silicon Valley marketing job—there I was, sitting there and lying about something so fundamental about myself.

That bothered me so much.  It made me feel like I had regressed ten years, back into a closet I mostly feel I have permanently left behind me.  It made me feel bad for me, and bad for my husband who wasn’t there, and even bad for the cabbie for the assumptions I had made about his attitudes and prospective reactions.  I felt ashamed not of who I was, but of the fact that I was not being clear about who I was, a gay man in a cab letting another man assume I was straight.

This stuck with me, a nagging feeling, through that Chicago trip and into the next week, and into the conference that I just finished up attending, the Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations conference (APASO) in Philadelphia.  While at that conference, I saw a show called Permanent Collection, a play from about 10 years ago based on the strange story of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.  The collection, put together privately by one Dr. Barnes, is simultaneously one of the largest troves of Impressionist art in the world and a well-known collection of African art.  Barnes, in arranging the collection, grouped many pieces together, ten and twelve to a wall, interspersing African art with European Impressionist masterpieces, the pieces unlabeled and left for people to view without interpretation, one piece singing to another through common colors and layouts, styles, subjects.

When Barnes died, he dictated in his will that the stewardship of the museum be placed in the hands of a small African-American university—a move that surprised a whole lot of people.  The university, in turn, installed an African-American director of the museum, and it is the complex and charged relationship between the white long-time education director of the museum and this new black director that is the subject of the play.  It is morally ambiguous and founded on the premise that sometimes we just don’t know how to talk to each other.  The white education director says something unknowingly insensitive to the black director, and the black director responds by calling the white education director racist.  The white guy sues the black guy for libel, and prompts a series of protests from folks concerned about the future of the museum and its direction, and which prompts the black director to hyperbolically label the white protestors the Ku Klux Klan.  Small mistakes are met not with simply conversations about misapprehensions, but with silence or anger, imperfections met not with tolerance but with frustration, and the system breaks down.

In watching Permanent Collection, I was able to crystallize both why I refused to correct the cabbie and why that made me so angry at myself.  In not speaking up—especially at the beginning, when speaking up would have simply been to insert the right pronoun where he had inserted the wrong one—I chose the path that ultimately leads to us speaking different languages.  Rather than bridge to him, I had declined to participate, and then, trapped in what became an awkward and exhausting word game, eventually just gave in to lying.  I had assumed his intolerance just as he had assumed my heterosexuality, and we were both wrong, and we did nothing to become right.

The next day, talking with a colleague and friend about the show, I started telling her about how for me, the only way that I could even partially understand the weight of inequality was through my gayness, and she very enthusiastically (and supportively) said something like, “Oh my god, I know!”  And I, equally quickly and to the surprise of both of us, said “No, you don’t.”

I did not mean that to be as blunt or confrontational as the words that came out of my mouth—it was meant not as a confrontation but as a statement, a truth.  But it put her off, saying that to my friend.  She was taken aback, and I could see in her eyes that she was confused, and then that she was concerned that she had offended me, and then that she was sorry.  Her comment had come from a place of support, of solidarity, and I had responded exclusionarily, and she was upset.

On the scale of coming outs, mine was pretty easy.  My parents were surprised, and initially upset, but they relatively quickly came around and have been wholly supportive ever since.  I came out attached to a boyfriend, a boyfriend who is now, eleven years later, my husband, having already come out to my friends, who by and large were supportive.  But in coming out I felt sure that I had closed doors to normalcy that I craved—to family and to children, to the anonymity of being basically like most everyone else.  That has been proven wrong, but in that six months when I went public with who I was, I was confronted with a fear of the new reality, a nausea that emerged every time I told anyone. It was a fear of their reactions, of their judgment, of the possibility of the violence and negativity that sometimes lurked there on the other side of knowing.

That nausea and fear still sits in me, smaller but there, firm, activated even now a little every time I walk outside with my husband and daughter, her affection for both of us, her blessed dismissiveness of our special status a bullhorn constantly announcing “GAY DADS COMING” to everyone we pass.  Having Cici has, in a way, taken something that was personal and internal–something that was invisible until I wanted it to be made visible–and made it public.  I have been blessed, by geography and the time we live in, to have mostly not had to deal with the negativity that I fear in those situations, although I still fear it, assume it is coming, have prepared myself the best I can for the first time someone says something terrible to me in front of my daughter, and I have to explain to her this world.  The fear sometimes ebbs away so far that I don’t think it’s there anymore, and then I’ll hear someone dismissively say that something is “so gay.”  I will remember driving with my husband up the California coast on a romantic weekend, a wedding planning guide haphazardly thrown in the back of our car, and going into a convenience store together only to emerge to a menacing man peeking in our car window, turning around with a look of disgust, and throwing some slur our way that I have chosen to forget.  I will notice the guy who rides the bus with me, and has for five years, and who one day three years ago got annoyed because he thought I stepped in front of him in line and shoved me out of the way and called me a “fucking faggot.” I will hear about husbands being denied access to their husbands in hospitals, and see pictures of people getting beaten up, and hear stories of intolerance so outrageous and sudden that it makes me fear that I am getting comfortable, that I have it too good, that there is a cliff in front of me that I don’t see.  I will reach out to rest my hand on my husband’s leg somewhere in public, and then pull my hand back, remembering a random echo of someone saying once, “You know, I don’t mind gay people, as long as they don’t wave it in my face,” and it comes back, because that’s the world, and there is a reality of difference there that is just there.

It was all of that stuff that kept me from telling the truth to the anonymous cabbie, and it was all that stuff that made me blurt out what I did to my friend at the conference.  And it is also all that stuff that makes a conversation so hard.

This, this un-communication, the fear both of saying the wrong thing and hearing the wrong thing, from both parties, impedes progress.  When I assume someone will react poorly, I rob them of the opportunity to react well.  When I react quickly to profess my difference, I rob the other person of the opportunity to explore how we are the same.  I am different, and there is fear—but if we are to carry forward in bridging between who we are and who we are not, that difference and that fear must be set aside in favor of the bravery to have a conversation, the equally bravery to have it clumsily and with the understanding that there will be landmines to be navigated along the way, and the ultimate bravery of knowing that sometimes a reconciliation of ideas isn’t possible, and an outreached hand will be slapped away, and that the trying is the important part.

As we carry forward in a conversation about diversity, it will be a conversation that is had, by necessity, by a whole bunch of people who are oppressed and biased and privileged in different ways.  We will make mistakes—accidental ignorances, too-quick repudiations.  We will, as we must, react from our personal experiences in the only way we can.

What I encourage—what, I believe, is required in order for us to get where we need to go—is that we allow ourselves to go forward clumsily, imperfectly, with the knowledge that we will make mistakes, and that we know that when those accidental insensitivities are directed at us, at our particular oppressions, at our privileges, we respect the other person enough to not let it go, to air the issue, but to do so with kindness, sensitivity, and the understanding that we are all carrying forward toward the same goal, groping about in the dark together, dressed in the inherent biases of our experience.

I wish I had corrected that pronoun, and I wonder what the conversation would have been then.  I did not have the luxury of that, but I did have the ability to apologize to my friend, which I did.

When you learn to dance with a partner, a good dance teacher tells you to start by spending a few minutes stomping on each others’ toes and saying you’re sorry.  “That’s going to keep happening,” she’ll say, “and you can apologize if you want, but that’s the reality of learning, and it is better if you just get over it and keep dancing.  That’s the only way you’ll get good enough to step clear.”

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