Friday, March 5, 2010

An Unorthodox Perspective on Opposition To Gay Rights

I'm strongly for gay marriage, gays in the military, and, generally, gays having every right anyone else enjoys. But I'd like to pull away a few layers of collective amnesia.

When I was growing up, there was exactly one black child in my class, and he was, to me, scary and different. I certainly never hated him or excluded him - and couldn't have imagined doing either. It was just that there seemed to be an unbridgeable chasm. Conclusive proof could be found in his hair, which was, after all, so strange!

After escaping my sheltered suburban existence, I came to meet, work, and hang out with hundreds of black people. With familiarity, they stopped seeming scary and different. Well, some still seemed scary, but it was because they truly were scary. I had learned to gauge scariness on the merits, rather than on the basis of unfamiliarity. I moved to NYC and launched a career playing black music, finding myself perennially the only white guy in the band. I can recall watching the Count Basie band on TV as a child, wondering whether the sole white musician felt weird. I can firmly reply to my younger self: no. It doesn't feel weird at all.

I also remember, as a kid, accidentally sending the elevator to the basement of my grandparents' apartment building. The doors opened, and Cuban workers, speaking some incomprehensible and alien-sounding language, were eating food that smelled like rotten garbage. I mashed my finger on the "door close" button and held my breath, made nauseous and faint by the stench of the disgusting stuff these strange people were eating.

The smell was garlic. Obviously, I'm well over that now. I also speak good Spanish. And I've sat in plenty of basements with Cubans noshing on garlicky this or that.

Are you getting the idea? Ok, one more.

In grade school in the 1970's, I never met a gay person. Of course, I met hundreds of them, but had no way of knowing. With anyone the least bit effeminate, there were suspicions. Not that I'd want to, like, beat them up. Or wish them unhappiness. But, once again, there was, again, that eerie feeling of unbridgeable chasm. In college, a fellow trombonist drove me home from a gig and casually mentioned, as he drove smoothly through the rain, that he was gay. I nearly opened the door and jumped out. Homophobia, after all, is fear, not hatred. The term has come to apply to both, but, unlike hatred, it's hard to condemn fear.

Having subsequently met lots of gay people, the fear's gone. I no longer worry, ala Tennessee Ernie Ford on I Love Lucy, that gay people want to, like, "vamp" me.

Phew. The above was uncomfortable to publicly spill. As I view my early life, it certainly doesn’t strike me as "A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Bigot". But here's the thing: I've snapped back from these fearful-not-hateful perspectives not because some higher consciousness kicked in. I changed because: 1. I met lots of black people, gay people, and garlicky fried bananas, (and fear of the unknown goes away when the unknown becomes known), and 2. society around me changed, and my role models were embracing rather than recoiling from Otherness. I hadn't seen much of that as a kid. When I did, something clicked.

The same is true for you, I'll bet. Admit it: in 1975 (if you were alive and sentient in 1975) you'd never have favored legalization of gay marriage or gays in the military. How about 1985? 1995? For nearly all of us, it took time for tolerance to develop. It required exposure plus a general trend toward multiculturalism. And the thing to bear in mind is that many people in this country haven't had those things! They live in places with less exposure both to gays and to the general notion of multiculturalism. The rest of us may feel more evolved, but we oughtn’t gloat over our high-mindedness. There were factors in play, and without those factors we’d still see things as we did in 1975. And here's the thing: there are still 1975 people out there, and they need time to catch up.

Really, I think a lot of them are coming along beautifully. What a remarkably pliant society this is, where, in a mere three decades, raw fish has become accepted (imagine serving sashimi in Duluth in 1980!) and people are even discussing, more or less civilly, legalizing gay marriage!

Obviously, I'm not talking about vicious bigots and thugs who scream "faggot". They're beyond the pale. But the hordes voting against gay rights measures are not that. They’re mostly nice, reasonably tolerant people, who don't wish gay people ill, but still find the shifts a wee bit scary and sudden. They haven't been where you or I have been, and haven't seen what we've seen. I don't sneer at them, because I was 1975, myself.

We must legalize gay marriage and sanction gays in military. And we will. The way seems bumpy, but it helps to remember that most resistance is not rooted in hatred or prejudice. It's more mild and benign - just people needing to get a little more comfortable with changing notions. For me, a New York City musician/writer living squarely in 2010, change seems ripely overdue. To understand others, I juxtapose my 1975 self, and can better empathize with their sense of disorienting acceleration.

Of course, opponents will need to adjust their comfort levels after the discriminatory laws are changed. No minority should have to endure discrimination while waiting for the majority to wise up.

End Notes:

1. Not one Republican joined the eleven senators who last week introduced legislation repealing "Don't Ask/Don't Tell"....even though the secretary of defense, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Colin Powell and John Shalikashvili have all called for repeal.

2. My writing here is vulnerable to the DiFara Pizza Effect. When I first ate at that vaunted pizzeria, the place was perennially empty, and owner Dom DeMarco was on the brink of shutting down. Now, of course, he's become a huge sensation, and I keep hearing from scads of people who claim they were regulars there long before the place came to public attention. The question is: where were all those congnescenti when the place was vacant and Mr. DeMarco was dejected and thinking of shutting down?

The DiFara Pizza Effect makes it likely that many (straight) people will read this and insist they were staunchly pro-Gay rights all the way back to 1975. If so, my question is: where were you when gays were being beaten and arrested and no one was uttering a word in their defense?


Chuck said...


One of the reasons I like reading your blog is posts like these that empathize with the unpopular.


vhliv said...

I'm not sure the Di Fara's Pizza effect applies here. While I do not dispute that anyone saying they were for gay marriage and gays in the military back in the 1970s is suspect, that does not mean that such peoples' claims to be supportors' of gay rights since way back is necessarily untrue. The issues and sensitivities were simply different, just as the top agenda items of the NAACP have changed over the years. Just remember how Anita Bryant's commercials advertising Florida Orange Juice disappeared after she became a poster child of anti-gay prejudice back in the 1970s. I might also add that at that time gay activists were unlikely to care much about serving in the military -- many had, if anything done all they could, short of perhaps outing themselves pre-Stonewall, to avoid serving and ending up in Vietnam. Similarly as part of the upheavals of the 1960s marriage was viewed as a more suspect institution by young straights in the 1970s, and so it makes sense that gays themselves were not focusing on that issue back then.

Jim Leff said...

vhliv, all excellent points, every one of them, thanks very much.

I could claim lack of space prevented me from delving into the subtler issues you pointed out...if you hadn't managed to do so with such economy! :)

vhliv said...

Thanks Jim. What a compliment! :)

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