Monday, June 20, 2011

Passing, a symptom of bigotry.

We have been here before, at the threshold of equality, waiting and hoping that tomorrow will see an end to discrimination. That tomorrow will bring the relief and hope of a sunburst after a terrible storm. For many of us, that storm began when we were children and discovered that we were “different.”

Learning how to “pass” as straight was a requisite for survival in grammar and High School. The cost of pretending to be something other than our self was self-hatred. It meant dating people for appearance sake. It meant lying to our parents and siblings, our cousins, our classmates, our teachers, to strangers. It meant laughing along at “fag” jokes told by all of the aforementioned people. Do they know? Do they suspect?

For many of us that psychological and emotional straight jacket, with which we were fitted as children, remained immovably in place as adults. Serving in the military, in religious organizations of our birth, in states without protections for LGBTQ workers, in “corporate cultures” that looked down on “them.”

I was at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama attending Chaplaincy School in 1992. President-Elect Clinton had promised to lift the ban on gay & lesbian service in the Armed Forces. About sixty Chaplains sat in a conference room listening to a lecture from a Major. “Let’s brainstorm,” he said, “the Commander-in-Chief has said he intends to lift the ban on gays in the Air Force. I would like all of you to share how this we can implement this change.”

In my peripheral vision, I saw a glass wall, behind which several Airmen were operating recording equipment. Directly in front of each Chaplain on our desk was a small microphone, about the size of a dime. Perhaps it was seven years of navigating my way through seminary, where comments made at dinner, or on the recreation field, or in class, would appear on reports and be inserted into files. Perhaps it was having gone through years of “peer evaluations” and being voted on by professors as to whether or not I was fit for ordination. Something inside of me sensed this was a trap.

“Sir, until the Uniform Code of Military Justice is amended, it is inappropriate for us to speculate on what laws, policies or procedures will change." My comment abruptly ended the exercise. Years later, I discovered that similar “exercises” took place on other bases and that those who spoke out in favor accommodating gays faced career repercussions.

These memories streamed into my mind as I read the following piece in the Baltimore Sun,

In Maryland, Del. Emmett C. Burns, himself a veteran of the civil rights movement and one of the state's most outspoken opponents of same-sex marriage, gave voice to the disconnect between the two issues. During the floor debate on the gay marriage bill, Delegate Burns, who is a minister, said the push for same-sex unions is not comparable to a civil rights movement in which blacks and their supporters were beaten or killed. "If same-sex marriage is to be equated with the civil rights movement that I know … show me your Birmingham, Alabama, where high-pressure water hoses were turned on us, so powerful they knocked the bark off trees."

Reverend Burns concluded: "I am a black man, an African-American. I cannot change my color, nor do I wish to do so. Those who are gay can disguise their propensity. Even in this legislature, 50 or 100 years ago gays and lesbians were here because they could disguise who they were. I was not here because I can never disguise who I am."

I would encourage Rev. Burns to read the story of black Americans who “passed as white,”

Thelma Marshall knows that routine.

During the 1950s and early '60s, she did what her mother before her had done. What her grandmother and aunts had done.

She passed for white.

"One time I told a woman I was black, colored in those days," Marshall recalled. "She said, 'You won't get the job unless you pass for white.' "

So that's what Marshall did.

"I passed for white on lots of jobs," she said. "I had to be white to get the jobs." It's what many fair-skinned blacks did during those times.

Marshall's remarks are without shame or remorse. She felt she did what she had to do. Still, it is a prickly subject, and the 76-year-old woman does not want to offend so she asked that her real name not be used.

Passing for white offered not only opportunities, but also the opportunities white people received. During slavery, it could mean freedom. There are many documented instances of fair-skinned slaves who posed as white to escape. In modern times, it meant being able to vote in the South. It meant a job in the office rather than a job cleaning the office. It meant schools with the latest equipment and books, instead of dilapidated buildings and out-of-date texts. It often meant better housing. It meant being treated with respect, not disdain.

Barbara Douglass recalls the difference between going out with her white college friends vs. her black college friends.

"We went to a show, about six of us [black students]. The manager came and sat behind us. I asked him 'Why are you sitting behind us?' He said, 'I have to make sure you don't destroy anything.' "

Douglass said she told the manager that he had never sat behind her before.

His response was, "You never came with these people before."

Douglass, who the manager had assumed was white, encouraged her friends to leave the theater rather than be insulted.

So, Rev. Burns, what is worse? Being called an epithet, or having someone like you being called that epithet? No more than you had a voice in your skin color, did I have a voice in my orientation. As a child in the fourth grade when I discovered that I was a homosexual, and then discovered that this was “wrong.” I spent decades of my life trying to repress who I was and “passed” as straight, as Thelma Marshall and Barbara Douglass “passed” as whites.

You speak of being able to “disguise” who you are as some sort of a luxury, or personal indulgence. Shame on you Sir! Shame, for your lack of empathy and for the ignorance you have of your own people’s suffering. Shame for having come from a people who were subjected to discrimination and for now choosing to be an instrument of discrimination for another group of human beings.

If the Buddhist are correct, you will come back as a gay man in a culture you helped to create. If Catholics are correct, the same fate will be your purgatory. If Protestants are correct, it may well be your own personal hell. Sadly, for us all, you (like Archbishop Dolan of New York) help to make hell on earth by being an instrument of discrimination, by adding to the sufferings of others, by choosing to be a bigot.


Matthew said...

Because I am so effeminate, I could never pass. So, while I was taunted and teased and bullied incessantly as a young boy, I later came to see this as a benefit. It was easier to be out and to come out because everyone around me decided when I was 6 or 7 that I was gay -- why else were they calling me a cocksucker, a fairy, a sissy and faggot?

BUT, and this is my problem with religious conservatives, is that as I was being bullied and called all of these names, I had never actually had sex, or had an erection or an ejaculation because I was too young for that. Which proves the LIE of those who say its just behavior and so don't act it. Excuse me, but lots of clergy people were also calling me those names when I was 6 and 7 and 8 and yet I had not committed sexual sin. This issue is NOT about whether homosexuality is sinful or not, clearly, it is about fear of effeminate men. And yet, I am supposed to repent for homosexual conduct, but not one of the people who bullied me has ever apologized.

Father Geoff said...

Dear Matthew,

It takes a few minutes to write what you wrote. It takes a few seconds to read what you wrote. In real time, what you wrote represents years of abuse and the pain caused by that abuse. Furthermore, many will gloss over the fact that this abuse, as you state, was (and is now) being visited on children who do not have an adult emotional, psychological or mental skill set to deal with these attacks. Such wounds caused many, as we saw in the spate of suicides last year, to take their own lives.

You hit on something else very profound in your comment when you said, “but not one of the people who bullied me has ever apologized.” Those who have abused others invoke God or Patriotism as a justification for the moral evil they have visited upon others. Thank you for your strength and courage! It is time to stand up, speak up and stop this evil.

Matthew said...

Father Geoff, You are so right. I was suicidal during my teenage years. I owe my life to one woman. I was raised a Lutheran in the far northern reaches of Minnesota -- fortunately a pretty liberal variety of Lutheranism -- not Misery Synod -- though the church I was baptised in no longer exists because that was before the big merger. But, I had so much anguish due to the abuse and needed to tell someone. I felt I could not tell my parents. So, I told my pastor, a wonderful woman. I made an appt with her after school one weekday around 3:30 or so and I came out to her. She was totally accepting and even told me she would set me up on a date with her nephew if I ever left town and went to college in Minneapolis. And she talked to my parents which paved the way for their acceptance. And, about a month after I came out to her, she preached against bullying from the pulpit. And that is when things started to get better and I accepted myself.

I have remained in contact with my childhood pastor. She is retired now but I am proud to say that I could now be ordained in that church. She also said she would officiate at a same sex blessing ceremony for me now that ELCA has moved in this direction. I guess in the 1980's she was where the church ended up in 2009. There was so much negativity surrounding me that I needed that bright light. I still love Northern Minnesota and on some level feel at home among Scandinavian Americans. Yet when I go back home its eerie to run into some of these people and they pretend it never happened and that they are all gay friendly now as if it was always true. I simply cannot go to another high school reunion because of the forced smile routine. However, when I went to that old church a few summers ago my partner and I were treated well. Things are getting better, but like post-war Germany, people cannot talk about the sins they committed or in which they were complicit.

Mareczku said...

Matthew, thank you so much for sharing your story. From sharing our stories, I feel that we learn. The more I read the more I feel blessed. I consider myself lucky because I went to Catholic school and never really heard one word from someone in authority against homosexuality or gay people. I was also lucky because I didn't feel a lot of peer pressure. In truth the other guys didn't really talk about girls or sex or use much bad language around me. Perhaps because I was different. In general, I feel that I was treated with respect. I did get a little bit of teasing, my best friend would call me "tinker bell" or "gay boy" from time to time but I just put up with it. I liked people and never really had a bad word to say about anyone so I don't feel that I was really ever bullied. An interesting thing is that a female friend of mine showed me a letter that another girl that liked me wrote to her and she said, "Everybody knows that he is gay." The odd thing about this is that I don't remember this upsetting me, it was just a piece of information that I filed away in my memory.