When you’re a kid, you don’t see difference. You’re trained to see difference by a society that tells you that other people are not like you. You are told to hate that.
When I was small, both of my younger brothers were born with genetic illnesses they wouldn’t survive. Because we couldn’t afford a nurse to take care of them, or food most of the time, the state paid for an in-home nurse. Her name was Julia, and she was black. I was best friends with her daughter, Lauren. Lauren and I would play Cowboys and Indians together after school, and sometimes on school days when our mothers let us play hooky. Because of my brothers, I got to stay home a lot. My preschool teachers always understood.
I knew that Lauren had different skin than I did, but it didn’t register until one day when I was watching Sally Jesse Raphael with her mother, who is an active television watcher like my mother. It was one of the reasons they were such good friends. Julia would lean into the television as if she wanted to touch the people inside it. The segment that day was on being black in America. During one of the discussions in the episode, Sally interviewed a young black woman about her experiences with race, and Julia said to her, “I know how you feel, honey.” She leaned in as if for comfort. I couldn’t tell which direction that comfort needed to travel.
But I didn’t understand what Julia was sad about. Julia wasn’t “black.” Julia was like me, and I was like Lauren. Julia was us, and us couldn’t be black — whatever that signified. I walked up to her and put my hand on her shoulder. I tried to console her, “Don’t worry. You’re not black. You’re just made of chocolate.” Julia immediately exploded with laughter, so hard that she fell off the couch.
I wouldn’t understand what it meant to be different until I went off to elementary school and saw that no one else looked like her, where the other kids asked me about my Asian last name. It wasn’t until I made a drawing of my Native American ancestors as an assignment for Diversity Day, while everyone else created cute cartoon leprechauns and pieces of pizza, and they looked at me as if I drew an alien. It wasn’t until I asked my stepsister if she would marry someone “who didn’t look like she did.” She responded: “You mean a black person? No, that’s disgusting.”
I was ten and my stepsister was eight. We were at my father’s wedding to his second wife, her mother, and I told her we couldn’t be friends anymore and refused to speak to her for the rest of the reception. When my father found out, he took me outside and scolded me. Trying to be a good husband and keep the party going, my father promised me punishment when I got home. In the meantime, he told me to stop being rude and enjoy myself. He kissed me on the forehead and told me he loved me. This was for my own good.
My parents taught me what gay people were. Before he divorced my mother, I remember watching a Richard Simmons video at home with my father and Julia. Julia loved Richard Simmons and so did I — for his loud costumes, wild hair and the way the screen lit up when he was on camera. Simmons didn’t look like most other people I saw on TV, and his voice was unbearably shrill, but I liked that. It was how my prepubescent, pre-queer voice sounded. I thought he meant I could be myself. Instead, my father made us change the channel, because he didn’t want to watch that. I asked him what “that” was. I wanted know why I wasn’t allowed to sweat to the oldies. I felt like Lucy Ricardo, kept from the one thing I really wanted for reasons that weren’t clear. Why couldn’t I be in the show? He wouldn’t say.
The next time I saw Richard Simmons on TV, I changed the channel myself.
A few years later, I was driving down the road with my mother after we went to get a soda at the store. I bought a Sprite because it had the most bubbles, and I liked the way they tickled my nose when they reached the surface. I put it between my legs so I could put my hands out the rolled-down window, trying to grab the summer air. We were listening to Elton John, as he pined in space for a home he could never return to. Elton John was my mother’s favorite, and she loved him dearly. She sometimes would sway with him in the dark as she got used to a life without my father. Elton was her candle in the divorce. However, she told me that if she I found out I was “like that,” she would “lock me in a closet and beat me.” I got it now.
I accidentally squeezed the Sprite between my legs, and the bubbles burst everywhere. They didn’t tickle this time. They were cold.
I brought this incident up to my mother almost a decade afterward, because it was a formative memory from my childhood. When I grew older and my queerness became apparent, my mother became an ally and, more importantly, someone I could talk to, and she doesn’t remember a time when she was not supportive or wasn’t by my side, fighting with me. But I remember things differently. I remember when I was nine and having a hard time relating to the other kids around me, not as athletic and coordinated as the other boys or socially adept enough to hang out with the girls. I felt like I would never be accepted or have someone to love me for who I was.
When I asked her if she would be my friend, my mother admitted that if she were my age, she wouldn’t be. She didn’t hang out with kids like me back when she was in school.
She probably thought she was being helpful by being honest. She was being a good mother, sparing me years of pain by encouraging me to just fit in and keep my difference to myself. I needed to be like other boys — or I would always be picked on for being too short and too much of a “sissy.” I would always be the kid whose backpack was thrown in the garbage can and the one nobody would sit next to on the bus. I was destined to be alone. Adolescence is much easier when you drift along with the current and stop fighting the waves. It’s a lot like drowning.
You don’t hate by accident. You have to be taught to hate — in little ways that are reinforced every day, ways you might not even recognize. In my case, hating yourself takes a lifetime. It involves the help of many people around you. It takes standing in church and watching everyone talk to a God they think hates you, listening to a bunch of people silently pray that you will pay for being different, because they think it’s the right thing to do. They think they are doing what God wants. I remember the nice ladies in church who hugged me when I was in the closet and hugged me differently after I came out, when I kept going to the same Baptist congregation, daring them not to accept me. They hugged me harder because they didn’t want to let go of something. They just weren’t sure of what.
No one thinks of themselves as a bigot. They don’t look in the mirror and say, “I hate gay people. I am a homophobe.” Those women didn’t hate me. They loved me so much that they didn’t want me to stay the way I was. They didn’t want me to experience an eternity of damnation. They wanted to save me, just like my mother did. My mother didn’t want me to come home crying or have to stay up late with me because I was too scared to go to school the next day. She didn’t want the world to break my heart at such a young age, and it was too hard to ask everyone around me to change. So she asked me to change and broke my heart her own way. I was the one being punished again for not understanding what being different meant.
I thought about this some months ago when I read a tweet from “Morgon Freeman,” a fake Twitter account that facetiously bills itself as “messages from God” — or Black Hollywood God. In the tweet, Freeman wrote, “I hate the word homophobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole.” Were those nice ladies from church assholes? Was my mother being an asshole? Is my father still an asshole? My father and I haven’t had a real conversation in years, not just because I’m queer but because there’s something about me he fundamentally can’t relate to.
When I took Eric, my brother from my father’s second marriage, to see Life of Pi, my father made a strangely big deal about it, but in a mock-genial manner. He told us it was a “girl movie,” and we should go see something else instead. How about the Red Dawn remake?
My father hadn’t seen Life of Pi. He didn’t even know what it was about. His problem wasn’t with the movie. He couldn’t articulate what his problem was, the problem he can never talk about, the one we’ve never talked about. He was scared that I’m growing up to be different than he is and that I’m going to have a life he doesn’t understand. He thinks he’s going to get left behind. It’s the same look I saw in his eyes when I was a kid and wanted to play with Barbies or asked to try on a dress. It’s the same look I saw when I told him I was going to art school. It’s the same look I saw when I eventually told him that the family I create wouldn’t look like his.
He already lost two sons. He was afraid of losing another.
I thought about my father when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece last week in the New York Times, which discussed the recent frisking of Forest Whitaker in a New York deli. This incident was yet another example of daily aggressions and microaggressions, not the capital-R racism that we’re constantly told is a relic of the past but the smaller racisms that go ignored, the ones that thrive in the margins. It’s about the racism that’s so ingrained we don’t notice, the racism of “nice” people. Coates writes,
“In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist…The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion…But much worse, it haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence that is given tell only when the victim happens to be an Oscar winner.”
We do this with homophobia. We believe homophobia to be the exclusive territory of diehards, the people who wave signs that “God Hates Fags” or broadcast their revulsion through a microphone outside Old Navy on State Street. We label them as “crazy” and quickly look away.
However, bigotry isn’t so easily identifiable. It doesn’t always wave signs or march on your funeral or spit in your face at a Pride parade. Bigotry might be your grandfather who turns away slightly when you hug your boyfriend or your grandmother who asks you’re bringing your “friend” to Christmas. It might be your mother who gave life to you but doesn’t know how to deal with this other thing inside you, who fights herself to love you better. It might live in your own heart, tucked away in one of the rooms you never go into, a room you might not know is there. It might shine in that ersatz smile you show to the trans* and queer homeless youth that walk down your street, the ones you push past and learn to politely ignore when you get that late-night cocktail. It might be the neighborhood you want to keep “nice.”
When I reflect on 2011’s Take Back Boystown meetings in Chicago and the people who told our local youths they don’t belong here in our space, I don’t think about bad people. I think about people who fear losing something. I think about my father. I think we’re all not as different as we imagine.
A great filmmaker I know once interviewed Rev. Fred Phelps for a documentary. This is how I remember her story. She told me that when she turned the camera on, Phelps spewed the conservative religious dogma he is famous for, performing the intolerance we expect of him. However, after the film stopped rolling, Rev. Fred Phelps became a different person. He offered her a glass of water, because it was a hot day and he worried she wasn’t properly hydrated. Phelps and his wife doted on her. They cooked for her. She met members of their family. She shook their hands. She sat on their couch and talked with them.
When she said goodbye and took her crew with her, they embraced her, hugging her differently than she expected. They hugged her like they didn’t want to let go. She told me they were the nicest people she’s ever met.