Gooseflesh. That’s what I thought when I looked at the shoulders of the woman two seats to my left. Despite the bright sun, the cool breeze off Spring Lake had turned her bare shoulders to gooseflesh. I thought of how appropriate that expression was – how much her skin looked like the skin of those chickens I remembered from childhood. After their decapitated bodies had taken a turn in the scalding pot, the feathers had been easy to pull out. I remembered how the texture of their bared skin had seemed both grotesque and compelling. I looked forward at the gathering bridesmaids and saw that their shoulders were also bare. Did they all have gooseflesh?
The minister was a friend of the bride’s family, so at first I was sanguine about his avuncular style. Pretty soon, though, he started to seem needlessly puerile, as though he were plying a group of children for cheap laughs. It got worse when he made a joke about how God made Adam from dirt, and how that goes to show man's status. I was embarrassed and saddened because I saw in his comment the exploitation of hurtfulness.
Since college I've noticed that arguments between men and women tend to boil down to a very simple exchange: an adolescent boy screaming "You're ugly!" and an adolescent girl screaming back "You can't get it up!" Vitriol runs between the genders like a brackish river, and men like that minister are just smart enough to stick in a water wheel and draw some power from the flow. It's much easier to convince a woman that she should willingly stay behind her man if you smile and wink and say "Men are just big and dumb and we need someone to take care of us, am I right, ladies?" It was a morally bankrupt and intellectually slipshod disgrace, made worse by his simpering obviousness. It was also just a warm-up.
I wanted to believe it was the cold medication making me hallucinate but no, these words had actually just came out of his mouth: "It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." It had never occurred to me that anyone would actually speak those words out loud. Sure, maybe you'd give in to temptation and type that saying in an e-mail because you thought it was cute, but it beggars my imagination to think that someone would actually give breath to words that idiotic.
Now I can articulate my stupefaction at the thought that anyone would truly want to win people over with a silly rhyme. As rhetorical devices go, that's a... that's not even a pointed stick. It's a stick with an awkward bend in it that's not even good for poking. But at the time I wasn't full of ironic commentary. I was angry that someone had taken what should have been a hallowed ceremony and cheapened it by turning it into a political forum. I was angry that I'd been made a part of it. I was angry at myself for being naive enough to be surprised when I heard those words that, until then, had been nothing more than a silly joke.
After the ceremony I went back to the car and tried to sleep. I was sick as a dog from a sinus infection, so I had a good excuse to stay away from the reception. I kept toying with the idea of going back in there and starting up conversations in which people would ask me what I do and I would say "These days I spend a lot of time praying that, someday soon, homosexual marriage will be made legal in every state of this fine land of ours." Since I didn't want to make a scene, I thought that staying away was a good idea. Then again, I wanted to be with my fiancee at her friend's wedding reception. I fretted, failed to sleep, and eventually came up with a way to reconcile it.
To my mind, the minister had taken something precious and cheapened it unimaginably; what should have been a ceremony about love and commitment had become a whore's bauble. But that's no skin off my nose, right? Whore's baubles can be nice enough to look at from time to time. It wouldn't kill me to spend the evening in the presence of paste nestled between perfumed breasts.
So I went back in and danced with my honey and ate dinner. Then, being so sick that I was no good to anyone, I went back to the motel for about ten hours of miserable semi-delirium. My rage at having been made a part of a political statement with which I disagreed wholeheartedly became the cannon fire in my 1812 Overture of chills, sweats, and despising humankind.
There was something unavoidably familiar about my anger. My father had a robust disdain for bullshit, and my mother's side of the family had an overdeveloped disdain for outsiders. Both had more than a hint of a snarl and a sneer. And that's how I felt: disdainful, snarling and sneering. The idea of handing down hatred from one generation to the next like an heirloom is anathema to me. Yet there are parts of my father's disdain for bullshit that I heartily admire. I went round and round in my head, wondering how I could divorce myself from anger and, once that was done, do something useful with what was left.
I spent Monday helping to drive the twelve hours back from Michigan, almost completely failing to sleep, and mulling it over. I fell asleep as soon as we got home. The next morning, during that lucid state before waking, something useful came to me. As usual, it involved empathy.
When I was a kid, the word "nigger" was not that uncommon in my family. I vividly remember an incident during my teens when my uncle, sitting in the car with the rest of the family, pointed at a young boy running by and said "Look at that little nigger!" He smiled and laughed as he said it, and his need was immediately clear: the boy had to be obviously funny, with no explanation asked or given. At least I had the wherewithal to challenge him on that one: I asked “What about him?”, he said “Well look at him!”, I said “What about him??”, and he said “Never mind” and backed off. Of course he couldn’t explain the simple truth that the boy was not of our tribe, our pack, our particular little group of naked apes.
I wish I could say that that ugly word never made it past my uncle’s generation, but back in elementary school I used it on a girl in my class a few times, to her face. She was the only dark-skinned girl in town. I said it because it was easy - because it made me feel superior.
I remember listening to Eddie Murphy's breakout comedy routine on cassette during my early teens - it was the one that was later named "Delirious" when it was put on video. In it, he said the word "faggot" a lot, even employing the highly memorable epithet of “faggot-ass faggot!” I got quite a kick out of that. I don't remember whether I actually used the word out loud much, if at all, but it wouldn't surprise me if I used it as a generalized insult to other children.
What's the connection? Ease. It was easy for that minister to say "It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." I understand this. I wish I didn't, but I do. Because I know how easy it is to say "nigger" or "faggot". All you need is sufficient ignorance to think of another human being as The Other.
I thought about all this, and about the moment during my early years at Cornell when, for the first time, I saw two girls holding hands. I could take you back to within thirty feet of where I was standing. I thought of what an important moment that was for me, and thought of the millions of people who haven’t knowingly met a homosexual. That’s when I got the idea for this blog: Put a face on The Other so that they're no longer The Other.
Each day I'll post the picture of a non-straight person and a short autobiographical passage. This is a very simplistic idea that (hopefully) most people nowadays don't need, and the truly hateful will ignore. But people who are capable of changing their minds when confronted with the evidence may look at this parade of faces on the screen and realize… they’re just people. My goal is to put a human face on what people like that minister try to turn into a punchline.
The Swallows of Mission San Juan Capistrano
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