Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Abyss Revisited

I've been feeling bad since around Thanksgiving, when I had a troubling argument with my sister while visiting the family home. It wouldn't hurt so much if the argument had been about what happened that day. But it was about something that happened over a year ago.

Last year at about this time I wrote about how my sister shushed me for saying the word "gay" in front of her children. At the time, I got furious because I felt that I finally understood her previously incomprehensible behavior: she didn't actually disagree with my activism because, as she said, "[gay people] may not want your help"; the truth was that she didn't like gay people, and she didn't want me helping them.

So for a year I've been more distant, not talking to her about it because I felt like she hadn't been straight with me. Yeah, I know. Not the most productive behavior.

So when my bottled-up resentment came out, it came out big -- and it got bigger. Because when I first mentioned my anger over her shushing me, she rounded on me, expressing her anger that I would say "that word" in front of her children. I was so furious that I wanted to say to her "You're mad at me? Well, guess what? My mad is bigger than yours!"

So I started out by saying "You want me to pretend that gay people don't exist? Well, I guess I'd better not let them know that niggers exist, either, huh?" She sputtered in shock that I would make the comparison, so eventually I switched tactics. I said "OK, how about albinos? Should I pretend that albinos don't exist? What's the difference?"

My sister kept sputtering about how albinos look physically different, but with gay people it's a sexual preference. And I kept cutting her off, driving home the point that I was not talking about sex. This point is critical to me, because I feel that the primary argument against exposing children to the notion of same-sex couples is absurd. People say that for children to read a book about Timmy's two daddies is to bring sex into the classroom. Nonsense. I say -- and I kept saying to my sister -- that if you claim that the book about Timmy's daddies is sexual, then you have to say that a book about Jane's mommy and daddy is also sexual.

Well, long story short: I told my sister that there are hundreds of ways in which I will defer to her judgment in my interactions with her children, but I will not pretend that my gay friends don't exist. I said that I don't feel that she gets to edit my conversation to that extent. She said that she thinks she does. I replied that I would not bring any agenda to a conversation to her children, but if my friend Mel and her girlfriend should happen to come up in a conversation, I would mention them. And then it would be her choice whether she wanted to cut off my contact with them.

I was enraged and indignant and frustrated that night. My frustration arose mainly from my inability to articulate the distinction between those ways in which I will defer to my sister's judgment, and that one way in which I wont. The distinction is there. It's real. I can see it in my mind's eye, and yet... I can't articulate it to myself, let alone my sister.

I feel that the closest I've come is this: My niece and nephew do not deserve an uncle who is so craven as to desert his friends. They deserve an uncle who would never pretend that his friends don't exist. And I'm going to give them that uncle, or nothing at all. That's why I feel perfectly comfortable with telling her that if she doesn't like it, she can keep me from seeing them.

During the following days my anger faded, and I was able to feel my pain more and more. I wished that I'd brought up the topic earlier so that my anger wouldn't have had a chance to fester. Maybe then I wouldn't have left feeling like I'd just had a deeply encysted wound lanced. Maybe then I wouldn't have felt bad about castigating my sister for something that happened a year ago.

Then, once I was able to think more clearly, a new thought came to me: I missed a big opportunity. Since I became an ally and an advocate, I've known that it's my job to listen to people who disagree with me, because if no one listens then nothing gets accomplished. Only when one party makes the effort to genuinely engage with the other can a dialectic begin.

I let my anger get the better of me, and I unloaded all my self-righteous rage onto my sister. And in so doing I missed a big opportunity. After all, if I can't calmly listen to my sister, whom can I listen to?

So. Next time I have some time alone with my sister, I'm going to calmly ask her to talk to my about why she feels the way she feels. Until I do that, I can't hope to understand it.


  1. I applaud you for trying, but if listening is not a 2 way street "they" control the conversation and it becomes a heteronormative, homophobic monologue. No, yelling screaming and letting your righteous indignation get the best of you is not the way to go about it either, but if you can't make them listen too, you can't acheive progress.

  2. Michael, thank you for reading!

    The problem is that I've already done the righteous indignation thing. I think that I owe her one session of me simply listening to her. I disagree with her so strongly that, if I open my mouth at all, I know I will quickly slide down the slippery slope and within moments I'll be fulminating again. I can let her say what she has to say, and listen to it, and consider it, without conceding anything. She already knows that my stance is strong, so I don't think there's any risk of her thinking that the end of that conversation will be the end of the dialogue.

  3. And only you know your sister, and who knows maybe if she is allowed to get her stance out in the open constructively and unargued, maybe SHE will listen....
    but in general it seems that doesn't work...
    but one heart and one mind at a time...