It’s interesting how things come to your attention.
I know what I’m going to write about here 50% of the time – it becomes clear mid-week. Something moves me or demands to be spoken about. I see patterns to experiences that make sense and they get grouped together in my mind – like the items in a grocery cart that when looked at as a whole are uniquely you whether you like it or not. (Note: Yes YOU – do NOT put back that box of Skittles or step away from the Oreos).
Another 25% of the time there’s a breaking news story, entertainment scandal, or offensive thing that begs for attention. Whitney dies; the Oscars happen; Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has a brain freeze mid-debate during his misguided quest for the presidency; or Transformers 32: Robot Drone Wars makes $732 million in its opening weekend at the box-office when I’m 97 years-old and the world’s final ironic middle finger in my direction demands I hold off on all the meaningful words I had planned to say in my last blog in order to actually write about the universe of crap I’m sadly leaving behind.
Luckily then, there’s the other 25% of the time. Who knows what hits you. It could be anything at all or perhaps even nothing. The latter is when Holly Van Buren, my dear friend and inveterate notes editor/image chooser, will point out that thing to me that nudges it all in the direction of a certain subject I might speak of.
That’s what happened this week. But not in the way either of us thought.
A middle-aged man owning his widowhood. (Note: Middle-aged? Was she trying to tell me something?) Actually, it’s a great article in a blog called Modern Loss and was written by an editor at St. Martin’s Press. Very heartfelt. A little sad. Like most writers this man is working out his feelings through honest words – in this case losing his longtime, uh…partner… friend… …lover(?) of 25 years. Okay, but does that mean that Michael Flamini can’t call himself a widower, even though both he and his fella, Gary Lussier, each rather hilariously turned down the others’ marriage proposal (even when it finally became legal) during the space of that quarter of a century? That is the question that is asked, and then answered there.
It does not denigrate Michael’s essay in any way to say that what is most significant about his essay at this point in time for me is not his story in particular – and his story could certainly be mine with a few revisions, we’re within the ballpark of the same age. Rather, it’ s about the person who casually gave it to me. And the fact that it was casually given at all.
Holly is in her late 20s and a dear friend (editor’s note: this is generous, she is mere months from 30). She knows I adore her and she also knows I respect her talents for many things, the least of which are putting together the captions and photos for NFAC and for helping to edit it when I’m not quite making the sense I thought I was.
Holly was also my student briefly in the previous decade, and then worked with me at school and co-taught several writing classes with me where – together – we worked with any number of students even younger than she is. I’ve also remained in touch with many of these students long after graduation and more than one or two have also become personal friends while the rest remain in my life in various other ways.
What makes that all meaningful to anyone but me is that any one of these young people – all in their twenties – would be just as likely to forward this article referencing a gay man’s widowhood to me. Not to mention the likelihood that others of their peers I haven’t heard from in a while but might be just as likely to drop by – might also decide to send it.
There would be no hesitation at all about subject matter. No judgment on lifestyle. No consideration of crossing a line of any kind. No thought at all, in fact, that this couple were really any different than their parents or peers or any other two people who had decided for whatever good, bad or indifferent reasons, to love each other and cohabitate for more than a night or two or three or more.
We in the gay community, or any minority of your choosing, tend to believe that true change comes in the form of the right to be married or to receive equal pay to others who do the same job we do. We might also think it arrives in the form of membership to a former exclusive neighborhood or country club or perhaps being the first of our kind to achieve something else in some other arena.
All of the above is certainly true. These are much needed evolutions of laws and opportunities in society – not to be negated by any means.
But if you want to know what real change and acceptance looks like – it is the change I see around me everyday in the faces of Holly and those younger than Holly and the casualness of her, or them, passing on that article to me.
It is the faces of young kids enjoying their 2 Moms, or their 2 Uncles from West Hollywood or even, and most especially, from Peoria. It is that moment when you hear that over 60% of evangelical conservatives under the age of 35 are pro-gay marriage and are fighting to rid the Republican Party platform of anti-gay language. It is the strange look on the faces of older White men who were once virulently anti-queer when they find out one of their children or relatives are gay, lesbian or transgender and, rather than shun them, do a total about face publicly of beliefs they had always assumed were intractable.
It is the mere fact that Holly and most other straight people in their twenties can identify with the pain a gay person twice their age might feel at the loss of their significant other. It is that disconnect they have when they see this gay couple treated differently than any other couple they know. And it is the anger and sadness they express when they realize this couple does not have the same rights that other couples, or even other single people, have in more than half the states in this country. They truly don’t understand it.
This is what change looks like. In small gestures that often go unnoticed, as well as larger statements in public life that draw the spotlight of everyone’s attention. But is it the former that begets the latter or the other way around? Hmm, I wonder.
As great as all of this is – and it is great, have no doubt – it should not give activists or any one of us any reason to rest.
I’m fortunate enough to be a double minority (at the very least!) – gay and Jewish. Granted, I’m a bit of a lapsed Jew considering last week I ate Chinese food on the first night of Passover (no matzo rolls, included) and made pizza on the second night for my partner and me. Still, I am and forever will be Jewish. It’s the way I was raised – the feeling I have about justice, education, polyester knit pants suits and yes…food. More specifically, it is my love of all things chicken – soup or otherwise – in addition to a constant craving for lox, bagels, black and white cookies, and yes, Chinese take out food, especially on Sunday nights. (Note: Okay – maybe the latter is for the very specific subset of NY Jew). Not to mention my lifelong affection for Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, despite whatever missteps they might make (Note #2: Fine, the latter also has something to do with my other minority – though perhaps it may not).
All this said, imagine my surprise this past week when I also happened to read the story about the town in east Ukraine where newly installed pro-Russian forces were ordering Jews on the street via official government pamphlet that they are ALL required to pay a $50 fee to register as Jews at an official government building and to submit a detailed list of all the property they own. And that failure to do so would cause immediate deportation and a surrendering of all of their possessions.
(Note: Several people in the local Ukrainian government did question the authenticity of the story for several days but it was then later confirmed by many other international news sources).
Does any of this sound familiar? Well, it should – for many reasons.
We know that the last place this happened to Jewish residents of a country so publicly was in Nazi Germany – or, more rightly, in the plethora of movies and TV shows depicting Nazi Germany that have been seen by those of us who didn’t live through that particular hell in the many decades since. Yes, there are numerous individual anti-Semitic outbursts worldwide, even in this country (Note: Like last week’s incompetent former KKK member who went on a Heil Hitler shooting spree near a local Jewish facility in Kansas and managed to kill only three non-Jews). But nothing so insidiously Nazi has so publicly happened in the context of an in-progress, power-shifting government takeover (Ukraine) by one of the three leading military powers in the world (Russia).
One’s initial thought, particularly as a member of said minority, is merely another version of what was said by the Ukrainian naysayers. And that is
– Pshhh, this kind of thing doesn’t happen in the civilized world anymore. It’s been so condemned worldwide that no one would dare do it again or be dumb enough to think they might even be able to do get away with doing it again. Certainly not by a superpower like Russia that just so publicly (and victoriously?) hosted the Winter Olympics on the worldwide stage, right?
– Though wait…didn’t…um…Hitler’s Germany also host the Summer Olympics to much fanfare on the worldwide stage in…uh…19….36???
– Wait, if they did it then – who is to say that in just a few years there won’t also be….uh…..what???? Nah…. Wait, what?????
This is what it’s like to be part of a historically persecuted minority. There is always some tiny part of you, if you’re alert or even half-conscious, that is looking over your shoulder to make sure all is okay. You want to let down your guard, and sometimes, perhaps not often enough, you do. Yet there are always events like the happenings in that little eastern town to bring you back to reality again and cause you to question just how much change is really possible. I myself will admit to thinking the Ukrainian news story was actually a piece written for The Onion when I first saw it – that’s how willing I’ve been to chill out and be California mellow these days.
Often times people tell me I shouldn’t answer back a right wing crazy at a dinner party, or even more publicly. Or post the latest incendiary homophobic statement made by a fringe member of Congress like Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) on Facebook. That it calls more attention to a crazy position that might otherwise go ignored. But this is exactly why I do it. To nip this sort of thing in the bud. To stop it before it can fester any further.
This is why I’m so touched by Holly, her peers and those coming up right behind her. They make me confident through even their most casual behavior and/or actions that the world has changed for the better, at least temporarily, and that it won’t be as easy for the baddies to get a footing because the belief system is just…well, different on the part of many people than it has been. Though not nearly enough or in nearly enough places. Like anything else, we’re all a work in progress.
As Chris Matthews once said in a popular MSNBC commercial (yes, I’m gonna go there) —
American history is about…a battle between those who want to extend freedom, opportunity and rights and those who want to restrict them. In the end, those who fight to enlarge our liberty tend to win.
Let’s hope that he’s correct and that this also applies to world history. And that the next generation keeps leading us in a progressive, rather than regressive, way.
On the whole, from the chair I’m fortunate enough to sit in at the moment, it looks pretty good. But I’m still gonna watch my back.