I Am that I Am (Be what You Are)- Russell Washington
I could not have asked for a more serendipitous prelude to today’s service than the signing into law at 11:55 Friday night of a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in New York State.
That was profoundly wonderful.
Lest we miss out down here on the celebration, though it doesn’t sound like we’re going to have any trouble with that, let me share with you a report that I received last night from a friend in New York City.
And I quote:
“This town is blowin’ UP, Russell! The Pride Parade is tomorrow and what a celebration it shall be.”
Today is a happier day for a lot of people than any of us could have predicted for June 26, 2011. It is a very, very good day, and that is a very, very good thing.
In the Hebrew Bible, Moses, anticipating skepticism on the part of the Israelites, asks what he should say is the name of this deity instructing him to lead them from Egypt. He receives the following intriguing response to his inquiry: “I Am that I Am.”
There are a great many interpretations of the significance of this statement, ranging from the sharply theological to the linguistic. One specific interpretation, though, is as follows. It is an act of deliberate noncompliance, an active declination to submit to one of the oldest of human expectations: to be defined, and in such process, assigned one’s status, importance, and nature. This declination is significant in its quiet understanding that to have one’s identity defined by arbitrary label is to compromise the very integrity of that which one is. It is, some would say, unwise.
Exercises in labeling are common; it is one of those things that we as humans simply do. With this as backdrop, I invite you to explore with me one labeling exercise in particular. Within this exploration, you will hear language that is likely to shock you. Regardless, please know that a careful, considered, and deliberate choice was made so that we may ponder the truths of these issues together.
That said, let us initiate our examination with what starts for many straight allies with a very simple phrase.
“People think you’re gay.”
Earlier this year I was preparing a spoken piece – a personal essay called a meditation – to be presented to a mixed audience of students, faculty, staff, and townspeople at Phillips Exeter Academy, of which I am a graduate. I shared my intended subject matter with someone who I was having dinner with. “May I offer you my story?” she asked. “You may find it of use in preparing your meditation.”
She began to recount an anecdote from her youth. At a specific point in her schooling, meeting a new teacher, he blindsided her with a warning: her reputation as troublemaker preceded her, and she was going to fail his class. Period. She tenaciously determined to blow away his expectations and became his most accomplished student. In the end, he apologized to her.
While this anecdote was interesting, it struck me as an odd response to my chosen subject matter: social fallout from volunteering with LGBT organizations – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender – as a straight ally. This fallout had come to my attention with the utterance of that simple phrase:
“People think you’re gay.”
My dinner companion continued. “When you have people like that, you have to be better. You have to do more. You have to go beyond what everyone else has to do to be perceived as successful, and you have to convince them.” At one point, as I listened, she paralleled scurrying about to handle misperception of my orientation with “proving that one was better.” She advised me to distinguish myself from my LGBT peers – to do whatever I was going to do, but without being presumed to be gay myself. I listened as my associate described me as “very vocal about my LGBT volunteering,” when in fact, in discussions with her I simply declined – deliberately, because I am an ally – to omit mention of it when volunteering was the topic.
Ultimately, the message became clear. Keep my support of the LGBT community hush-hush. Or to use another term: “Closeted.”
It was not lost upon me that this is the very issue that my LGBT peers face every day, with decidedly more material consequences. Understanding this left my stomach in knots.
“People think you’re gay.”
In heterosexual space, sexuality is assumed to be private, personal, and that is that. People don’t plop down next to me and say things like, “Hi Russ, I’m straight. Nice to meet you!” They don’t lead with odd icebreakers like, “hey, do you like girls? Cool! So what do you do for a living?” There isn’t a bunch of odd cross-checking going on, pulling out the micrometer to see if the bridge of your sexual nose is lined up just so. As a heterosexual, what, or who, I am or am not interested in – is, outside of very specific contexts – regarded as off-limits from discussion unless I make it public fodder myself.
For LGBT persons, however, this rule is, for some reason, inverted. Everything about them as romantic or sexual life forms, whether real or imagined, becomes public fodder – unless they opt to lock it all away by concealing their orientation. If one is openly LGBT, there is going to be unchecked speculation about matters that would usually be considered private – and that speculation is going to have consequences.
Recently I spoke with a gay man who gave me permission to share with you an anecdote from his experience. He owned his own business, and his father sometimes took calls from customers. The father routinely failed to pass on telephone messages from certain customers. Which ones? Any and all who were male. You see, knowing that his son was gay (and disapproving of same) he decided, apparently, that all these men were, at least, potential romantic interests. So he took it upon himself to make innumerable business communications simply and quietly disappear, impacting both the business and his son’s livelihood in the process.
Ponder this, for a moment, as a heterosexual. Let’s say you are a man. You are actively precluded from interacting with women – any and all – because you’re a man, and, well, they’re women. Who do you suppose is receiving this coded message about your character? Do you suppose it might affect your career? Your livelihood?
What if you are a woman? What do you suppose it might be like to know that no matter what you did, you would be subjected to active restriction in the office of your interactions based upon some presumed, uncontrollable impulse you must inherently have whenever presented with someone of a particular gender?
Or even worse: Suppose, instead of this overt blocking that you might address directly, you simply get to figure out what is going on from all the weirdness evolving around you. That person you were comfortably chatting with prior to the rumor mill kicking in? They suddenly become chilly – or maybe even disappear wholesale from your social circle. Or, perhaps, someone whom you have been dealing with quite platonically inexplicably pulls you aside, and says something like this: “I need you to understand that I am not interested in you.”
Despite the fact that you have no romantic interest in them – and never did (and probably never will) – you now have to deal with a relationship that has changed, and not for the better.
So you brace for the fallout.
For heterosexuals, it can be easy to question whether the difficulties described by LGBT persons are really so pervasive, and even whether these soft offenses are of material consequence. Still further, it is easy to cast this sort of thing as “their” problem. With this in mind we might all learn something from a 13-year-old girl in Westport, Connecticut.
On March 14, Alye Pollack, an eighth-grader, posted a video on the Internet. It featured: an instrumental music track, and placards she held up before the camera bearing her written messages rather than using the spoken word. The video, still on YouTube, is titled “Words are worse than Sticks and Stones.” It went viral, garnering over ½ a million views to date, and has been discussed in national media outlets as high-profile and mainstream as CBS News.
Alye, our eighth-grader, communicates to us that she is unhappy, and that she has been so since the sixth grade. Here are the messages she continues on to display; I will tell you that what you are about to hear is disturbing.
“I don’t have many friends. 3? 4?”
“I am bullied. Not a day has gone by without one of these words.”
“Bitch, Whore, Fat, Lesbo, Slut, Freak, Ugly, Weird, Fag.”
Alye continues with the following statement:
“I don’t cut. But I’m close.”
For the unfamiliar, cutting refers to just that; injuring oneself. People who cut themselves usually hide the cuts and resultant scars and often no one else knows. To say that considering doing this to oneself is a sign of emotional distress and ongoing trauma is to understate the obvious.
Eighth grade. Living with this since the sixth grade.
From the iconic “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we have the following words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Alye’s story, as it happens, is emblematic of this point. Despite the use of homophobic slurs and the accompanying implication that she is being bashed at least in part for being gay, I have, in fact, found no authoritative comment as to her sexual orientation at all. Her problem is not that she is LGBT. Her problem, at least in part, is that people think she is – and this tells us something critical.
This is not “their” problem. This is not “her” problem. This is not “my” problem as a straight person who has simply volunteered to be in the line of fire. No. I stand before you as straight ally because this is OUR problem. Each and every last one of us.
Do we desire and require – regardless of our orientation – an end to this thing that grinds up lives – the lives of our friends, our colleagues, our peers, our children? Do we desire an end to this perpetual motion machine fueled by intolerance, incivility, and perhaps most importantly of all – quiet indifference? If so, we need to take hold of this business of tagging people; of subjecting people to these traumas that accumulate into suffering. We need to make this stop.
We all have something that defines us as “other.” We have all suffered, at some point, some indignity – some threat – because something about us fell beyond the norms of where we were and who surrounded us. And we have all, at times, succumbed to that threat by closeting some aspect of ourselves, arguably to our own ultimate detriment. My message to the audience I spoke to at Phillips Exeter was the following. Embrace your otherness – decline to be forced to live in a closet. But most critically, define what that means yourself – do not allow someone else to define it for you. For despite the words of those who would poke, prod, mock, or even harass you with the false assertion that they represent everyone but you, it is only in finding and embracing your place that you might find peace. This is what makes you you versus somebody else. You are what you are.
Four days after giving my presentation, at 1:30 in the morning, I received an email from a student who had asked to use my piece to help write her own meditation, a requirement of all Exeter seniors. Her message read: “So here it is. My meditation. To be read in about eight hours. Thank you for your help.” Attached was a copy for my perusal.
As I reached the end of this young woman’s composition, I found that I had been quoted. Specifically, she noted that if you are straight, there are, as she paraphrased, “no questions asked.” Moving to her own experience, she said:
“If, however, it is known or even suspected otherwise, there are many questions to be answered, there is much gossip to endure. What should be your personal life, turns into something people talk about as a way to pass the time. So being bi or gay or anything outside the norm becomes a huge thing worthy of an announcement, an announcement that you are different, an announcement that you no longer fit in, an announcement that there is indeed something to gossip about.”
And then this young woman wrote something that I did not anticipate at all. She said:
“I wanted to write about things I’m still afraid of, but instead I ended up writing about something that doesn’t scare me anymore. I wanted to write about running away, but instead I ended up writing about facing the truth. The truth is, I’m not gay. And I’m not bi. But I’m not really straight either. And I’m not afraid anymore.”
As a volunteer of any kind, you hope to bring something to those for whom you endeavor that they did not have without you. This is the role of the straight ally. Our role is to bring something to this equation that cannot come from inside the LGBT community. That something is word – sent to all listeners – that people on the outside have your back.
I am proud – and I am honored – and I am humbled to have been the straight ally who gave that young woman what she felt she needed to exercise her voice to speak to, and to embrace her otherness; and to carry it with her, with comfort, into the next phase of her life. And on June 5, I had the honor and privilege of seeing her graduate.
To my peers in humankind who are here today who need to hear from us – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersexed, Questioning – to my fellow straight allies who have not yet spoken up but who I hope now will, understanding why our peers need us – and to that young woman – I wish us all, today: good luck. Let us be charitable and thoughtful in word and deed rather than in quiet silence.
And I wish us all: Godspeed.