Thursday, November 8, 2007

You Don't Have to Whisper

I listen to KCLU, our local version of National Public Radio (NPR), as part of my awakening process. Usually it gets me so riled at the weirdly conservative slant that I wake up. But today, I woke up crying. Yet not in a bad way, really. It was more relief that someone found comfort she desperately needed, even though it came from a stranger. The broadcast was a reflection on the "StoryCorps" project which has come out as a book. I love the StoryCorps features generally - I also own a Smithsonian Folkways collection of music recorded in the 30s as an archival program which I greatly enjoy. I always think I'll look the audio stories up, but today I finally did.

If you follow the link above I'd recommend listening. In a nutshell, one StoryCorps participant found herself opening up about something she'd never really talked about in order to say thank you to a man she had only ever seen once. She had nursed her brother through his painful death from AIDS, back when people thought you could only get it if you were gay. She'd had so many people tell her that it was "God's will" or "for the best" that she got to the point where, when buying yet another sympathy card, she remarked to the clerk in merely a whisper that her brother had died of AIDS. The clerk looked at her and said, "You don't have to whisper." Then came around and gave her a hug. This makes me cry even writing about it.

Because it is the furthest thing from a whisper is one reason why I love Suz Brockman's book "All Through the Night". It's a fun book. All the money goes to support equal rights for gay citizens. Mostly, though, the book is an screaming example of doing just that. One of the main characters, Jules, has always received full love and support from his family because he was a normal guy who happened also to be gay. This book celebrates his wedding to the man of his dreams. Sadly, this is not the norm. People who are otherwise nice turn wiggy when confronted with the reality of homosexuality and some don't acquit themselves well. This book is full of people who acquit themselves well.

I came of age as AIDS was making the rounds and killing people off before they really knew what hit them. It was(is) really horrific. Because the gay community was hit hard with the disease, some of the horror was pushed in their direction, adding insult to injury. Personally, I'd never bought the notion that one could only get AIDS if you were gay. There were many reasons for this. I remember watching a news program when I was young (I'm going to guess 10) that detailed the progress of this disease or one very similar to it as it attacked a pre-pubescent girl even while it mentioned something about the vector being an airline flight attendant in 1977 or so. I am also aware of how diseases and germs don't discriminate between good and evil. One has a native or medically enhanced resistance to various diseases - some are more susceptible than others. Various behaviors put one at risk of contagion, but do not cause the contagion in and of themselves. For instance, I did nothing as a child to warrant a hideous case of chicken pox aside from play with my very mildly afflicted brother. (I still have an eyelash free spot on my lower left lid where a spot took hold - now I'm just waiting for the day my shingles erupt there.) People need to stop viewing disease as a punishment for sins. Don't we know better?

I really don't give a damn who you choose to love, or even toy with, as long as they make you happy. (Just don't give me the intimate details, I'll save that for my fiction, thanks!) I vividly remember when I made that decision, that homosexuality didn't bother me, or at least didn't overcome my greed. It was a conscious choice. It was my first week of college and we had dorm rush. I'd already been around for a week doing ROTC prep, and my roommate and I decided to head out together to check out the dorms. We decided to start on the far end of campus and work our way back. We looked at the Daily Confusion, a list of about 4000 things going on during every minute of the day written in 4pt font, and noticed something at the first dorm called a "Fruit Fest" with smoothies for all.

I can be oversensitive to some peoples moods and completely oblivious to other nuances. I love fruit smoothies, but even my oblivious self realized that "fruit" carried two meanings here. I had a little conversation in my head when I realized I'd never before been confronted with having to think about homosexuality other than indirectly. I had a vague sense of unease from years of living with casual slurs in that place called high school. I thought about whether my love of fruit was stronger than my distaste for "fruits" and decided I was willing to like anyone who gave me a smoothie. And that was that. My roommate asked if I was okay with our first choice, I said I was, and we had a great time and learned some Indigo Girls songs. I think I had 3 smoothies. Later, I still had a couple twinges of residual, conditioned unease that went away once I realized that gay people are just people. I like some of them, I don't like others, but it never had anything to do with their sexual orientation.

Back then, people were coming out of the woodwork to make quilt squares representing their loved ones who had died of AIDS, and these quilts were hauled around the country to raise awareness and humanize the impact of AIDS. I don't remember how many times a quilt showed up on campus, but it got to the point where I wondered why people still bothered. Didn't everyone know already? Shortly afterward the anti-retroviral drugs came on the market and started allowing people to live with AIDS, but there is still no cure. Every so often I vaguely wonder why I don't see the quilts anymore.

But this morning's story really made me reflect on why those quilts were important, and why Suz's book is important. There is almost nothing more painful in an average life than being shunned. Indifference is a killer. I am lucky. I never understood just how underground homosexuality was. By the time it hit my consciousness, I was in a place of great acceptance that valued diversity. The shunning by keeping homosexuality underground, not discussed, not acknowledged, not accepted, hurt(s) people. I just checked out my friend's New Door Knobs blog (see sidebar!) and reading about how they have to be concerned about how their family is viewed reminds me that it's not enough to just accept, but one has to share their acceptance so that the love overpowers the hate.

When the lives and loves and losses of friends, family, and neighbors goes uncelebrated, it hurts people. And there's no reason for it. Go to their wedding; invite them to your party. If you love someone who marches to the beat of their own drummer, whether they are gay, straight, geek, artist, autistic, salesman, or CEO, be proud of them in front of other people. Even if they come to a painful end. You don't have to whisper.


janet w said...

NO: shout out that MARA LEVI rules!!! I sent her CD to a far northern friend :D (who I hope is lurv'ing it) and gosh, Mara is gay but more importantly, she's human and her music is all about humans falling in and out of love ...

I'm guessing but whatever people, google and get: she's AWESOME!!! And I've been to her concerts and listened to her music forever and just 'cause she's cracking on Angelina Jolie, so WHAT!!!

Alaskan Hellcat said...

holy kerap CO-

thanks for this post.

That's all. Just thanks :)

Lemon Stand said...

Cranky Otter - This has to be the number one, best written post I have seen in a long time. Certainly in the top 5 of all time. Thank you for your eloquence!

Up My Mind said...

Thank you CO. And wow. You brought tears to my eyes this morning.

CrankyOtter said...

Thanks all. I was worried that it went a little over the top.

And just to be clear, the point is not to out your neighbors, but to let people know that you're a safe harbor, in the interest of having a dominant culture of safe harbors. Some people don't want others to know their business, and it's ok to respect their choices.

And by shunning being horrible for people, non-smokers with a bad social network die, on average, a few years before smokers with good friends. So having close friends and family extends your life more than quitting smoking. True.

I have one person in my office who has made anti-gay comments but is otherwise the most thoughtful person around. While I don't like to bring up politics in the office, or promote anything in particular, I am trying to figure out how to get this person to realize that their hate/fear is not necessary. I've been debating tossing ATTN their way, but that might be more than they'd be willing to handle right now.

S said...

Thanks for this one. Thanks for being one of the most open-minded people I've known for the last couple decades. Thanks for nudging other people there.

Good trip down memory lane, too -- Fruit Fest was one of those events in tiny little print that I deliberately circled, hoping that I could meet other gay and lesbian folks there. There are days now when I still feel just as nervous about coming out to someone as I did back then (not often, but occasionally.) But most of the time, I'm just amazed at how far some corners of the world have come. I never thought I'd live to see the day I could legally marry the person I loved... and now we're starting to talk about a wedding date. I wonder how long it will take for more corners of the world to catch up. Maybe sooner rather than later, with people like you and Suz helping.

Oh, and thanks for mentioning my blog. :-)

Trudy said...

Thanks for pinging my thinking cap...your comment about being a safe harbour hit home. Our best man is gay and he and his partner spent 11 years together before before actually "coming out" to his high school friends at a mini reunion at our house. In thinking about it, I was so glad he felt he could do it in my home. What I really found intersting was how my husband's guys from high school reacted.....actually like it was no big deal and I thought there would be more hysteria. Now, I'll have to ask him if he feels like he's treated differently by them....people can seem ok but then turn around and do the subtle snubs......but it seems to be fine and once we met his partner, we love him as much as our friend.....of course, he has to sit with the other "wives" during those high school memory days (and roll his eyes and laugh at them) but what a loss it would have been not to have been able to have them as our friends!!!!

R&R said...

WOW. Well done!!!

Thank you.