I was recently in a meeting where I met a really unusual woman. She is a middle aged white woman from
Our conversation took a turn to regional handling of contentious social issues. She was making the case that there is still broad and blatant discrimination against homosexuals everywhere. While I agreed with that, I argued that in several cities in the country there is a lot more willingness to at least consider new social structures. Among these structures is one where homosexuality is merely a part, not a pariah of the social fabric. I feel that is true despite the ongoing tensions and festering hatred. She didn’t seem to hear that and presented me with a long list of horrible crimes enacted against homosexuals and legislation in several states that degrade and diminish them. For the first time ever, I think I felt like a white person listening to black people who are constantly pointing out the ongoing practice of racism while I’m saying, “I hear you already, but things are changing. Obama is running for President for crying out loud!” I conceded to myself that her personal conflict with these two components of her identity – lesbian and Quaker – were such that she was not hearing about broad baby steps towards reconciliation because they may not be reflected in her immediate struggle. Perhaps?
While I was making that internal concession, she suggested that I pretend to be gay by taking on conspicuously gay characteristics or pretend to be transgender by dressing up as a woman. She challenged me – with a bit of the self-righteousness born of the sense that “I” am the sufferer – to go out into the world like that and experience what the discrimination feels like. My first reaction of course, was Sharptonian, “you are speaking with a natural born black man living in these United States,” I don’t need to play make-believe to make me believe in social intolerance, abounding ignorance and racism; not to mention government and police brutality or need I say Katrina. Of course I always bristle when homosexuals equate intolerance of their sexual orientation to intolerance of black skin. While sexual orientation may not be a choice, whether it is revealed to the world or not is. Having said that, I despise comparative suffering. It is one of the damning consequences of oppression.
My second thought was that there is no way that I would pretend to be gay or transgender just to see what it feels like. Thinking about it more carefully, I realized that it isn’t because I am afraid of the experience of discrimination or disgust. I don’t want the stigma. If I were to pretend to be gay, that isn’t something that I can just wash off and tell those who know me and saw me, that I was just pretending, it was just an experiment. Sure you’re not a homosexual. Having had that thought, I realized that within my inner emotional core, not only do I not agree with homosexuality, I still despise it in a way that I would not want there to be any connection between my personal character and it. That reveals that I care what people think about me. That may be a weakness or not, I’m not sure. More importantly, it helped me identify the boundary between my intellect and my emotions. Like most white people who are questioned, I am quick to say, “I don’t have problems with homosexuals, one of my best friends is a lesbian.” For me that is sincerely true. I have managed, however, to reconcile the differences of my mind and my heart to maintain what I think is and hope will continue to be a close personal friendship. Indeed, it is through the lasting nature of that friendship that my emotional core is changing. I changed my mind a long time ago.
In the end my reaction to this challenge confirmed for me, my point. I agree that homosexuality is not wholly accepted and likely will never be. That does not mean, however, that we cannot envision a new social order. The versatility of intellect is such that people can more quickly get their minds around the fundamental humanity involved in embracing people period. New kinds of relationships, however, are required for changing emotions. New kinds of individual relationships are the vessels not only for changing individual emotional orientations, but for creating new kinds of social structures. It is a slow process, no doubt, but I think that is all we have.