I went to hear a dear friend, writer, and activist Kevin Powell speak to a sexual assault group at Stanford University this week. We have known each other since we shared a panel at the United Nations. Kevin is one of the premier voices in black America today. At Stanford, he spoke about ending violence against women and re-defining manhood. He speaks from experience. As a young adult, Kevin learned that violence against women was celebrated; a right of passage. He took part in violating two young women. After some psychological help, he turned his life around and speaks to young men and women about the many influences that culminate in making violence against woman acceptable. Part of what makes his work so powerful is his own abusive past, and he recounts those experiences truthfully.
His talk included the idea that Americans can't begin to solve the issues of violence against women unless we include and enlist support from men. To include men, we must tackle one of the core issues of violence: our definition of manhood. Of course it is hard to think about redefining manhood when our models of leadership, who are mostly men, model an outdated perspective that includes patriarchy, misogyny and suppression of women under the guise of "taking care of us" and "Daddy knows best."
I grew up in an Italian, Catholic family so I have had a bit of experience with this definition. The widely-shared view that strength comes from how stoic and tough a man can be permeated our household. Part of the macho definition of manhood comes from our culture. Acceptance of that definition manifests in such simple acts of disrespect like rolling our eyes at our sister, our mother, and our aunts. Another component of that definition is mixed up with our distorted definition of love.
Confusion starts with the word "gender." There is no need for the word gender, unless it is used for issues of both men and women. "Gender" is used when we talk about Women's Issues; it is code for less important. Soft. Secondary. When the men consider a thing to be of little or no importance, it is called a gender issue. How can these so-called "gender issues" be trivial when women are more than half the world's population?
What does this all have to do with Whitney Houston? More than you think. If I could prove that angels walk this earth, Whitney's voice is what I imagined they would sound like. When she opened her mouth and shared her gift , it put us all in a better place. There is no question of Houston's success, her hard work and the tremendous impact she had on people around the world. All those people, you and I failed Whitney. We failed her because we confined her; we contained her in a box that made us comfortable. We did not allow Whitney to speak a truth that is beyond the acceptable norm. Whitney was an alcoholic and a drug addict. Her family and friends endured this tragedy as they wearily witnessed relapse after relapse. Those lapses are heartbreaking to any family. One of the challenges for celebrities is there are always people who want to hang around them for their own gain. I call these people "Star-F-----s."
Star-F------ are like the remora fish that eat the bacteria off a shark's skin as they travel the ocean floor. There are so many people who, like this fish, feed on celebrities. They are around when this person needs help, but they usually just tell the celebrity want they "want to hear," often when they are most vulnerable. True friends and family, who attempt to tell the truth, are sometimes shunned or removed from this inner circle. There's often a consequence for those with the courage to speak honestly. Often those truth-tellers are the few who actually care for and love this person unconditionally. We failed Whitney because we refused to SPEAK UP and tell the truth about her addiction and her unhappiness. "Friends" make excuses about her "only having one or two drinks" while on prescription drugs. When a drug is labeled DO NOT TAKE ALCOHOL, it doesn't mean one or two glasses, it means none.
There is a larger reason that we failed this woman. We failed to allow Whitney to be WHO she was. Was Whitney a lesbian? Did she have a deep love for another woman that her family forced her to betray? It's possible. There have been numerous articles written about this issue. Only her close family and friends know the answer to this question. We failed her by not allowing her to be in the truth of who she was. That failure to allow people to be who they are is at epidemic levels in our country. We have religious leaders, government representatives and those who have a fundamental issues with same-sex relationships, women in positions of power or whatever the issue is, we have failed all of those in our country who suffer persecution because of their difference. Even when that difference is part of what makes them exceptional. So much for "American Exceptionalism."
We keep repeating the same mistakes. Historically our country has fought about slavery, about African American and women's rights. We have not learned that those differences are what bind us, that tolerance is part of what makes this country great. So many people around the country hide who they truly are because of our core failure as human beings to recognize and accept those who are not like us.
There are so many celebrities trapped by our narrowly defined definition of manhood, of womanhood, by our rigidity towards different kinds of love and who should marry whom.
New Jersey Governor Christie lowered the flag to half-mast as he simultaneously took pen to paper to veto same-sex marriage. We cannot hide our hypocrisy and hate behind the robes of our God. When we discriminate against those who rub against our own fear, we peddle hatred and intolerance. We overlook addiction, enable addicts and demonize those who love someone of the same sex. This is not God-like. This is not love.
Make no mistake: COMPLICITY is not without its own judgment. Americans are told that national elections are a "blood sport," to be won at any cost, and so we must just accept negatively-driven campaigns. The Supreme Court told us that corporations are people too, people more enduring than humans, since they have none of the weakness of flesh and blood, and those zombie-like "people" have the right to be heard over any human voice, because they have enough money to shout the loudest. What a world model we are creating for children.
We blame television for the disappearance of our "Inner Scorecard," as Warren Buffet calls it. Yet we don't acknowledge our own part in this moral decay. Our county is fractured into a thousand tiny pieces with tolerance and integrity being forced to the bottom of the pile. After all, who needs to be a good human being? In fact, why act like a human being at all -- the successful thing to be is a zombie. Undead. Immortal. All powerful. Never vulnerable. Which gender would a corporation assume, I wonder?
I appreciate people like Kevin Powell, who travels the country to force us to look beneath the covers of our definition of men and women. One wonders how we can tolerate the epidemic level of violence against women without closing our eyes. I mourn the loss of a richly talented woman who was forced to pretend she was someone other than she was. She did this out of her love for others, and because she was convinced that the truth would make her a pariah. A myth that is perpetuated by many in Hollywood. All of us are made in God's likeness, our earth is the only planet we have, the sooner we realize that we are all in this together, the more hope there is to save each other and the planet.