A few weekends ago my partner Joy and I were at Amelia Island, Fla., staying at an upscale resort hotel that attracted an international crowd. For the second time that weekend a heterosexual couple stopped us so that we could take their picture. We'd never before encountered this. We're friendly, outgoing, and swiftly make new friends (well, Joy does), but never had we enjoyed such effortless acceptance. At Amelia Island's beach it was an attractive Asian couple with a 3-year-old boy who stopped us. The boy squirmed; the beautiful, petite mother was all Hollywood with her giant Coach sunglasses; and the husband was young and lanky, trying desperately to smile through all the pictures I snapped. Then something remarkable happened: The woman asked if Joy and I wanted our picture taken. We put our arms around each other, smiling and hugging, giddy and celebratory.
One obvious backdrop to our weekend at the beach was the recent banishment of California's Proposition 8, making it unconstitutional for that state to deny us gays a right to marry and divorce with the best of you (though I live in Florida, which I predict will be the last state that will legalize same-sex marriage).
On a pop-culture level, there's Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' song "Same Love," with its euphoric, epic, transcendental harmony and lyrics lucid and loud, poetry that's playing on the radio with increasing frequency. In Macklemore's composition, Mary Lambert's voice repeats, "She keeps me warm, she keeps me warm," evoking a sultry, strong anthem for women who love women. Alongside Lambert's interludes, Macklemore raps his personal and political manifesto addressing gay rights; he points to the hip-hop community as an oppressor:
"If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me. / ... / 'Man that's gay' gets dropped on the daily. / ... / Call each other faggots behind the keys of a message board."
The weekend after the beach Joy and I went scalloping with some friends at Steinhatchee, a fishing community located at the southeast part of the Gulf. It's only an hour from where we live in Gainesville. That Saturday night, on the day that George Zimmerman was acquitted (though I hadn't yet heard the news), we ate dinner at a place called Fiddler's, right on the water. At the hostess' cubicle I noticed a giant picture of Paula Deen eating at Fiddler's. I asked the stern hostess if they still endorsed Deen, and she quickly said, "Yes, we do. We love Paula Deen." To me it was as obnoxious as those who snapped pictures of their Chick-fil-A meals for Facebook, proudly declaring that they'd eat their homophobic fast food. I wanted to punch and kick her. Instead I followed her to the deck overlooking the water and ordered a drink.
The next day I learned about Zimmerman's acquittal. Did it say more about the state of Florida than our country as a whole? I hoped so. It was a strong statement, a punctuating statement, the story of Emmet Till revisited. If a young black man wants to walk around safely, he should, at the minimum, do the following: Don't wear a hoodie, keep your hands out of your pocket, and pull those pants up. I saw this instruction on the local news, presented by a Florida mother whose well-dressed son stood solemnly by her side.
We don't have to reach too far back to conjure the story of Brandon Teena, or Matthew Shepard. Both stories have reached public consciousness, like Rodney King, but sadly, these stories don't sustain; they are sorted and filed. I teach English at a rural community college in Archer, west of Gainesville, and when I asked students about Rodney King, they simply didn't know a thing.
Living so close to where the Zimmerman trial took place, I feel and sense tension; I find myself going out of my way to smile at black boys. Zimmerman's freedom tells us loud and clear that black skin is still perceived as dangerous and white skin always prevails. Gay or not, my skin is white, and unless I'm holding Joy's hand, I "pass" as straight.
While gay Americans are fighting for the right to marry, black Americans continue to fight for the right to go outside. If both movements could come together as the "same" movement, à la Macklemore, there could be a major tornado of forces that would tip this country upside down. But as Martin Luther King told us, there's the powerful, almighty maintenance of the status quo. The black and queer communities shall remain exclusive, divided, and resentful too. Black people can marry, but can two black men safely hold hands in public? Not in most parts of Florida they can't. But gays can pass. Theoretically, a feminine man could pump some iron and throw on a ball cap; a butch woman could slip into a dress if necessary. Clearly, we're not fighting for the same rights, but we're fighting for the same reason, and thanks to Macklemore, a cross-cultural conversation has been started.