I've always believed that in our collective fights for justice, equality and equity, we owe it to ourselves to connect the dots in such a way that proves that all such battles are related and worthy of an exchange of support that creates a more formidable and unified front. In other words, the goal is to create a "your fight for justice is my fight for justice" scenario. To lack the capacity to see the interwoven commonalities of any struggle for fairness, peace and love smacks of an insincere commitment to the dynamic that encapsulates it all: freedom.
This past Fourth of July, I, along with a friend visiting from Korea, took in New York City in a very touristy way, which included a visit to a very popular gay sports bar in the Chelsea area of Manhattan. Like most Americans, I was filled with an extra dose of patriotism on the day that marks the liberation of our country from British rule. Of course, the impending fireworks were greatly anticipated, and I found myself humming The Star-Spangled Banner all day. My foreign-born friend's enthusiasm about the day not only made me proud of my country but reminded me how often we can take for granted the freedoms extended to us in this country, especially in a city like the Big Apple.
The day was also a time to reflect upon the construct that we all struggle to achieve yet seemingly fail to truly appreciate once we acquire it, and fail to see how others are worthy of it. Again, I speak of freedom. In the business of doing the good work as a community activist and social worker, I am constantly reminded of the continued push for freedom, especially by those for whom even the most basic freedoms seem out of reach. The commitment to a battle I know will never cease sometimes prevents me from exhaling and enjoying victories well-earned, no matter how small. So on the day of fireworks and "liberty and justice for all," I quietly queried myself about the true meaning of freedom and the journeys we take as we aspire to declare ourselves free. In my lifetime, I've yet to meet someone who can, using no one else's definition of freedom but their own, declare themselves absolutely free. The freedom I'm familiar with, as witnessed in myself and others, is incremental and typically marked by singular victories over issues or situations that limit us in some manner or another (relationships, addictions, self-image, education or employment, to name a few). Personally, I work hard to free myself of flaws in my personality, beliefs or behavior, many of which were caused by unsolicited madness thrust upon me from my arrival here on planet Earth; I certainly didn't ask to be introduced to sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia and all other societal ills that have dogged us humans for far too long.
As a black gay man, I find that I'm in constant pursuit of liberation, and not just the liberation dependent upon my own commitment, in the words of Iyanla Vanzant, "to do the work" internally, but a commitment to seek freedom by navigating dominant forces that seem only to exist to expressly deny me any semblance of self-actualization; it's really tough to unshackle yourself in the midst of what seem like constant and concerted efforts to ensure a perpetual bondage (read: oppression).
Back to the bar we go: As my friend and I sipped our beers, in walked a gentleman with a hoodie on. He immediately caught my eye, as it was steaming hot, yet he was cloaked in a hoodie. Also, the trial of Trayvon Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, was in full-swing, with many across the nation donning hoodies in an appeal for solidarity with the family of Mr. Martin, as well as all those (predominately black and Latino males) whose lives have been snuffed out for being deemed suspicious and unworthy of being among the masses. In this bar for "happy hour," I was hoping to give my mind and spirit a break from this controversy and other madness, but alas. For those who've experienced what it is to be different (read: hate and discrimination), such a hope never lasts long, as our eyes and heart are very keen at detecting injustices, something that, at times, can be quite burdensome. As the hooded fellow approached us, I immediately recognized him, or at least part of him, and was reminded of a delightful chat once had with someone like him in another gay bar.
Approximately eight years ago I was seated at my favorite corner spot in a Christopher Street gay bar that catered to a predominately black clientele. The bar was "on and poppin'" when an Orthodox Jew with what appeared to be a black woman of trans* experience on his arm walked in. Looking totally at home, the two approached the bar and ordered drinks. Though all seats at the bar were occupied, they didn't have to wait long to sit, because everyone around them soon distanced themselves, retreating to the back area of the bar where lively games of spades, bid whist and billiards were commonplace. I found myself staring at this couple and contemplated not speaking to them, using the very appropriate excuse of "minding my business," but my curiosity (I'd like to say my humanity) and Southern upbringing got the best of me. I simply said hello, and an almost three-hour conversation ensued.
Being a member of a society that craves the salacious, I wanted to know the "tea," and looking back now, I realize how my own biases and lack of information fueled my curiosity. I quickly labeled him a "john" and her a "sex worker." After talking about a myriad of things, the conversation eventually got around to sexuality and their relationship. Phillip, an Orthodox Jew, replete with yarmulke and signature side-curls (payos), spoke in a very matter-of-fact tone when asked about his sexuality and faith. His delivery was so simple and forthcoming that I found myself baffled about how to proceed with the conversation; often we overanalyze stuff, expecting, actually demanding, tales of despair or some long, drawn-out explanation of the simplest matter. I think we all suffer from too much talking and thinking and not enough feeling. "I love my faith, but I accept who I am," he said. "I am not ashamed. My family is not comfortable, but I don't care." His partner of four years, Shannon, echoed what Phillip stated, but added, "I don't care what anybody thinks." Shannon, neither a drag queen nor transgender, was a male who loved to cross-dress, and while out "en femme" (presenting as a woman), she preferred to be referred to as a woman. This encounter with Phillip and Shannon has informed me in so many ways, mostly by reminding me that I'm not, and will never be, exempt from contributing to the madness of the world. That said, I do believe that consistent, thorough and honest self-examinations of the soul can allow us to engender more good than harm.
Back to July 4, 2013, and the stranger in the hoodie: From my experience with Phillip and my many years of living in New York City, particularly Brooklyn, I recognized the man immediately as an Orthodox Jew who was using the hoodie to conceal his identity, including the trademark curls that would allow one to easily identify him. As he made his way through the bar, I could see both people's reaction to him and his reaction to the moment. Seemingly not knowing how to proceed, he exuded a nervous energy, an energy that accompanies us when we know we're different from everyone else. Having experienced what it's like to be a minority on many occasions, I know that being different often means being vulnerable. As he passed our table, I simply nodded and cracked a slight smile, while continuing my conversation with my friend. He didn't react, and I sensed that he was trying to take in the entire experience as quickly as he could. Much like a kid in a candy store, he seemed to want to explore every crevice of that bar, but the exploration would be short-lived. In less than five minutes people were creeped out enough to start complaining about him, which prompted the security to ask him to leave. I'm sure that the justification for asking him to leave was his failure to purchase a cocktail in the five minutes he was there. As a former bartender, I can understand the policy of not allowing others to simply loiter in your business without a purchase, but I wish this establishment would enforce this rule in their bathrooms; on every visit there are more people pretending to pee than I can count on one hand, and this form of loitering is much more threatening and offensive than a man simply admiring your establishment.
With all the coming-out stories we hear, most usually marked by a tenuous period of anguish as a result of being closeted or without community, I'd think that my fellow lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and same-gender-loving (LGBT/SGL) folk would be most receptive to the idea of welcoming. I think that on this evening we all seriously missed an opportunity to welcome and allow someone to experience freedom on a day that was earmarked for just that. Instead, he was deemed suspicious and a variant not worthy of participating in the reindeer games of this venue, so he was chased away.
I felt for this guy, thinking about the work done on behalf of those experiencing injustices and inequality around the world, and about who and what should command my attention and warrant a reaction from me. While my work is largely relegated to those who identify as LGBT/SGL, my heart knows no limits when it comes to recognizing and railing against injustice anywhere. With Martin Niemöller's "First they came..." as a guiding force, I'm conscious of not springing to life with a rallying cry only when someone who looks like me, or has the same experiences as I have, is attacked. At the risk of sounding totally self-righteous, I truly believe that you can't be an advocate for justice unless your advocacy is inclusive of all who are denied freedom. As an advocate for justice, I believe that your sincerity and commitment is questionable if your demands/appeals for justice are exclusively for a singular group of people. The concept of selective justice has always been troubling for me, and I see it much too often among individuals and organizations charged with advocating for the rights of others. I'm often baffled by the narrow-minded view that many take as to who, in their causes for freedom, should benefit from their actions. I inhabit a body that forces me to deal with the intersectional identities. With the exception of being male, all segments of who I am render me vulnerable to discrimination and marginalization. For those of us (all of us?) who know what it's like to have one aspect of our being issued a "get out of jail free" card while another is commanded to "skip 'go,' do not collect $200; go straight to jail," we should be more apt to recognize and empathize with those anywhere who are being denied a shot at freedom.
Perhaps I'm taking liberty in determining the motives of this hooded stranger, but I saw him as someone, perhaps emboldened by the day, eager to explore a world that represented freedom. Instead, what he encountered was a group of people unfamiliar with his kind who quickly showed him the door. I began to wonder how long it would take for that man to find the courage to reapproach, and I wondered how long it would take those of us who experience freedom to recognize those who aren't afforded the same. In chastising the staff and patrons of the bar, I chastise myself. Maybe my nod and hardly-there smile could have been more; certainly I have the experience of feeling out of place.
The Christopher Street bar where I met Phillip and Shannon has since closed, its demise, some would argue (I'm one of them), coming as a consequence of racist attitudes and inaccurate assumptions about its patrons. In an ever-gentrifying neighborhood, residents became suspicious of the clientele, and, ultimately, community members were successful in their pursuit to shutter the place. It seems that people can't shake their nasty and unfounded suspicions; this is true for even those of us who know what it's like to be labeled "suspicious." The irony of this Orthodox Jewish man in a hoodie frightening a bar full of gay men in Chelsea while the trial of George Zimmerman, a man equally as frightened of a hoodie and as quick to label those who don't look like him "suspicious," was occurring was not lost on me. This five-minute culture clash illustrates why, in attempting to unite communities, we must know that the removal of certain identifying descriptors in any recounting of discrimination will render the experience a case of "same script, different cast."
Many may disagree, but I feel that the man with the concealed locks was discriminated against, and not in a truly blatant, conscious or intentional manner that would warrant an immediate shaking of an admonishing finger and a few choice words, but in the subtle way that can go easily unnoticed and unchallenged. It really is the subtle, often unconscious, manifestations of societal ills not readily grasped that allow a perpetuation of divisiveness. In the rainbow community that is LGBT/SGL, there are many who intentionally seek to build a community that is the rainbow personified, but all too often I experience the lack of unity among us. Frequently, this lack of unity appears via bitter and offensive words, suspicion and discriminatory practices.
Perhaps it's our survival instincts that allow us to prematurely label others "suspicious" or "a nuisance," but it should be our power to reason that safeguards others' right to exist free of our biases. The hooded stranger whose actions were in no way a nuisance was declared such based purely upon the reaction that others had to him, with their reactions based purely upon deep-seated biases and judgment. He was guilty of being different and courageous enough to put himself in a situation where he knew he'd be judged, all for the sake of experiencing freedom. Chasing people down/out because of suspicion has to stop, and we must recognize that one of the best ways to overcome suspicion is to actually start a conversation. Again, taking my own advice, my nod should have been followed by a friendly "hello." Imagine if George had simply said to Trayvon, "Hello. How are you?"