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American Savage

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Dan Savage

American Savage, advice columnist Dan Savage’s book on “Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics”, is a good read: funny, thoughtful, and passionate. It made me think a lot about my relationship to the LGBTQ folks that I’ve known over the years, and how my attitudes have changed over time as a result of familiarity and learning basic human compassion. It’s easy to feel hateful toward a concept when it’s not real to you: easy to disparage gay men when you’ve never met one, easy to fear Muslims when you don’t know any, and easy to dismiss Christian evangelicals when your only contact with them is via Youtube comments and picket lines. Balkanization, echo chambers, and all of the other kinds of cultural segregation to which we subject ourselves are killing us, but we can learn to change.

Fun fact: I used to be unapologetically homophobic.

It was easy. I grew up on military bases and in evangelical Christian schools. If I had ever met a gay person, I didn’t know it. Back then, nobody in the military was gay because it was forbidden. Nobody in Christian school was gay because it was forbidden. Nobody on television was gay, unless it was merely implied and they were the butt of a joke. The Internet didn’t exist yet. My parents didn’t have gay friends or neighbors. From birth until age seventeen, literally the only exposure that I had to the very idea of homosexuality was from my Bible teachers and fundamentalist pastors at school, and you can imagine what the message was there. As far as I knew, it was a topic for mockery, for religious condemnation, and for visceral revulsion. I didn’t have to feel badly about mocking gay people, because I didn’t know any. It was an abstract concept, like making Polish jokes or opposing the communists. It never crossed over into real life or actual people.

Except there was this one kid in my high school – let’s call him Brian (not his real name). Brian sure seemed different than the other guys in my class. Think of the stereotype of the gay guy who’s the butt of the joke on an early 90s television show – that was Brian. High, effeminate voice, spoke with a lisp and sashayed when he walked. Did the limp-wristed hand wave and gasped when he got exasperated, which happened a lot. Was bad at sports and never showed much interest in girls. We all made gay jokes about and around Brian, and he was good-natured about it and laughed along with us. It seemed like it was all in good fun, because we figured Brian wasn’t actually gay. Being gay was a sin, and he was a good Christian kid. His father was a pastor and member of the school board. Brian even took a girl to the Senior Banquet. (There was no Senior Prom at my school, because dancing was also a sin. This was 1993, to put that in perspective.) There was no reason to stick up for Brian. He took the jokes in stride, because he found gay people just as disgusting as the rest of us did, even if he did seem a lot like one of them.

Unrelated to Brian, I gave up on Christianity part way through high school, and became a closet atheist. Atheist because not a bit of religion made any sense to me whatsoever once I thought to ask myself, and closeted because admitting it would get me kicked out of school and possibly my house. I was a straight kid, but experienced a lot of the same dysphoria that gay kids do. Like so many gay teenagers, I had to just play along for a couple of years until I was old enough to leave home and go to college. Like so many gay teenagers, I struggled a lot with a pattern of depression I couldn’t tell anybody about, because telling would mean being exposed for what I was and dealing with the fallout. I didn’t know a single non-Christian adult, and I had to cover for myself as best as I could. But even though I didn’t think homosexuality was a sin anymore (I didn’t think there was such a thing as sin anymore), I still found it deeply icky. I still associated it with pedophilia, with sexual abuse, with AIDS, and with all of the other things that I’d been told were part of the “gay lifestyle”. I had no evidence to the contrary and no one to suggest otherwise.

It wasn’t until college that I ever met an actual, openly gay person. I didn’t really know how to be around them, and was a little bit creeped out. I was in the process of shedding my religious baggage while keeping most of my conservative political attitudes (hello, freshman-year Libertarianism!) and while I understood intellectually that there wasn’t anything morally wrong with homosexuals, the visceral reaction was still there. And while I didn’t hate the gay people I knew, I assumed that they hated me. Especially the lesbians. While I was exploring naive Libertarianism, they were exploring naive feminism, and I knew what that meant: they were pissed-off man-haters. Most of the college lesbians I met seemed so angry, and they were specifically angry at people like me: straight white guys from Christian military families. (I remember one lesbian friend of a friend accusing me of being a homophobe because I said I didn’t like the Indigo Girls. For the record: I was homophobic, but the Indigo Girls didn’t have anything to do with it. I still don’t much care for them.) So mostly I did what I could to avoid conflict, which meant avoiding people. I was still dealing with my own internal garbage, and I wasn’t looking for chances to get shouted down while I tried to sort things out. To the gay people I met, I tried to be pleasant but distant. To the evangelical Christians that I met, I tried to be mostly pleasant but even more distant. I studied philosophy, I studied art, I studied literary theory, I fought a lot more with depression, and mostly I tried to get people to leave me the hell alone. I never spoke to anyone from my high school again. I made some astonishingly patient new friends who cared when I needed care and left me alone when I needed to be alone.

The summer after my sophomore year of college, I was nineteen years old and got a job at a coffee shop. I liked it a lot. Most of my previous jobs had been fast food or janitorial, and it was nice to work at a place where people sat and read books or met up with their friends. Unlike working the fryer at Wendy’s (another job I held briefly), it was a place where people actually wanted to be. The owners, Kim and Mindy, were good at their business, they knew their clientele personally, they gave me a lot of autonomy, and they put up with the fact that my moods were wildly inconsistent. They even expressed sincere concern about well-being. Mindy was the more practical-minded business partner. She did the payroll, made the staff schedule, took care of ordering supplies, and handled most of what we think of as the “business end of things”. Kim was more the artisan – she tended to the menu, the atmosphere, the baking, the customer relations and managing her emotionally unpredictable employees. (I was sometimes mercifully banished to dish duty when I obviously couldn’t handle myself around people.) They were hands-down the best bosses I had ever had. After a few weeks of employment, I was talking to one of our regulars about how well Kim and Mindy complemented each other as partners. And then I realized it, with a mental forehead-slap:

Oh my god, they were partners.

Not like business partners, but like partners partners. I mean, I knew that they were housemates because they lived next door to the shop, but I hadn’t really given it any thought past that. I worked for lesbians. Sure, they weren’t waving rainbow flags and having sex in the dish room, but they were totally gay. I WORKED IN A GAY COFFEE SHOP. And I hadn’t even noticed it. Nobody told me. Definitely I had noticed that we had a fair number of obviously gay and lesbian customers (by which I meant “women with mullets”), but there weren’t any other coffee shops in that part of Pennsylvania in 1995, so I just figured those people liked coffee shops. And of course I had noticed that Kim and Mindy knew those customers by name, but they knew all of their regulars by name. It dawned on me that I was part of THE GAY LIFESTYLE I had heard so much about in high school, and that I hadn’t even realized. They were just my employers and co-workers and customers, and sexuality didn’t enter into those relationships. And why would it? I wasn’t making gay coffee; it was just coffee.

And then one day my co-worker Wendy came into work with a bruised cheek and two black eyes. I asked her what had happened. She heaved a sigh, obviously tired of answering the question.

“I got gay bashed.”

Unlike Kim and Mindy (who were in my mind “undercover lesbians” even though they lived together and ran a business together), Wendy looked like a lesbian, or at least what I thought a lesbian looked like. She was stocky, masculine, drove a pickup truck. She made the bulk of her income working construction jobs alongside men and other stocky lesbians. She kept her hair short and walked her dog on a rainbow-colored leash. It was while walking her dog in the riverfront park in Harrisburg that she got attacked. As she told the story to me, she never saw who or what had hit her. She was standing facing the river, her back to the trail, while her dog sniffed along the bank. From behind, she heard a man’s voice call her a “fucking dyke”, and as she turned, something hit her hard in the face. She hit the ground and blacked out. When she woke up, there was nobody around but the dog. She hadn’t been robbed. Somebody just smashed her face and then left. Wendy reported it to the police, but there wasn’t anything at all to go on. When she told me the story, she didn’t even seem angry. She just shrugged as if to say, yeah, these things happen sometimes.

To her, but not to me. I had heard about gay bashing, but it didn’t seem like a real thing, just like gays didn’t seem like a real thing when I was in high school. But to Wendy, it was real enough and common enough to shrug off. She just went through her regular work day with two black eyes and a swollen cheek. She later told me that she had survived physical abuse from a former husband, and she would survive this, too. She was used to being punched in the face. It was just part of her life. It blew my mind. I thought about those feminist college lesbians, and how I hadn’t liked that they seemed so angry all the time. And about how I would like to beat the hell out of whoever did this to Wendy, but I couldn’t. All I could do was feel angry about it.

Ultra VulvaAbout a year later, I took a full-time art internship in New York City, through the Great Lakes College Arts program. The GLCA took a look at your interests (for me, 2D mixed media and conceptual art) and matched you with a professional artist in the city for a full-time internship. I got matched with Robin Kahn, who was doing 2D mixed media and conceptual art that dealt almost exclusively with gender issues. I spent eight hours a day prepping canvases, making photocopies of drawings of vaginas and IUDs, running out for coffee, flipping through 1950s home-making magazines for images of women, and generally working to smash the patriarchy through art. It was well outside my comfort zone as a still-pretty-conservative straight guy. I had actively avoided engaging with politics and gender issues, and now it was my job to do so. Like the other GLCA interns, I lived in a boarding house on West 29th St. in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood – the gay district. I played volleyball twice a week at the YMCA and presumably shared a locker room with countless gay men. Nobody ever made a pass at me, and eventually I forgot to feel uncomfortable. We just played volleyball.

Since I was broke and needed extra work, Robin hooked me up with a side job as a guitar tech for some friends in an all-girl punk band called Ultra Vulva. Equally influenced by New York art-core and the Riot Grrrl movement, they were exactly the pissed off lesbians I had tried to avoid at college. Their music was aggressively about rape, domestic violence, eating disorders, gay bashing – all of the topics that I didn’t want to think about, because I assumed that they thought that I was part of the problem. But I loved working in music and took the job, tuned their guitars, helped load their gear in and out of gigs. I was twenty years old, hanging out back stage at punk clubs that wouldn’t have let me in the front door because I was too young, making beer runs for the band. I saw 7 Year Bitch play at Coney Island High on St. Mark’s Place, moshing amidst a sea of pissed-off lesbians. I rolled my eyes at Jude during Ultra Vulva band practice, when Barbara and Karen would get into shouting matches, and Karen would throw down her bass and storm out of the room. I went to gigs, gallery openings, parties at artists lofts. In three years, I had gone from being the Central Pennsylvania Christian school kid making jokes about Brian to spending most of my time with third-wave feminist punk rockers in lower Manhattan: the very people that I was always afraid were judging me and hated me for who I was. And you know what? Everyone was super nice to me. Nobody gave me a hard time for being a straight white guy and kind of a rust belt hillbilly. They thought it was charming when I wore a necktie and overalls to a SoHo gallery opening. (That actually happened.) They were patient, they were kind, and while I’m sure I said and did a lot of stupid things, they gave me credit for caring enough to listen and caring enough to try. They were friends to me, even though I wouldn’t have had the courage to have been friends to them first.

That was twenty years ago. By now, it seems like somebody else’s story. I’ve done a lot of changing and growing since then, and I’m sure I have a lot more left to do. I hope so, anyway. Out of curiosity, I looked up Brian on Facebook. He has a wife and two children now, and a Facebook page covered in Bible verses. They look happy, and I didn’t try to contact him. Maybe he never was gay. Maybe he was and still is gay, and is deferring happiness on earth to get an eternal reward in heaven. It’s none of my business, and it never was. But I do wish I had stuck up for him, just once, when I was fourteen or fifteen years old. And I wish that adult me, now, could travel back in time to tell fifteen-year-old Brian in private that I didn’t think he was weird, and that I didn’t think it mattered if he was. Because while he laughed along with the jokes, I have to think that he really needed somebody, a grown-up, to tell him that he was going to be OK.