I’ve told this story many times before. I have a lot of karma to pay, so I’ll probably tell it many more times. When we were children, we used to play a game called “smear the queer.” It was a game where someone would throw a football in the air and all of us boys (it was primarily boys) would scramble to catch the ball. Whoever caught the ball would then run for his life because they were about to get tackled grotesquely. That person was the “queer”; they were about to get smeared. I tell my son about this to show him that I do/have done stupid things in my life and things that I’m embarrassed about. When I told him a few weeks ago he asked me, “Why did you want to catch the ball?”
I don’t know son. Good question.
From what I understand, it was a very common game. I’ve told this story across the country and inevitably men tell me that when they were boys they played the same thing.
I’m a child of the 1960s and 1970s, I was married before the ’70s were officially closed out, in ’79. Way back then, gay wasn’t widely used, and it was not being used as an all purpose insult slur. Back then, queer, faggot, homo and dyke were the specific go tos when looking for something nasty to say about us icky types. Well, those are the ones I remember the most anyway. Oh, there was the ever present bull dyke, too, for when dyke just wasn’t enough. Things change, but they don’t change all that much, either. Implicit in all this, of course, is the always present need to humans to other, the need to be part of a group that can feel superior to that group over there.
I also remember when I was in 8th grade a fight happened in the locker room after football practice. Someone called one of the kids a “fag.” Everybody in the locker room laughed until the kid got so upset/frustrated/angry that he struck the other kid. The kid who was getting teased split the other kid’s nose and both kids got suspended. I wasn’t an active participant as I wasn’t really “cool” enough to pick on anybody. I was a passive participant laughing and watching. I tell my son that story to tell him that we have an obligation to speak up when someone’s getting picked on. I give him this story as an example of when I did not do that.
This is where childhood, and life in general, gets sticky for most of us. Growing up, I didn’t participate in such cruelty, and I remember more than once standing up, but I also remember the times I didn’t. The times I was afraid. The times I didn’t put my own cares on hold for one minute to make someone else a priority. We all need to remember that even the tiniest acts can be crucial, they can literally be the difference between life and death for someone. Small kindnesses, momentary thoughtfulness, a respite of welcome inclusion, those things can cast a very long shadow.
There’s a danger anytime somebody does something singularly horrible and evil. Many times, the person who did that singularly horrible and evil thing suddenly becomes the face of evil. When that happens, it has the effect of lowering our standards down to where pretty much everyone else gets a free pass, or at least the scrutiny is not as tough for others. Thereafter, that face of evil becomes a point of reference and behaviors and actions that otherwise might be seen as outrageous are not nearly as offensive as they might be before the face of evil came around.
I can’t add very much here. Gyasi Ross has this so very right. When a huge evil looms, everyone else gets breathing room, and with a nervous laugh, tell themselves, it’s not like I’m that bad. Whew. We are that bad, though. Every tiny bad act, every act of omission, every name, every blind eye keeps dripping, dripping, dripping, until there’s a flood, preparatory ground for a huge evil.
Similarly, Omar Mateen has become the face of evil in regards to anti-gay violence for viciously massacring 49 people in an Orlando gay club. His actions were so heinous that even people who routinely say hurtful and hateful things about homosexuality have made him a whipping boy and condemned his actions. Good–he obviously should be held accountable! But that doesn’t make those people who say hateful things good—it just makes what Mateen did worse. His actions do not absolve the “smaller” indignities against the LGBTQ community; we still have to take into account all of the people who create an environment that makes Omar Mateen possible and even likely. We still have to acknowledge the accountability of all the little conversations and indignities that forces some LGBTQ members to hide in a closet of shame and fear.
Like when I was a child and we played a game called “smear the queer.” Like when I was a child and I sat quietly by as a kid was insulted. I think about “What if the kid in the locker room was gay? What if any kids in the locker room were gay? Of course they’re not going to be comfortable in that situation. Of course they’re going to hide the fact that they’re gay!” The first step in a revolution is love; the second step is accountability and realizing our role in a problem.
That means that I have to see how I contributed to that. For my part I’ve apologized and I apologize again. But those experiences made me realize that it’s not just the folks who commit these acts of anti-gay violence who have blood on their hands; it’s all of us who create an environment that shames gays (or anybody really, but this is specifically about anti-gay violence). I can’t say that we all have blood on our hands, but a whole bunch of us do and we need to recognize our role in these things and not merely point at the faces of evil, the worst of the worst.
And…what could I do? I was a little kid. I accept that. Yet, I know that I can start to fix that by teaching my son—as young as he is—to accept and tolerate and to love. There is no such thing as “too young” to teach tolerance and respect. We teach them by having honest conversations about Orlando, or Matthew Shepard or about our own past and evolving perspectives. We talk about tolerance, and we talk about intolerance. Honestly. Adults who have intolerant attitudes like Donald Trump or Omar Mateen start as children who are taught intolerance. Conversely, adults who are tolerant, respectful and loving begin as children who are shown and taught tolerance, respect and love.
It’s not just about the worst of the worst—the face of evil. It’s also about us, the “regular people” who help create the environments that allow those faces of evil to fester. We have the power to change those environments.
I also apologize. And apologize again. As often as I need to, and I will do everything I possibly can to see that continued apologies are not needed.
Gyasi Ross’s full column is at ICTMN.