Well you walk into a restaurant, strung out from the road, You can feel the eyes upon you as you're shaking off the cold, You pretend it doesn’t bother you, but you just want to explode.
Most times you can't hear em talk, other times you can. All the same old cliches, is that woman or a man? You always seem outnumbered, you don’t dare make a stand. –- Bob Seger, “Turn The Page.”
I firmly believe that the true lesson of this node has nothing to do with a rote calculation of people, whether they majority, minority, or anything in between. Everyone has been a numerical minority at one time or another. Perhaps you were the only boy at a birthday party. Or maybe you were the only girl who showed up for a roughhouse football game between the boys. Or perhaps you were the only yuppie white person who managed to show up for a Muddy Waters blues concert.
While such situations may feel uncomfortable, that’s all they ultimately are. They tell you almost nothing about what it's like to live your whole life as a true minority. A second-class citizen. Day in and day out.
No, that understanding comes only with actually stepping into the shoes of an oppressed minority. What’s the old saying –- don’t make up your mind about a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes?
I actually thought up an idea for a node much like this one years ago -– well before I had ever heard of e2. Only my version was a little less politically correct. Mine went like this
Every white American male should be required to be an oppressed minority for a period of no less than two years.
You see, I’m a white American male, and until a few years ago, I had no direct knowledge of the forces of discrimination and ignorance that pervade everyday life in this country. Yes, I held liberal beliefs. Yes, I believed in equal rights, and thought that many affirmative action programs were not only well-intentioned, but necessary.
But I never knew -- really knew -- what it must be like to wake up every day knowing that people are going to be looking at you, judging you, and treating you, not for who you are, but for what you are.
Then everything changed in 1998.
Come out, come out, wherever you are
That was the year of my first boyfriend. His name was Demetri. He was 6’9”, black, and from Rwanda. I was 6’4”, about 220lbs, and usually walked around in my lawyer suits at the time, so the two of us made quite the interesting pair. He could clearly take care of himself, though, so I didn’t worry about protecting him. Nobody bothered us, and he gave me room to explore the gay side of myself at my own pace.
Six months later we broke up, and I met my only other boyfriend. His American name was Michael, but he was born in Korea with the name Um Yung Cha. I’ve since been told that this is a female name, which makes sense, because Michael was very effeminate -– what they call a “kissy, kissy boy” in Korea –- and made his living as the drag queen Berlene in the bars of DuPont Circle here in Washington, D.C..
I loved Michael very much. While he plied his trade impersonating stars like Madonna and Janet Jackson, he spent his free time painting some of the most exquisite art I have ever seen. One of my personal favorites was a painting of the village where he was born, and which he left at the age of six. It was a winter scene, and the lake was frozen over. But you see, there was a pig slaughterhouse that ran into the lake all year long, so the water was always red. During the winter, the lake would freeze, with red ice. Michael would tell me stories of skating with his favorite six-year old girlfriend on this frozen, bloody lake.
Although he was Asian, Michael bleached his hair to a glowing platinum. Needless to say, his effeminate facial features combined with his bleached hair made him the center of attention wherever he went. Which made us the center of attention.
Whenever we walked into a store, or a restaurant, or a straight bar, the eyes would turn to us immediately. I would hold his hand, to help with his fear, and I would lift myself up to my full height and breadth, as if to challenge anyone who wanted to say anything rude. Few people ever dared.
But that’s not to say nothing ever happened. Once, on the way to the beach, a car full of homophobic teenage boys jeered and mocked us, and one stuck his head out the window, simulating fellatio as he passed us. Five miles down the road we pulled off at a McDonald’s, just as they were coming out the door. I stood right in front of the young blowjob guy, maybe a good eight inches shorter than I was, and I could see the fear in his eyes. I smirked at him, brushed by him, and as I passed said, “Nice try, but your technique needs a lot of work.”
Sometimes it didn’t work out so well. I’ve been beaten by bats as I held off assailants while Michael ran for safety. He and I have sat in a restaurant for literally a full hour before a waiter would bother to check on us, just because he could see we were gay. And I’ve jumped for a ditch by the side of a road as a car sideswiped us, while the leering men inside yelled “Faggot” at the top of their lungs.
Sometimes it worked out better. My law firm had domestic partner benefits, so I could put Michael on my insurance. He went to a dentist for the first time in his life, saving his full set of upper teeth in the process. He had an arm that had been broken years before mended, so that he could raise it over his head for the first time in years. He had access to real medicine, and slowly stopped taking the drugs he had become used to when he was homeless in the years before we met.
Break On Through To The Other Side
But it didn’t last. I’m not really gay, just kinda, sorta bi. I eventually met my wife at a gay club, of all places, and she and I began what was to become the adventure of our lives. Michael, heartbroken, committed suicide several months later by a heroin overdose.
Being his only real friend, I had to identify the body. His face looked peaceful, angelic. I had heard that a heroin overdose does terrible things to a person’s features, but that didn’t happen this time. Two days later, though, the medical staff found Michael’s mother, now a raging alcoholic, and I never saw him again. Being the “faggot boyfriend,” I had no rights. I was not allowed to attend the funeral, and I don’t even know where his body is buried.
I Feel Your Pain
But that wasn’t the end of the impact my relationship with Michael had on my life. One of my wife’s previous boyfriends was this linebacker from ECU, a strong, proud black man named Marc. My wife, growing up in the South, took a lot of grief for that relationship. I don’t think her Dad has ever forgiven her.
But when she told me stories of feeling the eyes on her when she walked into a restaurant with Marc, I had only to remember my time with Michael to say “I understand.” A lot of guys who look like me, walk like me, and talk like me might say they understand –- often in a transparent attempt to get laid –- but I really did understand. And my wife knew it, because I was with Michael -– who was dressed as Berlene -– when the two of us met. So she knew.
It was at this point that I decided that my years as a gay man –- kind of a minority Peace Corps –- were not just a good thing, they were crucial to my understanding of others. I guess the most concrete examples I can think of to show this are the James Byrd and Matthew Shepard murders. If you’ll recall, James Byrd was the black man dragged to his death on the bumper of some Texas redneck’s pickup truck. The trip was so violent Byrd’s head was ripped from his shoulders. Anyway, at the time I was just your ordinary straight American white male. I thought it was a shame, but didn’t really feel a sense of outrage.
Fast forward six months or so. I’ve got a boyfriend by then, and I definitely saw the world in terms of “us” and “them.” When I read about Matthew Sheppard being crucified on a fence post in Wyoming for three days, his skull broken so badly his brains were visible, I cried. And not just chi-chi liberal tears. I really felt violated by what happened to Matthew.
Then I realized that something just as bad had happened to James Byrd months before, only I somehow didn’t seem to have cared as much at the time. I thought that was just wrong. I shouldn’t have to be black to feel outrage at the lynching of an innocent black man. And it took my time as an oppressed minority –- and my kinship with Matthew Sheppard –- to help me try to expand my horizons and identify with every human being, not just the ones that looked or acted like me.