Free within ourselves

Thinking about yesterday’s post, I’m reflecting on what a position of privilege I’m in to be able to call myself a queer writer. Historically, and still today, there are many writers who couldn’t come out of the closet as queer. And many people in other positions, too. Maybe they wouldn’t necessarily need to identify as a “queer football player” or “queer politician” to establish who they are, but I’m sure it would be liberating if they could just be honest about that aspect of their lives.

A younger me would’ve been shocked to see me in this position. There was once a time when, because of familial and religious pressures, I thought that I would never come out of the closet. I thought I might tell my parents about my sexuality only in the most dire of circumstances, i.e. if I fell deeply in love with a woman and planned to spend the rest of my life with her, and if my parents didn’t know, I’d have to be sure that nobody else knew, so they wouldn’t find out.

And now here I am, setting out to establish a career in which I identify myself as, of all things, a queer writer. I’m “out” in most areas of my life, though not all, but now I’m broadcasting it on the Internet for anyone to find (shout-out to any extended family who are snooping here now — hi! Yes, the rumors are true). The fact that I was able to come out, and I can now proudly declare who I am while keeping my health, my safety and my livelihood, shows that I’m quite lucky. It’s not a matter of life or death for me, like it is for some folks. So while I certainly don’t believe that everyone should be forced to come out of the closet like me, it saddens me to know that even some of the iconic queer writers and artists who paved the way for our voices to be heard today must be forced to remain in the closet, even long after their deaths.

People ask me about my influences, and three names that come up most often are Audre Lorde, James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. Notice a pattern here? Nobody denies that they’re all black. Nobody denies that they’re all great. But, according to some, somehow I’m supposed to believe that identifying all of them as queer will somehow hurt one’s status as a respectable writer.

I’ve loved Langston Hughes’s work for a long time. And I often cite him as a gay icon, forgetting that many people still try to deny this fact. Obviously, his incredible work stands on its own, but knowing that he’s a black gay writer is what makes, for me, the difference between simply respecting his work and revering him as an iconic figure who laid the groundwork for what I do today. Denying his sexuality is, as Saeed Jones puts it, “as foolish as ignoring his race” (in an old post; I’d recommend checking out his newer updates). Must I really disregard who he is as a person in order to appreciate his work?

It’s frustrating enough when mainstream literary circles try to perpetuate the myth that only straight white men can write what can be considered great. It’s downright insulting to include a gay man among them, to recognize his place as one of the literary greats but only by claiming that he, too, is one of the great straight men.

So I’m coming from a place of privilege when I call myself a queer writer. I’m also coming from a place of gratitude, for those who came before me and struggled as queer artists, particularly queer writers of color, to insist that their voices deserve to be heard as much as anyone else’s. Gratitude for Countee Cullen, for Bruce Nugent, for Gladys Bentley, and yes, for Langston Hughes, and for countless others who deserve to be recognized for their work and for who they are — for all of who they are.

As Hughes has asked many times, what happens to a dream deferred? What happens when our dreams only feel within reach if we pretend to be something we’re not? Though many folks are forced to remain in the closet today, there are others who are opening doors, simply by being themselves and putting their work out there without leaving any part of themselves behind. I hope to join them, to reach my goals simply by being me, and nobody else.

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Water-Front Streets

by Langston Hughes

The spring is not so beautiful there–

But dream ships sail away

To where the spring is wondrous rare

And life is gay.

The spring is not so beautiful there–

But lads put out to sea

Who carry beauties in their hearts

And dreams, like me.

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Beyond Tolerance

There are more great queer-themed movies playing!

Frameline, the LGBT film festival, is going on this weekend and all through next week. I’ve been working with the Family Acceptance Project to promote the film they put together, “Always My Son.” There’s another showing on Sunday but last night was their big premiere (it was paired with a film that’s been getting a lot of press, “The Mormon Proposition”). It was followed by a reception featuring a Q&A with the family featured in the film. It was all a great success and I’m very happy for Caitlyn Ryan and Jorge Sanchez, director and program coordinator of the Family Acceptance Project.

“Always My Son” is the first in a very promising series of films created by the Family Acceptance Project (FAP), a program affiliated with my alma mater, San Francisco State University. The films will focus on the stories of families with LGBT children. FAP has been conducting studies about such families and working with them to promote familial acceptance of queer youth.

The studies have shown a huge impact for youth whose families accept them for who they are. The results may be obvious to folks who grew up as queer youth, like me. Young people whose families show behavior of rejection, such as trying to change the child’s sexual orientation or forcing them to hide it, are at a much higher risk for things like attempted suicide and drug and alcohol abuse. Those whose families showed acceptance had higher feelings of self-worth and were more likely to believe that they could grow up to be happy, healthy adults.

The Family Acceptance Project is doing really great work that’s long overdue, serving as a resource for families who may feel like they’re alone in trying to deal with a child’s sexual orientation. The family featured in “Always My Son,” for example, is a religious Latino family living in the Central Valley, where I grew up. When their son, EJ, came out as gay, they felt lost. EJ’s father, in particular, struggled to reconcile his son’s sexuality with the macho Latino ideology he was used to. After a crisis showed them that they were contributing to the suffering that might have them lose their son, the family shifted and went beyond tolerance to full acceptance, embracing their son for who he is. They got help from the Family Acceptance Project, found an affirming church and provided their home as a space for queer youth to come together and find support.

It was an incredible story, and watching the family at the reception last night, I couldn’t get over trying to imagine how EJ must feel. To go from feeling rejected and hated by your own family to having your family serve as an example for others learning to accept LGBT youth must be a great feeling, and it’s probably why I never saw EJ stop smiling. The fact that this was a Central Valley family of color from a faith background touched me personally on multiple levels, and I’m so glad that the film showcased a family that people may not ordinarily think of as a leader in LGBT equality. I think it really shows the potential power of unconditional love to transform hearts and minds in ways that may be difficult to imagine.

I really recommend seeing this film, if you get a chance. There are rumors that Sunday’s showing may be sold out, but it’s definitely worth it to try to get some of the tickets they’ll sell right before the show starts. Even if you don’t get a chance to see the movie, check out the Family Acceptance Project and see if there’s any way you can help. It’s wonderful work that will hopefully continue for a long time.

Published in: on June 19, 2010 at 9:27 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Dad meets the family

I wrote this as an opening scene for an end-of-semester reading a couple of semesters ago. Recently I found it again and I’ve been working on it more, developing the story further. I’ll share it now and see how it feels.

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As soon as the music began, I knew it was a mistake, bringing my father there. The audience had grown silent, the cold air still as the lights went down and some overeager mom began to pump shrill, lively tones into the auditorium. She apparently believed that the less rhythm a song had, the easier it was for children to dance to it. The spectacle on stage said otherwise. Two dozen kids were bumping into each other, their eyes wide as they looked up at the teacher who led them and gazed past her bobbing head to see the dimly lit faces of their parents behind her.

I tried to imagine how my father, standing beside me, was seeing it all. His eyes falling upon his grandkid for the first time, frosty white lights beaming onto the stage to show her standing out like a fly on a potato salad. One side of her white dress was tucked into the side of her loud orange underwear, and as if she didn’t look alien enough already, her braids were standing up on her head like antennae. The other folks’ kids were picking up the dance pretty quickly, doing what looked like four easy steps and repeating them over and over again. My kid, on the other hand, was bouncing around on her feet in any old way, to music that only could’ve been in her head. I’m not saying I was jealous or ashamed of my kid or anything – kid’s seven years old, and what man is cruel enough to be ashamed of a seven year old? No, I wasn’t ashamed, just wished I’d practiced a little with her at home or something is all. I could see what all the other parents saw when they looked at her, a kid who couldn’t even tap her feet to a beat, probably the product of another absent black father.

More importantly, I could see what my father saw when he looked on stage. My wide-set eyes and sturdy jaw on the kid’s dark round face, each misstep a sign of bigger mistakes, the tapping of her feet sending out thunderous echoes of many years of disappointment. Since I’d picked my father up at the airport and driven him to the recital he’d had a strange look about him, his narrow eyes wrinkled in the corners as if everything he was seeing was a part of some joke and only he knew the punchline. As I glanced over to see the look still fixed on his face, the audience began to stand.

Standing. Really? My father stood with them, and I rose only because I couldn’t see over their balding heads. My wife Elsie, of all people, led this premature ovation. She stood on my other side, opposite my father, and though she’d shaken his hand briefly just before the recital began, I knew this moment would sear itself into my father’s mind as his first impression of my wife. Elsie thought our kid was perfect. She was convinced that kids were flawed because they were kids, and couldn’t grasp that maybe our kid would be better off if she didn’t have a mother who was so willing to accept her flaws. Elsie was gaping at the stage, her eyes bouncing with joy, her hands clasped in front of her like she was uttering a prayer that was being answered as she said it. Thrilled that our kid was standing out, Elsie was too dense to realize that standing out for being the black kid unable to dance among white kids isn’t a good thing.

I’d always hoped to help the kid out before she turned out like her mother. I never liked kids, but of course I loved my own, and I knew that if she followed what her mother told her, all that crap about being herself even if it got her off track, then she’d end up being stupid. Happy, maybe, as they say ignorance is bliss, but stupid. And if she got smart enough one day to realize I didn’t let her turn out that way, surely she’d thank me.

She stopped dancing. Music still playing, white kids swaying around her, and the kid stood still as a tree on a windless day. I looked at her big brown eyes and saw that they’d found mine. She grinned, teeth glowing, reached up her hand as far as she could and started waving, not at Elsie or anyone else, but at me. For some reason this kid thought I’d be glad to see her up there waving like a fool.

Through the corner of my eye I saw my father look at her and look at me, and I was sure I felt the lights above me grow brighter. A chill rushed through my body. Should light be cold? The kid’s eyes were locked on me and I didn’t break their gaze. It was the only way to avoid eye contact with my father, and with the other audience members who had surely turned to look at me. Beside me, Elsie was shrieking her high-pitched giggle. It was all too much – the lights, the music, the eyes on me. I watched the kid as I sank back down into my seat.

All I could see now above the audience’s heads was her small palm, pale under the spotlight, as she slowly brought it down to her side.

This was my father’s introduction to my family. It was the first glimpse he’d seen of my life since he’d vanished from it nine years earlier.

Published in: on June 18, 2010 at 9:25 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Nature’s Way

New fiction from this morning:

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As a child, Evelyn never would have confessed to something while her mother was gardening. She knew better than to deliver what might be called “bad news” while her mother was on her hands and knees in the dirt, her earth-colored skin glowing beneath the sun as she tended to her flowers with such gentle care that she might simply turn to a tulip in bloom and say, “why can’t my children be more like you?” if Evelyn disappointed her.

Now, as Evelyn was getting older, she reconsidered this strategy. In her eyes, it wasn’t bad news she was delivering, and perhaps if she was in the garden when she heard, her mother wouldn’t see it that way either. Evelyn could only hope, as she approached the towering woman brought down to the size of a hydrangea bush crouching in the garden, that her mother’s oneness with nature in this moment would make everything easier. Perhaps she would listen to what Evelyn had to say and then turn to a tulip with acceptance in her heart, remembering all that it went through before it came to bloom, the winter it hardly survived, the way she planted it carefully in hopes that it would face one direction, only to have it grow to face the opposite, surprising her with the discovery that that’s what she preferred all along.

As Evelyn got closer, the harsh gleam of the sun suddenly felt more hostile and she wiped a line of sweat from her forehead as she began to wonder what she would say, exactly. She’d had the words planned out but now, watching her mother’s fingers abandon a shovel and dig through the dirt themselves, tunneling quickly and carefully as ants, Evelyn felt like her words were buried too. She’d forgotten everything. How would she explain? There was nobody to introduce her mother to, no deep love of which to speak. She was only describing an inkling, a feeling she got around some girls that told her that there would, someday, be a love of which to speak. As her mother looked up to greet her, Evelyn tried to smile, but could only open her mouth in a terrified grimace. Her throat was closing. Her fingers trembling. Her heart and her stomach tightened as one entangled mess.

“Ah,” her mother said, smiling and nodding when she saw her daughter’s face. “So. You’ve finally come to tell me.”

Published in: on June 17, 2010 at 9:45 AM  Leave a Comment  
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