Sunday, July 19, 2015

Dawn in a Trash Can

Yesterday the sun rose inside a garbage bin.

We gathered up all his things. Packed them into a black metal trash basket and then headed to my parents’ house, where I plucked out the rest of it. Every letter he ever wrote me was in that basket. Every photo, every note we once passed back and forth, scribbling furiously to each other. His journal that he kept all throughout high school was in there. So were all those poems I wrote for him at sixteen and seventeen; literary high fructose corn syrup. I wish I could go back in time and shake the stars out of my eyes, but those stars had already fallen. We couldn’t snuff them out of history. We could burn them out of the future.

We burned it all in the middle of the empty dead end road. I didn’t look at the photos as they were consumed. Wouldn’t look back at that gaze staring out to challenge me. Instead, I looked at the writing. The pocket-sized spiral notebook fanned out like an accordion. Like a flower opening in bloom. The ink-inscribed torment and rage and confusion bowed in on itself, the pages wilting into a fetal curl. In their destruction, they reconfigured into shapes of beginnings. It wasn’t him that was destroyed; it was his pain. The pain he both carried and injected into others. I haven’t taken much from organized religion, but I always liked the idea of fire as refinement. Fire consumes while it purges. It leaves only the pure elements behind.

I burned all the love letters along with the hate ones. It can feel tragic to throw out beautiful words, but that beauty was what made them so dangerous. It had anchored me long ago, but that anchor had almost drowned me.

For years, I’d kept all these remnants inside a clay box in my old bedroom at my parents’ house. It was a box I’d made at Creative Arts Workshop the summer when I was six. Ever since grade school, I’d designated it as my pint-sized gallery of pain. I’d used it to house objects associated with bad memories, from embarrassing to sad to traumatic. Things I didn’t want to look at, but was also reluctant to throw away. In high school I’d kept an angry note from another ex in there, along with the padlock to a drawer where I’d locked up my childhood diaries. The journals were full of memories I’d repressed by siphoning them off onto paper. I wanted to hide them from myself, but also to remember. To tattoo them into my brain in invisible ink. That was when I’d started keeping those things, while also intent on tucking them out of sight.

I burned the box along with its contents. It blackened in the smoke, but wasn’t melted. It was stained and purified at the same time.

My sister was there, and so was Mike. Dedicated and steadfast as ever, he lit the flames. My sister circled around the fire, talking excitedly. Remembering history. Telling me about her own life and friends. She was there, and we love each other. When all those other layers are eroded and refined, that’s what matters. And so I folded up this moment as a keepsake to look at fondly; not to hoard away.

As the relics crumbled down to ash, the smoke started to smell faintly like almonds. I’m sure there’s a long history of symbolism behind them, and they could be waxed poetic about for ages. But what struck me so much was the simplicity. I half-wondered if I’d hear his distant guitar notes floating from the smoke, but the trace of almonds was enough. After burning down years of horror, what was left was a scent so refreshing and benign.

I thought of burying the debris or leaving them in the garden, but decided against it. As long as I held onto his creations, they held power over me. If I discarded the ashes in a poetic way, then they’d still retain a significance greater than themselves. So I tossed them out unceremoniously in a dumpster behind Sam Ash (the pun not realized at the time).

Something tentative was budding in the absence, and I wanted to let it grow.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

On humor

Humor is often looked at in a reductive manner of “Anything somebody claims is a joke needs to be taken at face value as one,” and that analyzing joke structure means you lack a sense of humor. Neither of these assumptions are true.

Analyzing jokes is what a professional comedian does for a living. If everything they say sounds completely natural and off-the-cuff, that’s because they’re so well practiced. Successful stand-up requires a great deal of self awareness. As Robin Tran recently pointed out, there’s even an art to hiding the punchlines. Making it in comedy means playing to your audience.

There’s a well known subset of people, both online and off, who think they’re comedians just because they shout out every racist, sexist, and otherwise bigoted thought that barges into their minds, and they lambaste anyone who says it’s not funny. “It’s just a joke, bruh. Don’t you have a sense of humor?” And then this is the part where they fumble for any gay/black/female/trans person in the vicinity to use as a human shield and say, “They’re not offended.” But as soon as anybody who does belong to one of those groups is unamused, their opinion and identity is cast out with the rest of the perceived trash heap and they’re called “just another sensitive [insert slur here].” Their status as a member of a minority group immediately drops them from a position of value (or, rather, exploitation) to a position of mockery. It's pretty sobering to know just how easy it is to fall into that behavior, ourselves.

That’s not how professional comedians work. They have to make the audience like them. This is never achieved by getting angry at people for not laughing, or for getting offended by their offended reaction. It’s not achieved by laughing at a notably disenfranchised group and demanding that they sit there and take it, telling them, “You have to be able to laugh at yourself.” Laughing at oneself should always be a person’s own choice, and it’s funniest when it is. It just becomes bullying when they’re already screwed over by society and now some atomic stink bomb with a mic is demanding that they find it funny.

Even notoriously racist, homophobic, and otherwise douchey comedians know how to tailor their act to specific listeners. They know that if there’s an audience full of women, it’s wise to avoid jokes about them deserving to be raped. (Not that it’s better to make that joke to male audiences. This is about more than not looking like an asshole; it's about not actually being one.) They know that if they themselves are unattractive, it's hypocritical and clueless to make fun of other peoples’ looks. Again, not that it’s better for the comedian to pick on appearance if they are good-looking. There’s the famous rule about punching up, not down.

This leads into the topic of celebrities. Normally, famous people are fair game. They’re rich and successful, so what a comedian says probably isn’t going to affect their status or rub salt in a wound. This would naturally seem like a form of “punching up.” It is—except when the joke is about the famous person belonging to a group that’s historically and institutionally dumped on. This is where things get a little more complicated.

A bigoted joke about a Hollywood star is still a bigoted joke. It may not affect them personally; they probably won’t even hear it. But it will be heard by others of that same group who aren't rich and successful. A joke making fun of Tess Holliday’s weight or Laverne Cox’s transgenderism still affects plus-size women and trans people. Members of those populations are still seen as public laughing stocks, even if those two celebrities aren’t—and they’re ridiculed for aspects of themselves they never chose. (There are people who will argue that you do choose your body size and can decide to be transgender, but that’s a whole other topic. For now, I’ll just say that while some people may be able to dictate their weight to an extent, not everybody can and there are a lot of genetic factors involved. As for being trans, you can choose to get surgery but you don’t choose gender dysphoria. Also, not all trans people get surgery or experience dysphoria. That’s a subject for another blog post, though. My point is that these groups of people, along with others, are torn apart for traits that don’t harm anyone and are overwhelmingly attacked by society.) If someone is unable to make a joke without being a bigot, then they're not very funny or creative.

This is tough to talk about, because nobody wants to be the humor police. Nobody wants to be seen as the no-funster who crashes through the wall at a party to force feed everyone the PC Kool-Ade. But it’s very telling when a person who doesn’t laugh at a hateful joke, or who says it’s not cool, is the only one who’s judged as a buzzkill. Not the person who makes the hateful joke in the first place.

Another telling factor is the way you’re accused of being humorless as soon as you reject or even consider the premise of a joke, even if you and that same person had been cracking up about something else only minutes before and they were telling you how funny you were. It's interesting how quickly any previous demonstration of your humor is now forgotten. Or the way that many of the same people who insist that a racist, misogynistic, or classist comment is “just a joke” will then defend it because “it’s so true!” Or that if you question it, you’re assumed to be trying to censor everyone. It is true that there are some who want to censor others; who want to ban them from having any platform or have them arrested for what they say. I’ve known several such people and would say that approach goes way too far. But more often, anybody who objects at all is accused of being censorious. That’s not what most dissenters aim for. People are free to say what they want, however ignorant it may be. And, in turn, others are free to argue with them. Rather than shutting down public discussion, I want to provide more and to see more offered. Let’s see more counter-arguments. Let’s see more jokes that give off their own light instead of reflecting others who have been drained and derived from for as long as anyone can remember.

That would bring more than amusement; it would bring happiness. And that’s something the world is long due.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A letter for people I love

This is an open letter to anti-LGBT+ family members—because there’s more than one of you, and because, even if you might not believe it when we disagree, I do love you. Please bear with me.

Because we share genetics and grew up doing holidays together, I know where you come from. I know the particular brand of theology you’re expressing is what you’d been raised with from day one. I know your parents only ever wanted what was best for you, and they are good people. And I know you don’t want to be hateful. It hurts and offends you when others think you’re being cruel for opposing same-sex marriage, when you feel you’re just standing up for “what God says.” You also believe you’re being persecuted for this opinion, and are immersed in a religious culture which tells you that is true. I can’t personally relate to this, as I was not raised within evangelical Christianity. I do understand where you’re coming from, though. It can’t be an easy place to be.

But, in love and in sincerity, I’m asking you to please consider something: That it would be incredibly painful to be a gay or bi or transgender person living within that environment. Even if nobody from your church or your specific religious community is openly “out,” there very likely are LGBT people within your community who know this truth about who they are and hate themselves for it. And, without any assumptions or accusations on my part, please let me ask you some rhetorical questions.

Are you helping them to feel loved, regardless of your beliefs about their identity, or are you encouraging self-hate?

Are you telling them God loves them, but only if they change a huge aspect of who they are and have always been? If so, how can it be called a “free gift” if there are so many strings attached? It can’t be a demonstration of parental love if it’s so conditional. (Not that all parents love unconditionally, but the general Christian understanding is that God loves in the way that an ideal and perfect parent would.)

What are you trying to accomplish by posting anti-LGBT quotes and memes? Are you directing them at LGBT people, or at peers within your religious community who agree with you? Are they directed at people outside your group who disagree—and if so, are you using those posts to try to persuade them?

If you are addressing those things to other Christians, what’s your reason for doing so? Maybe you’re trying to prove your place within their circle, to show that you belong. If that’s the case, why is it necessary? Would true friends litmus test you?

If you’re trying to reach LGBT people, please understand that telling us we’re going to hell and deserve to be murdered is not love. I am, and have always been, a bisexual person. This doesn’t mean I’m in multiple relationships or want to be. I also never chose this. It’s something I’ve known since first grade, since before I knew it was even possible to like both men and women or had any word to name it. If you have questions about this, I’m willing to talk about it. But if you're only interested in telling me how wrong I am for being bi, then the conversation won't lead us anywhere helpful.

If you say gay people are damned or unloved by what you believe to be the ultimate and all-powerful source of love, that does affect me personally. It’s extremely hurtful. In a similar way, you feel personally affected and hurt when others say the same things about your specific branch of Christianity. But please understand that nobody is telling you that your relationships should be illegal, and nobody is forcing you to perform or enter into same-sex marriages. Many people within evangelical Christian culture do seem to want to force LGBT people into heterosexual relationships, though, or force them into the religion via law. It’s not all Christians. But there are a disconcerting amount who want everyone in the US to be legally forced to follow biblical mandates and for our government to be a theocracy. If that were the case, it would completely negate free will. It would also allow even more massive leeway for government corruption; for a leader to do anything they pleased and be unquestioned if they claimed that “God told them to do it.” Nobody is telling you that you cannot be Christian—and there are different ways of being Christian, not just conservative/evangelical. In turn, please don’t tell people they cannot be anything but heterosexual and cisgender (non-trans).

One thing I understand about conservative Christianity is that conscience and a sense of obedience often pull in opposite directions. You may not want to harm LGBT people, but feel that your religion is telling you to. You may be caught in deep and painful conflict for that reason. If this is the case, please understand that any deity worthy of being called “love” would never, ever demand that you choose between duty and compassion. If you have compassion, it’s there for a reason. Please don’t stifle its voice. Also, hate is more than a feeling. It’s an action. A person can have all the caring and empathetic feelings in the world for someone else, but if their actions do the other person harm, it’s not love. Love is what we do, not just what we feel. The same is true for hatred.

If you’ve gotten this far and are still reading, thank you. I’m grateful for your time and consideration. Yes, we’re still family and we’re still friends. But before you repost another quote or video or meme about something you may not fully understand, I ask that you please take a moment to reflect on these thoughts. You’re under no obligation to answer my questions, but please don’t be afraid to ask them to yourself.

Thank you for hearing this out.