I cannot possibly understand the depths of anger, resentment, fear, frustration, and sadness that must exist for people of color because of our disgustingly racist society. There is a level of visceral understanding I will never achieve regarding something I have not lived. I can empathize. I can find ways to relate. I can acknowledge the awfulness of our country. But I cannot know. And yet I have to try.
We live in a violent society. I have had the experience of being afraid. I have encountered situations where someone I did not know decided they had a reason to hate me, or want to hurt me, through no fault of my own. I have experienced when a stranger looked at me with loathing and violence. Perhaps I can start there.
As a queer person, my clothes, my walk, my wrists, my speech patterns, my associations — each of these things has, many times, caused a stranger to despise me, to threaten violence against me, or enact violence upon me. I know that feeling of seeing vicious, murderous, rage in a stranger’s eyes and wondering if that person is going to hurt or kill me.
I am trying to understand what it would be like if those isolated experiences were my daily experience. I have had it happen many times, but as a white cis-gendered male living in New York City, it is not nearly my constant. Most days I walk through my life without a glance from anyone, no matter how queer I dress or sound or act. But what if those times when I turned and saw a person who wanted me dead . . . what if that happened at the bank? In my pharmacy? At the corner store? What if it happened every day?
What if the person who wanted to annihilate me had a badge, a gun, and a license to kill me if he or she perceived me as a threat?
When a police officer pulls me over for a broken taillight or for driving too fast, I think, “Damn it — how am I going to get out of this ticket?” What would it be like if that officer was the same man who held a bat to my 19 year-old closeted face and told me he was going to “beat the faggot out of me in the name of God” if I ever became gay? How would I function in this world if I had to wonder if that cop was going to walk up and put bullets in my body instead of reprimanding me for a traffic violation?
I am angry and deeply ashamed of the times I have chosen to “pass” — when I have acted straight or toned down my gayness enough that it was palatable to a bigot so he or she would not attack me. What if, instead of hating myself (and those people) and wallowing in my self-pity, I try to imagine what would happen if that ability to “become” straight had been removed? I can pretend that I have sex with women. A black man cannot pretend he is white.
I am a person who chooses to use nudity, art, imagery, words, and other expressions of queerness as a political act. I am actively and sometimes aggressively open about my sexuality in many forums as a catalyst for change. I have known how it feels for another person to see my openness and hate me. And while on the outside I revel in their discomfort, I am also afraid. So what would it be if my skin were that act of aggression whether I chose it to be or not? If driving a car were considered an action of throwing my queerness in someone’s face? If going to the grocery store or the mall were perceived as a threat to the well-being and safety of the customers and employees and security guards? If instead of my clothes making a stranger think “I hate that faggot” my skin color brought forth a response of “I see that person as a criminal and a danger and I should stop him.”
Policies need to change. Systems need to be overturned. Regulations and screening processes need to be implemented before a person is given a badge and a gun. Murderers need to be punished. The overwhelming nature of these broad sweeping actions and my own powerlessness to enact them can, and does, render me inert. So what do I do?
I do not know. I can show up in solidarity and say that things have got to change even when I do not have any idea how to make that happen. I can try to comprehend the depth of the problem and I can stand up and say YES the problem is real. I can write this essay and hope that a few people will read it and think. White people often feel it is our duty to lead. Now, in this, I think it is my responsibility to join and to follow.
I know that to do so is not enough. It is not nearly enough. My words and thoughts and empathy and presence cannot and will not deflect bullets or bring countless dead Black men and women back to life, and Black bodies are still falling in our streets.
But maybe it is place to start? Maybe if every white person who feels like things are terribly wrong stands with the Black community and says so, movement can increase. We are talking about a deeply engrained racist pattern of thought and action that exists in every system in our country, and dismantling those systems will take a long, long time. Even so, it is time to begin. It is time to say I see the problems, I hate the problems, and I demand a solution.
I want Black men and women to be safe. To be alive. To be free. I see that they are not and I want it to change, but I do not know what to do. I feel useless, incapable, stupid, empty, and guilty.
But fuck my feelings. I still have to try.