Silence Is Not Tolerance. Silence Is Apathy.
My parents never talked politics outside the house. My dad was slightly conservative — enough so that we’d disagree on pretty much only one issue (gun control) that would ignite a series of arguments for agrument’s sake that really just served as an excuse for us to fight with each other. I really believe he was mostly a-political about most things, but then again, I don’t really know. His death has erased that bullshit from my memory, and I try to remember all of the good stuff and not fall into a hypothetical trap and wonder where he’d stand in the world today.
One summer when I was in college, I drove home for the weekend (I was taking summer classes, which I realized would allow me to hang around with friends for the summer rather than be bored at home) and went to a cookout hosted by some family friends. There were a bunch of people there — some extended family, people I’ve known my entire life. This was a few years after 9/11. We were deep into the war, and for whatever reason, politics came up.
At the cookout, someone started talking about Muslims. It was truly the first time I’d ever heard a group of people so openly disparaged by people I knew; even my most strictly Christian friends at school seemed to be open minded and kind, understanding that they had differences with people who followed the tenants of Islam as much as they did pretty much everyone else on campus who didn’t subscribe to the fundamentalist leanings of their faith. But it was at this cookout that I heard someone say things like, “I think Muslims should go back where they came from,” as if the average Muslim was as dangerous to them as the very few who they saw cheering for the towers falling on Fox News. I remember sitting there silently and quietly feeling full of rage — an anger that I was hearing this in the first place, and an anger that, as a young college student surrounded by grown-ups I’d known most of my life, was fueled by a feeling that I couldn’t say anything because I didn’t feel old and smart enough to speak out.
Later in the afternoon, my dad was talking to another man about my parents’ anniversary trip to Hawaii. “Hawaii would be great if it weren’t for all the Japanese,” the man laughed — snickered, almost, he was so proud of himself — and then he continued: “Just like San Francisco would be great without all the queers.” My dad just silently nodded, more out of obligation than agreement, and he didn’t look at me. I was so angry, so furious, and so ashamed. I wasn’t out of the closet, not to anyone else or even really myself, but I knew what I was, and the moment reinforced the idea that it was something I could never tell anyone, because even if I told my parents they would care more about what their friends and their family thought than about me. (“Queer” and “fag” were common words I heard growing up, casually thrown around at school but even sometimes at home, and only recently have I figured out that as I got older, I had at least stopped hearing them used in the latter location.)
I remember driving home and yelling at my mother about how mad I was, about what I heard. I didn’t say anything about myself, of course, but I told her how it hurt my feelings because I had friends at school who were different than me and my family — Jewish, Muslim, queer, black — and I couldn’t stand to hear someone talk about these people and not feel empowered to speak up in their defense. My mother tried to argue tolerance for the intolerant (“You have to understand that these people grew up in a different time,” etc), but it only made me angrier. I grew up in the same place, not too many years later; I knew people my age who felt the same way, and how did I manage to escape these prejudices? Is it because I valued the differences in others, possibly because I, myself, was different? I could not answer that question — I couldn’t even ask it! But the idea that I had to sit quiet, as my parents did, and listen to that and allow it to fester only upset me more.
I’ve thought about this a lot since the Pulse shooting last June, about how many father didn’t say anything to the other guy after the queer comment. I suddenly realized that what I thought at the time was probably wrong — that my father’s silence represented agreement. I’m pretty sure both my parents knew I was gay years before I said anything to them. I don’t think my coming out was a surprise. And then I considered how my dad knew that, sitting next to me at a picnic table while someone not as close to my family made fun of faggots. I can’t imagine what my father was thinking at the time. Was he embarrassed? Was he offended? Did he feel terrible that I had to hear that, about what I must have been thinking at that point, and how shitty it made me feel? I’ll never know — I don’t have the chance to ask him today. But I do know that I wish we had talked about it, and that instead of saying nothing I wish he would have stood up and told that dude to fuck right off.
I’m the last few months, I’ve been so upset about what I’ve been seeing and the silence on a lot of people’s behalf because, simply, the things that are happening in this country don’t affect them in particular. Today the President — I still cannot bring myself to add his name to that title, because I still cannot believe it is real — signed an executive order to ban refugees from predominantly Muslim countries. On a day that commemorates the most incredible historic example of hatred and intolerance and ignorance! I don’t meant ignorance as in stupidity, but I’m referring to the act of ignoring the world around you. We will remember these times. We will remember where we stood, and what we did and did not do. I cannot stand by as a minority dismantles the very foundations upon which our country and society are built simply because of petty racism and unenlightened fear. And I hope that whenever I see something happening that is INHERENTLY WRONG AND HATEFUL, I will feel emboldened enough to scream and rant and do my best to stop it — even if that alienates some people I know or makes them uncomfortable enough to recognize their own prejudices.
I know what it’s like to feel like I have to be quiet, but I also deeply understand the need to have someone stand up for me. I hope my friends will join me in the event that we all have to stand up for each other together.