Knocking on Heaven’s Door?

No, I won’t dance on this man’s grave. Instead, let’s try to leave ourselves open to our own prejudices and fears to discover deeper connections, to let our own humanity shine through.

fred-phelps-wildrose-signsIn what might perhaps be poetic justice, vultures circle over another who fed off of the dead. The Daily News reported yesterday of the encroaching death of Fred Phelps, who rose to infamy with his hate-cult the Westboro Baptist Church by picketing funerals, rubbing acid into the fresh wounds of the bereaved to draw spectacle to his own brand of radical homophobia.

Phelps first came into the public’s consciousness in 1998 when he picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the twenty-one year old boy killed in Laramie, Wyoming, the victim of “gay bashing” so severe that the beaten and tortured body of Shepard that was left by his murderers was famously mistaken for a scarecrow by the cyclist who found him.

Despite an outcry of love and support for Shepard around the globe, Phelps and his family attended the funeral and as Shepard was laid to rest, cameras zoomed in on the words, “God Hates Fags!” and “Matt in Hell!” and upon the elder church leader’s face, where it has remained ever since.

There’s been a lot of speculation about the nature of Phelp’s homophobia –questions about why he is so fixated on the sexual practices of those he professes not to understand. There’s a lot of prose to get caught up in in the New Testament. To focus on gay sex, and to blame it for the downgrade of all humanity, veers beyond the extreme and into psychological territory. It leads me to believe that Phelps is a closeted homosexual, projecting his self-hatred on the world. Some believe that he was a victim of sexual abuse as a child, and that his pent up hatred stems from the shame and emotional damage that it caused.

Kerry Lauerman, former Editor-in-Chief of Salon Media Group and current Co-Founder and CEO of The Dodo wrote a feature on Phelps for Mother Jones a decade ago. On a recent Facebook post, Lauerman speculated that he “might just be nuts.” During his interaction with Phelps, he noted “one odd detail that always stuck with me is how he completely freaked out when he thought I’d asked him if he ever had a gay experience (I’d actually asked whether he’d ever known anyone who was gay). As years have gone on, and it’s become so clear how many of the worst homophobes — the Roy Cohns, George Rekers, the countless ministers caught with their pants down — were closeted gay men crazed by self-hate and/or fear, I often think back to that Phelps freakout and wonder if it wasn’t a pretty clear tell.”

It came out later that Matthew Shepard’s killer was gay as well.

We could point to the hypocrisy and get busy designing our own picket signs to carry at his funeral. The Facebook posts I’ve seen so far say, “God Hates Phelps!” But that would be wrong. And hateful. And exactly what he would want.

George Takei, actor, gay rights advocate and most recently, social media personality stated on Facebook:

“I take no solace or joy in this man’s passing. We will not dance upon his grave, nor stand vigil at his funeral holding “God Hates Freds” signs, tempting as it may be.He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many. Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end.”

I think the world will soon lose a tortured soul, someone whose prejudices and fears became so encompassing that they will live on as his legacy. His tombstone might read: Here lies another so married to his righteousness that it clouded out any humanity.

How sad for him.

As for the rest of us, we move forward, opening ourselves up to cracks in the certainties of our opinions. Through those cracks, we might consider the scope of where we have been wrong. It takes bravery to look there, to study our own psyches for doubt or uncertainty where once there was none.

Light is painful when it first touches your eyes.

No, I won’t dance on this man’s grave. Instead, let’s try to leave ourselves open to our own prejudices and fears to discover deeper connections, to let our own humanity shine through.

Let that be our legacy.

“Frozen” Progress in Gay Rights

But some of your kids, some of them are gay. And it’s not because society normalized it. It’s not because Disney taught them it was okay.

We might have been the last of the elementary school set to watch the film Frozen. My six-year-old daughter had heard about it from all of her friends, and had even been introduced to the music by her classroom teacher so that when the character voiced by Idina Menzel belted out “Let it Go,” Anna was right there with her last week, singing along to every lyric.

My kids have always been sensitive. My son has a particular reaction to the key of E in music – it’s an immediate guttural response, and renders him to tears without him knowing why. It goes straight to the heart, and is the reason most lullabies are composed in that key. My daughter reacts emotionally to movies, as I do. When she’s older, I’m sure there are PMS-riddled marathons in our future: Steel Magnolias, Terms of Endearment, etc. We’ll wash down salty popcorn with chocolate and tears and revel in our womanhood.

The prequel to this: Disney. Because my kids were so emotionally sensitive, I’ve always had to be careful with what I showed them, so as far as they are concerned, Finding Nemo begins at the “First day of school!” scene and not the one where the mother and her thousands of eggs are killed, leaving baby Nemo motherless and the Albert Brooks character widowed (widowered?) But if I wanted to cut the sad parts out of Frozen, we would have had to come in at the hour forty mark and only watch the last ten minutes. Anna cried until the reconciliation of the last scene.

It was a devastating film, not because the parents died (of course they did, this is Disney!) but because it demonstrated the persecution of gay Americans.

I’ve written before about how important it is to me to encourage empathy in my children.  Someone at Disney was having a similar conversation.

The film centers on Elsa who has a magic power that her parents and society deem dangerous. Even though a group of magic trolls declare she was “born this way,”  she’s hidden away (almost literally in a closet) and forbidden to interact with people. Later, she’s cast from society to live in her own frozen castle of which she can be the queen who lets her freak flag fly in isolation, until her sister shows an act of love and “thaws” the town who learn to accept and celebrate her “gift.”

Disney couldn’t have chosen a better time to premiere this film. Uganda’s brutal anti-gay political stance has reached global awareness with the World Bank delaying much-needed funds.  It took Jan Brewer to veto laws in Arizona that would make discrimination legal.  And in the wake of the winter Olympics at Sochi, where gay rights activists were loud in opposing Russia’s backwards attitude toward gay “propaganda.” What those who change their Facebook profile pics to rainbow-hued Olympic rings might not have realized is that even though progressive legislation has pushed through same-sex marriage in some states, many parts of America are just as, if not more, regressive and punishing toward the LGBT community as Russia. Russia, in fact, legalized sodomy in 1993. A belated right of a wrong, you say? America de-criminalized it ten years after Russia. You might say we are “frozen” in mindset and attitude.

Eight US states have banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools. Two states (South Dakota and Missouri) have laws that prevent anti-bullying policies. Let that sink in. In Alabama and Texas, teachers are required by law to describe homosexuality as “abhorrent” and “criminal.

Furious anti-gay opponents have come out against the film, claiming it’s an attempt to indoctrinate our children into the mindset of those pushing a “gay agenda.”  They decry the film as trying to “normalize” homosexuality, afraid that if their children recognize gayness not as an abomination, but as a persecuted minority devoid of civil rights in this modern age in a free country, they just might identify a bit. A portion of them might feel okay with any same-sex attraction they feel. They might be tempted to wrestle out of closets parents, churches, and society has put them in.

But most of them won’t. Statistically, most of them are straight. But some of your kids, some of them are gay. And it’s not because society normalized it. It’s not because Disney taught them it was okay. frozen scene saveIt’s not because they were raised by gay parents or because gay marriage was legalized in your state. It’s because they are gay.

Frozen is a love story. It’s about two sisters who come together, recognizing the bond of love between them. It’s about a child who comes to accept and celebrate the gifts she’s literally closeted away from society and eventually castigated for. To use the language of the devout, the broader story shows how we are all God’s children, brothers and sisters.

Some of those children are gay. Not because they have been indoctrinated, but because they have been made that way by a Creator. And to criticize the work of that creator, to say that it is flawed or wrong, or to suggest that it should be banned or hidden, seems a bit blasphemous to me.

But I have hope that with each generation, hearts and minds will thaw.

I Don’t Give Up

It’s been a rough week. But I found some inspiration from an unlikely source.

Last weekend, the blog I didn’t post was about giving up. It seemed like the divides between us were too wide to traverse, the boxes we put ourselves in too sharp, our labels too embedded in our consciousness. In the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, I was exposed to more violently racist opinion than I’d ever feared existed, not this far north, not in these 2010s. But I heard it spewed within earshot of my children and what surprised me was my reaction. It wasn’t anger. It wasn’t righteous indignation. It manifested itself in slumped shoulders and resignation. It took the wind out of my sails for a little while.

I was also subject to the bloodlust of conservative arguments, Rush Limbaugh talking points, and the gotcha verdicts of some friends and neighbors who concluded, after finding me reasonable and my thoughts nuanced, “Well, then you’re not a liberal.” I am, though, to my own definition. Probably not to Rush’s. I don’t adhere to everything left. I don’t support every Democrat. I don’t villainize every Republican.

Believe me, it would be easier if I did.

The truth is, labels are bullshit. We separate each other based on differences of human construct and pretend that they are the truth. Republican, Democrat, Christian, Jew, black, white, brown, gay, straight, male, female. There are so many shades of difference within each of these labels that they really fail to conform to what we want them to mean. But it makes it easier to dismiss someone if they’re in another group. Why do you think Columbus called the Indians “savages”? Because it made it easier to slaughter them than if he recognized their humanity. The same with slaves. And so on, with each label, collectively and separately, in different capacities in every stage of human technological “progress.”

And it’s easy to preach inclusiveness. To say that to recognize love and goodness and humanity in everyone could solve the world’s ills. I have a hard time doing it myself, even with some family members, let alone with the George Zimmermans and Mitch McConnells of the world. It’s the transition from recognizing a truth and what needs to be done and actually doing it that’s so difficult. As a whole, we know what needs to be done here. Now. We know that corporations have taken over, that money should not be protected as speech, that the safety of our children should be a higher priority than the profit margins of gun manufacturers, that those who expose war crimes should be protected over those who perpetuate them, and that the convenience of SUVs and plastic water bottles should be curbed to save the abstract idea of a future beyond us.

But making the transition from “I should” to “I am,” is harder than I sometimes imagine. Because anger sometimes gives way to resignation. It makes the shoulders slump. It writes blogs called “I give up,” even though we’re young and smart and savvy. We hold the power to change in our collective hands. We are, quite literally, the future. And if we’re lucky, we haven’t been hardened yet into un-moveable rock. Our minds are malleable. We absorb the blows of indifference and hateful ideas and overwhelming circumstance and then we keep going.

I like to let older generations off the hook, to excuse them for outdated opinions or stalled evolution of thought. Because I really, really like old people. It’s kind of my thing. I have an older friend who I’ve known for my entire adult life. A man whose decisions and opinions I vehemently disagree with, more often than not. But I respect him. And he does me.

Last night, he told me something. He watched his son as he lay in the hospital, sick of a terrible virus that’s ravaging his organs. He watched his son’s husband come and go, the man he referred to as his “daughter-in-law” for as long as I’ve known him. And after thirty years, he recognized the truth of love between them. This tough-as-nails man, in his hard-formed rock of a mind compounded by decades of experience and opinion, changed. Just like that.

I said, “But I thought you’d always accepted that your son was gay.”

“No,” he told me. “I did because I had to if I wanted a relationship with my son. But I never accepted it.”

He opened his eyes to see what connects us beyond labels of what is right or left, or right and wrong. And I realized that I’d put him in a box of my own making. That I’d written him off as too closed to change. That I was the one who wasn’t open to the possibility of someone of that generation surprising me. Not him, not this.

I hung up and changed the title of this post.