Sunday, January 8, 2012

What Will We Do When We're No Longer Outsiders?

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Death and Art Propel Big Questions This Weekend

At the funeral of our neighbor Megan of blessed memory earlier today, bookmarks-as-mementos sat next to the guestbook. One of them featured a girlhood photo of Megan and a quote: "When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change." -- Wayne Dyer

The quotation reminded me of some insights shared with me earlier this weekend, and how I might change the way I look at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) identity.

Last night, with our friends David & Gerard, I attended a lecture by Jonathan Katz, the co-curator of Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. Most of the works he featured in his slideshow included metaphors and symbols and codes that were dense and tense and rich for eyes that could recognize the homosexual subtext of them; in a number of cases, Jonathan Katz decoded them for us, as a number of them were subtle.

As I watched and listened, I was touched by the artists' ability to make visible to any degree a segment of society that between 1898 and 1991, and even still, today, depending on where in the world we live, typically was marginalized, stigmatized or at the very least, in the shadows.

During the Q&A afterward, I asked, "What happens when LGBT artists are no longer outsiders?"

Jonathan Katz said, "Other differences will emerge....It will not be central to their themes."

I was shaken by this answer. And I told David and Gerard so after walking through the exhibit together.

Gerard: "He was saying something hopeful, I thought, like that even heterosexual artists might include us as subjects and we'd just be more visible."

Me: "Maybe I'm too literal, but I don't ever want to be lesbian just incidentally. It's part of my core identity."

David: "I'm literal, too, but maybe assimilation's not so bad. I mean, isn't it nice being married now?" (He meant, he to Gerard and me, to Pat.)

"Yes, *so* nice. Your use of the word 'assimilation' helps me a bit because it reminds me of some alarmist Jews in my community who say that Jews will disappear if we assimilate too much, and yet, we've been here for 3,000+ years. I don't really think we're gonna disappear, since we've hung on for this long."

Dance? No, Lurk Around the Margins.

We said goodbye, since I was ready to go home, while they wanted to linger at the exhibit a bit longer. Making my way toward the exit, I found a free dance party on the third floor of the museum.
Oh, the music was so good with Rhianna's voice bouncing off the paintings in the nice and dim, cavernous room. I was nearly ready to enter the dance floor and move alone among the crowd, which likely would have been fine had I not been too shy.

I wished that Pat were with me, so that I'd have a partner. It struck me that no one would even notice us; in fact, we might stand out more so for being older than most of the crowd, rather than for being a same-sex couple -- to Jonathan Katz's earlier point. After "Sweet Dreams" by the Eurythmics played, I slunk away to my car in the parking lot. When that song was first popular, I was most of the dancers' ages, and I just owned a bicycle and a subway pass, and a radio/tape-deck I got as a premium for opening a bank account.

Driving home, I thought, Oh, no! Have I become like the lesbian separatists who used to alienate me when I was first getting involved in the gay community in the late-'80s? Who thought that "womyn"-only spaces were supreme while I thought they were unappealing and even obsolete as a group due to their insularity?

There's an analogy, right? AIDS and other societal realities made lesbian separatism untenable back then, just like today, staunchly gay, lesbian, bi or transpeople were misguided whenever we ghetto-ized ourselves, smothering ourselves with an insecurity blanket; more and more polls showed that younger people weren't half as discriminatory as previous generations, so why did any of us hang on so fiercely to separateness and outsider status?

Still, the chip on my shoulder had become comfy after all these years of hauling it and the prospect of heeding Wayne Dyer's/Megan's advice to change my thinking was scary. Earlier today, I spoke with a heterosexual relative, to tell her of my new confusion around my identity, and of my fear of losing my minority status and as usual, she had great on-the-spot wisdom in response:
Sarah, you don't have to be ghetto-ized or Marrano-like anymore [in this area of the world]. And compared to Jews, I think there's less of a chance of LGBT assimilation causing the end of LGBT people, since you won't intermarry.... And in any case, don't worry that you'll lose your identity when people stop being hateful, as there will always be hateful people; there are persistent taboos in every stripe, like unwed mothers. There's always someone who will make sex dirty.... Sex is the engine for intrigue and betrayal and murder and art and politics.... Your sort of desire won't disappear just because it's more so accepted. It will simply be less underground, which should be good, right?

We Are All Outsiders.

In 1998, two years after Pat & I moved in to our neighborhood, Megan, Steve and their young son Ben moved in three houses down from us. I never brought them a house-warming gift, or any food or drink. Never invited them over. Promptly forgot their names as soon as Megan introduced her family and herself to us one day in the street. Thereafter, Megan would drive by us while we were raking leaves or gardening and would always wave. Whenever she had her car-window down, she'd address us by name, and I always felt bad that I had to try to stretch "Hi" into a multi-syllable word, since I was too embarrassed to ask Megan to tell me her name again.

Every time she passed us, she smiled whole-heartedly at us, but after all, what did we have in common with a woman who had a husband and a young kid? So why bother to be friendlier and learn more about her by talking with her? When other neighbors with whom we've been friendly since we've moved in, called to tell us of Megan's sudden death from a massive heart attack the other night, first, I was relieved and ashamed finally to know her name, but then realized that I'd lost the chance of ever being friendlier with her.

What did we have in common? Through loving eulogies from her husband, son, brother and best friends, I learned what I never bothered to find out from her while she was alive: One of only two other families in the neighborhood (that I know of), Megan's family and she were Jewishly-affiliated, attending High Holiday services and bar mitzah'ing their son, who was now 18 -- our nephew and niece's Pat & me, originally, Meg & Steve spotted each other across a part of Pat's heritage, Meg's was French-Canadian...and volunteered from the early days, helping PWA's (People with AIDS), and so likely saw a number of friends die over the early years, like we did. And probably, we'll never discover how much more we might have had in common. It's just ironic, and tragic, how I was so busy, being shy of a stereotypically nuclear family, that I didn't stop to consider that Megan and her family felt like outsiders in the neighborhood initially, which we could have softened by being friendlier.

The other bookmark-as-memento that sat next to Megan's funeral-guestbook had an adult photo of Megan, smiling the smile I recognized, and the quote associated with it came from the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke: "This is the miracle that happens every time to those who really love: the more they give, the more they possess."


Anonymous said...

Every time we enter a room of strangers we are outsiders. And some sort of stigma accompanies us. Social animals that we are, we are constantly in flux between outsider and insider. Between stigmatized and accepted. Between normal and not. It doesn't matter what our ethnicity, race, nationality, sexual orientation, etc. To be human is to be both inside and outside.

That's why all humans can identify with the outsider; if they are capable and willing to reflect on their own outsider experience. That's why peace and war, love and hate, acceptance and rejection, and all all the other binaries of human emotion, action and reaction are a choice we make as individuals, groups and societies. Such things are never written in stone. Thank G-d. Jane.

Sarah Siegel said...

Wow. Amen.

PJ said... me...allow your homosexual identity to be core to who you are. We are the exception; so many LGBT people claim that it is nothing more than an aspect of who they are. I disagree all the time as my being gay was the catalyst for so much learning and growth because of needing to respond to life that happened to be BECAUSE I was a gay man.

My best friends...the people I spend the most time with are gay me. We often talk about the fact that we LOVE being different...we love being OTHER. We have very little in common with most str8, married, child-rearing people our age and we're ok with that. As more and more states recognize same sex marriage I start to get a little nervous that we are becoming too close to the norm, too ordinary.

I've never wanted to be ordinary, I've always liked being different. I think that no matter how mainstream we become, there will always be those of us who enjoy being different and will find a way to BE DIFFERENT no matter what.

Sarah Siegel said...

Yes, I do not want our culture to disappear, and probably always will see myself as a lesbian first, then Jewish, then the other facets, but I want to be more open to enabling common-ground moments with all sorts of people, which Megan's passing taught me (again).