So this week another Republican in politics did a swift 180 on the issue of gay marriage after discovering his own son was gay. Before I go off on a cynical and only tangentially related rant, let me say that these situations are almost always ultimately a good thing, a thing that gives credence to the notion of the long arc of history leaning toward justice. You never see someone hold a press conference to announce he’s just found out his son was a secret Klan member, which has opened his own mind to the vast potential inherent in being a giant racist douchenugget. So: Yay for Republicans and gay people and married people. Progress in any form is welcome.
What stuck in my throat when I heard this news was the same bone of contention I choke on whenever someone expects a parade in their honor for doing what they should have done to begin with. Like fathers being rewarded for “babysitting” their own children. Or, well, see for yourself.
Last year I went to a class through the local unemployment office to try and find new housing. It was a terrible waste of time. There were only four of us there, including a woman so sick she didn’t say a word the entire time, just blew her nose and sipped a cup of tea. Her husband did the talking for both of them. There was also me, and a woman my age who was living in a motel room with her teenage son, his girlfriend, their baby, and I think another kid but honestly it was hard to keep track because she was crying for almost the entire hour. The couple’s situation was just as bad; they had a teenage daughter, and the three of them were living in a fifth wheel in a trailer park. Both families had gone through job loss leading to the loss of their homes, and I sat back and gave them the floor for the most part because they needed housing more urgently than I did.
When someone asked what I did for work and I explained that I was a writer and made most of my income reviewing books, there was an interesting shift in focus that wasn’t entirely pleasant. The young grandmother looked at me and said, “So basically, you get paid to read.” It wasn’t a question, and it was tinged with a little hostility. I tried to keep things light while explaining that reading is the easy (?) part of the job, that reviewing is demanding work for a writer, since you need to be able to compare and contrast the work, pull representative quotes, identify flaws, and either foreground or bury your own personality depending upon your editor’s desires. The woman leading the class responded to this by saying, “I have to take my son’s flashlight away from him at night. He won’t stop reading for anything. Gee, we oughta be rich by now!” I didn’t argue. It was a tense group, and if I was the way they chose to break the tension I could sit there and play Poor Little Rich Girl for them. So I did.
I mention that weird exchange because it eroded my sympathies when the man with the sick wife offered up a little soliloquy later. He had told a lengthy tale of woe, some of which was questionable at best, but felt compelled to add that prior to losing his own job and house, he was very clear on the fact that people on welfare were all useless moochers. Now that he was looking in the mirror at his own redundant ass every morning, though, he was suddenly very “Fanfare for the Common Man” about the whole matter and discovered the nobility of welfare and realized that if he was forced to accept it, maybe some of the other people in line with him were not the scum of the earth he’d been treating them like two weeks prior (for the crimes of owning a car and a cell phone while on welfare, which he also did). Hmm. Is my hostility showing?
OK, let me take a deep breath and go back to the beginning for a second to recall that any time someone overcomes a prejudice like this it is to the greater good for all of us. I believe that, really. But at the same time it’s disheartening to think that there are people who have worked hard to examine their assumptions, or who make a daily effort to live in the world with open hearts free from these exact same biases, yet their efforts go unheralded. Meanwhile, Homeless McGee and Republican Joe here are basically taking center stage and asking to be rewarded for their first ten minutes of non-asshole behavior after a lifetime of demeaning the people they now want to situate themselves among. This does not compute.
When people choose to better themselves it’s worthwhile to support the effort since it leads to a richer and safer world. But part of me still wants to flag people like this with a giant asterisk, at least for their first ninety days among the rest of us. Put some action behind your announcement; come out and volunteer at a shelter, meet the people you’ve reviled all this time and admit they’re your peers. But until then? You’re on probation, and strongly advised to lead with humility until your hubris levels are sufficiently in check.
Just to oversimplify further, what if Republican Whatshisname had called a press conference and said, “You know, for the whole course of my working life I have actively promoted the mistreatment of a group of people I thought were deviants on a direct path to Hell. But now that MY SON has turned out to be one of them, you’re all okay and should immediately get married and fuck like tiny adorable gay bunnies because look how comfortable I suddenly am with it!” Gee. Is that all it takes to combat prejudice? No problem! So, how are we going to get his son to turn out to also be the son of all the other clueless pinheads out there, sufficient that there’s a mass awakening? I once had a very red state Republican, born-again Christian employer who told me one day, “I mean, as a rule liberals simply do nothing and accept handouts, but YOU work really hard!” Then she laid me off, leaving me no recourse but to apply for food stamps and unemployment while I desperately tried to get another job. At the time it felt like she did it just so I would fit her Fox News view of me without forcing her to think too much. *Long sigh* I wish us all good luck, and love, and marriage for them what wants it, but sometimes I wish the long arc of history would just lash out like a bullwhip and snap some of this shit into place, like, yesterday.
“When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity upon him.” –Bayard Rustin