Have you ever heard someone ask, “What did they teach you at that liberal _______ of yours?”
I have. It wasn’t always verbally communicated, but I still heard the question. Numerous times. Most of the time my answer was a placating laugh or an eye-roll followed by a quip and a swift exit from whatever situation I found myself in. This weekend, during a visit to my local pool, I found myself in a conversation with a stranger and I heard one of the many variants of this question asked for the first time in a long time (DC is fairly liberal city.) This time, I tried to answer it in a way that wasn’t righteous or mean, but I don’t know that I expressed myself very well. I don’t know what was different about this situation – maybe it was because it started out innocently, a general inquiry about something that means so much to me. I don’t know that the questioner really wanted to hear my answer. I often find myself wishing I could have done or said something differently, as I’m sure most people do, and this event was no different. I’d like to do that now – to get that differently bit out of my head and out there somewhere. Maybe next time someone asks, I’ll get it right:
I loved learning at Oklahoma City University – I definitely acquired a penchant for knowledge there, a desire to ask questions and really learn about things from a lot of different perspectives. I learned things cannot generally be defined as right or wrong, but that, as is often the case when it comes down to common decency and human dignity, there can be exceptions to this rule. Perhaps this belief became a deeply-seated part of my psyche during a history class that focused on the experiences of women in the United States. As the semester progressed, I not only became a stalwart feminist, but also a believer in social justice, and I met a couple of other young women who felt as strongly as I did about honoring the work so many women had done to get us where we are today, who didn’t want to forget and who wanted to move ‘forward into light’ – who believed that, when equality was the question, there was (and is) no room for debate. If you think about that question… ‘Are you for equality or against it?’… One of those answers seems pretty dumb. So, this class was important to me, and I ‘met’ so many role models: Alice Paul, whose work was so crucial in the passage of woman’s suffrage. She dedicated her life to the pursuit of equality, before and after women got the vote. And then there were the somewhat accidental feminists – Anne Hutchinson, a Puritan who would have been hailed as a great spiritual leader had she not been a woman. Anne Moody, who shed light on how the civil rights movement could have been so much more had the women participating in it been treated differently.
These women fought (and still fight) for social justice, not just for themselves, but for others, too. They picketed the White House in times of war, they were subjected to ridiculous and humiliating trials, and they risked their lives because of a basic belief in equality. That I am no better than you, and that you are no better than me. That we should all, when striving for something, start on a level playing field. I never wanted to forget that. I still don’t.
Depending on who you are, the following news may be: a) surprising, b) disappointing, or c) no big deal. But having this information is key to understanding, in my opinion, why I decided to engage with this stranger at the pool, when typically – even in the most neutral settings – I walk away. Here it is: I have a tattoo. On the inside of my right ankle, there is a discreet ‘19’ permanently inked on my body. What’s the significance? The nineteenth amendment (women’s suffrage.) Why? I wanted to honor the memory and the sacrifices of so many, through so much time. I wanted a permanent reminder of what women went through so that I could have a say in my life. I wanted a permanent reminder that often the majority is wrong. I wanted a permanent reminder that the struggles for equality and social justice are not over. And that I have an obligation to do for others what was done (and is still being done) for me.
So, as I entered the pool, a stranger noted and commented on my tattoo. Typically when people I know ask about my tattoo, I ask them if they want the long answer (what I just typed) or the short answer (it’s my favorite amendment)? When people I don’t know ask, I usually just say something like ‘progress’ or I make something up so that I don’t get embarrassed when they think I’m completely off my rocker (I am intense, this I know.) Because this person was tattooed, I gave an abridged version of the long answer then turned the conversation around and asked about his tattoos. He gave a brief synopsis and then started going on a tangent about how numbers mean something, e.g. 666 is the number of the devil (I told him this was believed to be a mistranslation – he didn’t seem too concerned.) My desire to go away at this point – or to at least change the subject – was increasing, so when he mentioned he had written two books, I asked what they were about. Big mistake. He told me that one was a book of poems and something else, and the other was more or less about how, based on the Bible, gay marriage was wrong.
At this point, I wondered what it was about public pools that led to these strange encounters I seem to have every time I visit them. In an attempt to change the subject, I told him I disagreed with him and that everyone was entitled to an opinion. But then he pushed me on it, and I thought of that stinking tattoo. And about all of the discrimination happening in my country, disguised as a debate over what marriage is or should mean. So I told him that we’ve evolved past believing a lot of things in the bible (based on a biblical literature class – see this clip from the either-you-love-it-or-you-hate-it West Wing for a brief tutorial), that while all are welcome to religious beliefs, the freedom from having laws based upon one religion or another is an important element of this country and its founding documents. When he went on to talk about the purpose of marriage being to procreate, I told him in many traditions and histories it was about power – consolidating it or creating it. Then he brought up children. And I noted the fact that there were plenty of babies in need of a good home (and plenty of babies being born out of wedlock.) Then the lifeguard blew the whistle that indicated it was time for us all to get out of the pool so they could dump some more bleach in the water. And I said, ‘It was nice meeting you.’ Clearly, it wasn’t, but he said the same and that was that. Conversation over.
I’m not ashamed about what I said. But I wish I hadn’t been so timid. That I had been able to have a conversation, not an argument, without worrying about offending this man when what he was saying seemed so offensive to me.
I wish I had told him that when we talk about what should be legal and what shouldn’t be, please do not substantiate your point by using the bible to state that discrimination is okay. While I respect the book and believe in God, America is bigger than that. It is big enough to say that while you are free to hold yourself accountable to a church and to the lessons of the Bible, your neighbor is free to hold himself or herself to a different book, a different theology, or none at all. If you want to come at me with a statement that gay marriage is wrong or dangerous, please bring scientific data or criminal statistics that prove that it, indeed, is harmful to this country or to the American family. While the Bible is an excellent book, it has no place in being the sole source of the creation of laws affecting an entire country that espouses many faiths and traditions. There are plenty of examples of folks doing harm to America (both legally and illegally) in the name of Christianity or something they believe to be dictated by the word of God. Equal rights for the LGBT community will not necessitate a change in your right to raise your family or live your life with Christian values: you will not be forced to marry someone of the same sex. It will, however, give someone who is gay that same right (not to be forced to marry someone of the opposite sex to enjoy all of the rights and benefits marriage offers.)
The topic of gay marriage, to me, is bigger than gay people having the right to marry whomever they choose. It is about equality. I know a lot of gay people, many of whom support gay marriage, and some who don’t. But in serious moments, the moments when we speak about things like equality, they will speak with passion, because they know what it’s like not to have it. To live with fear and anxiety that exists only because they are different. They are Anne Hutchinson in Puritan America, Anne Moody in segregated Mississippi. They don’t want special treatment, they just want equal footing. They want the same things I want. They want the choice. When I hear about people lining up in droves to purchase food from a company after its CEO received negative feedback for pronouncing his opposition to gay marriage, I don’t see people lining up in support of his right to free speech or his pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. I see people lining up to put a group of people in their place. Lining up to say not today. Laughing in the face of a cry for equality. In the face of brave souls demanding the same freedoms that they themselves enjoy without discrimination. And they get away with it because all I do is crack a joke and walk away.
I dislike hearing the argument that so and so is on the wrong side of history. Regardless of whether or not I believe this, the people it’s directed towards don’t give a damn – life doesn’t always play out with a Remember the Titans handshake. It doesn’t always play out that way because the course of history was never changed by people who cracked jokes and walked away, but by those who saw injustice and weren’t afraid to say it was wrong. Or they were afraid, but they took a breath and said, no anyway. They were there to keep those in power accountable. They were present. They weren’t militant, but they weren’t timid. They changed things by being engaged and by showing up.
I don’t really know what this post is about – for that, I apologize. My belief in equality? My support for gay rights? My love for America and the Bible? My stance on body art? Maybe it is about all of these things. They aren’t mutually exclusive. I suppose I was just thinking about my tattoo and what it means and I wanted to say something.
(Please enjoy this Shangri-Las hit that played while I wrote this.)