Dallas, Texas, sportscaster Dale Hansen says,
I'm not always comfortable when a man tells me he's gay. I don't understand his world. But I do understand that he's part of mine.
This is after he has stated,
You beat a woman and drag her down a flight of stairs, pulling her hair out by the roots? You’re the fourth guy taken in the NFL draft. You kill people while driving drunk? That guy’s welcome. Players caught in hotel rooms with illegal drugs and prostitutes? We know they’re welcome. Players accused of rape and pay the woman to go away? You lie to police, trying to cover up a murder? We’re comfortable with that. You love another man? Well, now you’ve gone too far!
As I listen to this clip by Hansen, I think of what Panti Bliss told an audience gathered at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin last month, after she ignited a firestorm of criticism when, as Rory O'Neill, he gave an honest answer to a question an RTÉ journalist asked him about homophobia in Ireland, and then was castigated for having answered honestly:
Straight people have lined up--ministers, senators, barristers, journalists have lined up--to tell me what homophobia is and to tell me what I am allowed to feel oppressed by. People who have never experienced homophobia in their lives, people who have never checked themselves at a pedestrian crossing, have told me that unless I am being thrown into prison or herded onto a cattle truck then it is not homophobia. And that feels oppressive.
And so now, Irish gay people, we find ourselves in this ludicrous situation, where we're not only not allowed to say publicly what we feel oppressed by, we're not even allowed to think it. Because the very definition, our definition, has been disallowed by our betters. . . . .
And a jumped-up queer like me should know that the word "homophobia" is no longer available to gay people, which is a spectacular and neat Orwellian trick. Because now it turns out that gay people are not the victims of homophobia: homophobes are the victims of homophobia.
I'm struck by something as I put these two video clips side by side--the straight Dallas sportscaster defending Michael Sam, and the Dublin drag performer giving passionate voice to what it has been like to live in gay skin in a society in which homosexuality is often ridiculed and reviled. To use a term loaded with religious significance for many of us, both give testimony. Both richly deserve a hearing, it seems to me.
In Dave Hansen's testimony, I'm struck by his remarkable recognition that, as a straight man who doesn't always understand the experience of gay men, he understands that those men are nonetheless part of his world. He needs them. The wholeness of his world depends on not shoving them out of that world. Remarkably, he quotes black lesbian writer Audre Lorde to underscore this point.
And then Panti Bliss testifies about what it's like to be gay, to be asked to describe (and to name) homophobia in her society, and then to be slapped upside the head because she dares to answer the question asked of her--to be slapped upside the head by those seemingly innocuous "good" middle-class folks about whom she speaks throughout the video, those who persistently stand by in silence as vicious outspoken homophobes attack her and other gay people in Ireland, while they clamor for legislation that will single out her and those gay people with the specific intent of, as she says, making them less human than any other human beings in Ireland.
What Dave Hansen gets, many non-gay people don't get, Panti Bliss insists. They don't get that their lives connect to the lives of Panti Bliss and Michael Sam. That they're incomplete without Panti Bliss and Michael Sam . . . .
And they're frequently the movers and shakers of various societies, the good people, the nice middle-class people with whom we wouldn't hesitate to leave our children if we had errands to run.
Dave Hansen stretches his straight male humanity to hear the testimony of Panti Bliss. Many of the movers and shakers of the world in which we live, the good people, refuse to do the same. Her testimony is ruled out of bounds from the outset, because it comes from the mouth of an "interested" party who is naturally going to be biased--not objective like us who are the good people of the world, the movers and shakers. The sane, the balanced, the fulcrum at the center of things on which all important events in our social world turn . . . .
This testimony comes out of the mouth, for God's sake, of a drag queen!
As I think about the testimony of Hansen--I don't understand his world. But I do understand that he's part of mine--and of Panti Bliss--Ministers, senators, barristers, journalists have lined up to tell me what homophobia is and to tell me what I am allowed to feel oppressed by--how can I possibly avoid thinking of what I recently called club Catholic, when I first posted about Michael Sam's coming out?
Dave Hansen's insight is an eminently catholic one: my world is incomplete without you. But to my long-schooled perception as an openly gay Catholic theologian, club Catholic's members, the eminent journalists and important academics of the Catholic church in the U.S., have for ever so long now been perfectly happy living in a world that turns themselves into church and communicates to gay folks that they are the opposite of church.
They've been perfectly happy living in an us-vs.-them world when the question at hand is gay rights or the claim of gay lives on the world represented by club Catholic. They're perfectly happy never opening their mouths to defend their fellow citizens in the U.S. who happen to be gay from vicious homophobes. They're perfectly happy defending the "religious freedom" of those vicious homophobes to foment prejudice and enact discrimination that is a form of violence against those who are gay, and which elicits more violence.
It may not be apparent to many readers of Bilgrimage why I give such attention to this dynamic in the American Catholic church. I do so in the first place, of course, because club Catholic can't be what it claims to be unless it behaves in a catholic way.
But I do so as well because my thinking about the question of human rights for gay people and gay liberation is and will always be strongly colored by my experience growing up during the Civil Rights movement of the American South, when I saw that the biggest problem in changing the attitudes of the bigoted white culture in which I came of age was not countering the outright hostility and violence of an underclass minority of white people (though that was a big problem and demanded attention).
The biggest problem in shifting the white culture in which I grew up was addressing the complacency and self-congratulation of the good people among whom I grew up, the movers and shakers, those who set the tone for our entire social world.
The important people who were the fulcrum at the center of things on which all important events of our social world turned . . . .
When I read Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, work intensively (I had the good fortune, some years ago, of being offered a sabbatical semester to do that), I saw immediately why he, too, devoted so much time and energy to trying to expose the complacency and self-congratulation of the good white people of the United States who deplored the overt violence of their underclass white brothers and sisters while doing nothing effective to counter that violence and to side with people of color marching for their rights. I saw why he identified that complacency and self-congratulation--the silence of the liberals on whom he had counted to help prick the conscience of the nation about segregation--as his biggest problem in making a dent in the culture of segregation.
Emulating Gandhi (in whose tactics of non-violent protest he had been schooled by black gay activist Bayard Rustin), King staged events at flashpoint places where racial tensions were highest, in order to try to provide testimony to wake the nation up to the violence represented by the entire system of racial segregation. He sought to help the nation understand the testimony that had been taking place for years right in front of its eyes in one segregated community after another--testimony to which the country turned a blind eye, as if the organized, systematic violence of the system of segregation that could be puzzled out in one newspaper article after another were taking place somewhere across the planet. And had no claim on the conscience of the United States . . . .
And King's hardest sell, as he staged events that allowed African-American citizens of the country to give unavoidable testimony about what it was like to live in black skin in the U.S. in their period of history (it was like having police dogs set on you, fire hoses turned on you, your churches burned to the ground with your children inside them), was to the good people of the nation. To the movers and shakers . . . . To the ones who were the fulcrum on which all important events turned . . . .
The ministers, senators, barristers, and journalists who make public opinion and dictate what may or may not be said . . . .
Just as the hardest sell of Panti Bliss and Michael Sam today within the Catholic church in the U.S. is to the members of club Catholic, to the eminent journalists and important academics who dictate what may or not be said as part of the Catholic conversation, and who's inside the circle that defines Catholic identity, and who's to be excluded from it . . . . . And whose testimony counts and whose must be ruled impermissible, out of hand and immediately, because it comes from a biased and eccentric standpoint . . . .