Saturday, June 28, 2008

Breaking Bonds of Prejudice: The Educational Challenge

There’s been interesting discussion recently on the blog of my statewide free newspaper Arkansas Times. It’s about a plan for the Family Council of Arkansas to gather signatures this past weekend for a ballot initiative to ban gay adoption.

Apparently the FCA decided to target the farmers’ market in downtown Little Rock this past Saturday. I’m fascinated by some of the responses of bloggers on the Arkansas Times website. Comments suggest that some folks find it hard to believe that farmers’ markets would be frequented by people willing to sign an anti-gay ballot proposal.

This assumption interests me. It suggests to me that there’s quite a gap between what people experience every day, living in gay skin, and what those who inhabit different skin experience. In my experience, it’s entirely possible to encounter homophobia—in the form of rude stares and rude comments—if you shop as a more-or-less identifiable gay couple at our local farmers’ market, and at other farmers’ markets I’ve gone to. In fact, our local farmers' market is one of the places I have come to expect to encounter more open prejudice than most anyplace I go in the city.

The disparity between what I experience and what many of my heterosexual fellow citizens seem to think happens around them has gotten me to thinking. About a number of things.

First of all, I’m wondering why it is that one can experience homophobic reactions, as an identifiable gay couple, in settings where many people believe that homophobia is non-existent. I suppose hovering beneath that belief is the presupposition that the gays love them some markets: the bright flowers, the luscious vegetables, the sights, the sounds, the scents, the fabulous meals to plan.

And, of course, there’s truth in that presupposition. Our local farmers’ market does have quite a few gay shoppers and gay couples shlepping around baskets of flowers, vegetables, and yes, fruits every day that it’s open.

Which is to say, it’s one of the few venues in this bible-belt city in which identifiably gay citizens routinely rub shoulders with non-gay citizens. And there’s the rub. A lot of the folks who come to the farmers’ market every Saturday are “from afar,” as my aunt said recently—to which my brother responded, “Oh, you mean from Bald Knob?” That’s a town about an hour outside Little Rock.

The farmers’ market is one of the few public spaces in which people from small towns and rural areas can count on seeing the gays in Arkansas each weekend. As can citizens from the righteous, family-values Republican suburbs from the white-flight areas ringing the northern perimeter of the city, as well.

And this is precisely what elicits the homophobia that some of the liberal bloggers on the Arkansas Times website seem completely unaware of: the certainty that, when you come into the exciting and dangerous downtown area, with its whiffs of fresh produce and sin, you’ll encounter an Americanus exoticus gayus or two. The Arkansas Times itself has carried letters in which suburban citizens profess their outrage that they have seen gay couples walking around hand in hand in the river market area of the city.

I’ve never seen anything like this. I suspect that outraged citizens who see it are seeing what they want to see—the sin they have come into the inner city specifically to see, and which they intend to go home and preach against in their glitzy mega-churches full of other happy families just like their own.

In other words, the decision of groups like the Family Council of Arkansas to target places like the farmers’ market are strategic decisions. FCA wouldn’t bother gathering signatures at the market if they didn’t know full well that they are going to meet quite a few suburban (and rural) citizens who have come to the market not only to shop, but to slum, to gawk, even to sin a little so that they can go back home to preach against the sins of the wicked city in which the gays are slowly becoming visible, with their shopping baskets and menu-planning and what not.

In my experience, it’s always entirely possible to encounter open homophobia—in the form of rude stares, taunts, even jostles or assaults—in any setting in which the boundaries between a gay world and a straight world blend and blur. In any setting in which one can predict that there will be a significant proportion of openly gay folks interacting with straight folks who are not particularly pleased to be among the gays, sparks tend to fly.

I can recall, for instance, a certain Thai restaurant we used to go to in Charlotte, which was on the boundary of an older inner-city neighborhood that was being renovated, where a high proportion of the city’s gay inhabitants were living in the 1990s. The next neighborhood over was a much more affluent, solidly Republican and heavily-churched, area. The restaurant fell on the invisible fault line between the neighborhoods.

We stopped going there when it became apparent to us that the owners didn’t welcome gay couples. They didn’t want the gays taking over their business. They didn't want visible gay customers, gay diners in such proportions that they were unmistakable as a minority group. They were afraid that we’d run off the families they imagined as the backbone of their business.

They never did or said anything that communicated this outright. But communicate it they did, by a certain flustered manner they had when anyone noticeably gay came into the restaurant —a manner distinctly different from the one they affected for their family customers. Anytime Steve or I mentioned to other gay couples the vibes the owners were giving us, we learned that they, too, were picking up those same vibes.

We weren’t imagining them. We were all reading the body language of the owners loud and clear. We were all reading the text of disparity accurately: the way we were being treated as gay couples visiting the restaurant was distinctly different from the way straight families were being treated, and it was distinctly shabbier.

We’ve had this experience multiple times. One learns to read the text almost before heading in the door of the restaurant. A restaurant that advertises itself as a family restaurant or a family-friendly one? Don’t even bother stopping. One with a sign out front that has a bible quote of the day? (Yes, they exist in places like Arkansas.) Unless it’s says, “Judge not, lest you be judged,” you can fairly well predict that you’ll receive an icy welcome, if you’re detectably gay when you walk through the door.

There’s certainly such a thing as gay paranoia of the kind Woody Allen mocks in “Annie Hall” when he overhears someone say, “D’you hear thus and so?” and then jumps to the conclusion that the question is anti-semitic. As a check against this, we try to run our impressions by other gay folks in our area, to see if anyone else is picking up what we pick up when we visit this restaurant, shop in that store, go to this part of the city. When others have had the same experiences and impressions, we begin to recognize that our radar is working accurately.

There’s a catfish restaurant in Little Rock—again, on a boundary line between the university, which is more or less gay-friendly, and the suburban neighborhoods surrounding the university—that I long ago resolved not to go to, because of the vibes it gave me when I went to it. It didn’t surprise me to hear after I made that decision that the owner had asked a table of gay men never to come back there, since he doesn’t welcome gay folks.

Interestingly enough, just a few doors up the street from that Thai restaurant in Charlotte is one of the most gay-friendly restaurants in the city. The difference? In the case of this eating establishment, the non-gay patrons know full well that they will be eating alongside openly gay couples, and they come there welcoming the oasis of diversity in a mostly buttoned-down and starched city.

This restaurant is also a little past the boundary line between the two neighborhoods—more inside the “gay” neighborhood. I suppose part of the message of the Thai restaurant to its gay patrons in the 1990s (my experiences with this restaurant ended in that decade; it may well have changed since then) is that, if you want to do gay, you can just walk up the street a few steps and do all the gay you want. Just not with us, please.

Another thought the recent postings in the Arkansas Times elicits: straight people, including (and perhaps especially) liberal and gay-tolerant people, are often simply oblivious to the levels of hostility some of their fellow citizens feel free to vent against gay folks on a routine basis. Dramas are going on all around liberals, which liberal eyes can’t see. Liberals of the I-love-everyone type, who don’t ever get their hands dirty fighting for human rights alongside those they profess to love, don’t see the ugly little dramas of prejudice taking place around them, because they don’t have anything vested in making solidarity with those they profess to love.

There’s a whole world of valuable information out there in subcultures that experience oppression. It’s valuable educational information, information that enlightened folks need to know, if their protestations about tolerance and love are to mean anything at all.

It’s information that the churches need, if they’re going to address social ills, as they claim to wish to do. But it’s also educational information for which those who welcome the information will pay a price. Learn what it’s like to live in the skin of the despised Other for a day, in a society through which you yourself walk without experiencing a single sling and arrow, and you’ll end up being far less comfortable living in that society.

And I’m not convinced, frankly, that the churches really believe that hoary old line that Jesus came to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted. If they did, they’d be setting up some places for dialogue in which they could hear the real-life stories of the real-life despised Others they profess to love.

But whom they don’t even know.

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