Thursday, June 19, 2008

Gay Pride and Karmic Justice

Looking at the picture of the Deval family of Massachusetts that I posted on Monday—the picture of a proud and loving parents marching in the Boston gay pride parade beside their daughter this past weekend—brings back memories of my single experience of marching in a pride parade. Since then, I have not lived in a place that has such parades, and/or have not had any opportunity to travel elsewhere to participate in one.

This happened in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the early summer of 1992. I had just ended a disastrous two years teaching at a small Catholic college outside Charlotte. The disaster had nothing to do with my teaching performance or scholarly record, or my service to college and community. All were, by the admission of my supervisors, exemplary.

No, the disaster was something that happened as the 1991-1992 academic year ended. I received a one-year terminal contract with no explanation. Though I had just had a glowing oral evaluation from the academic vice-president of the college, that evaluation was never committed to writing, and when I asked to be given a reason for the termination, hell broke loose.

In informing me he intended to give me a terminal contract, the college’s president also told me that there was a reason for the termination that he had been advised not to give me. He also stated that he knew his behavior was unethical. But it was legal, and he intended to do what was legal, if unethical.

I appealed to the college’s grievance committee, who voted for me to be given the reason in writing. In response, the president sent me a letter stating that he had provided the reason and that the case was closed. The letter does not, of course, state any reason for the termination.

Since the treatment being dished out to me was so clearly unethical and so clearly in violation of core Catholic values, I asked to see the abbot of the monastery that owned the college. He repeatedly ignored my phone calls, and when I put my request into writing, sent me a curt note informing me that he did not meddle in college matters (that is, in the matters of the college his community owns!).

I also appealed to the local bishop, who sent an intermediary. The intermediary gave me the run-around. When I wrote the bishop a letter asking to see him, his secretary responded by telling me that I had insulted the bishop (my letter asked why he met with the rich and powerful but not with ordinary members of his flock who were in pain because of actions of the church itself).

After having been stonewalled and lied to (and about) at every turn, I simply resigned.

The pride parade fell somewhere between the terminal contract and my letter of resignation. As someone teaching in Catholic colleges, I had enough sense to know that marching in a gay pride parade was a very quick way to get fired. I had gone to this college after having done very hard spiritual and psychological work to accept myself as a gay person. I had gone there intent on never apologizing for myself again, but also aware that, as long as I taught in institutions that did not permit anyone to be openly gay, I had to continue walking that thin line of don’t ask, don’t tell.

But when one has already been hanged for a lamb, one does sometimes find it oddly consoling to be hanged for a sheep . . . . So when a friend told me he intended to march in the parade, I offered to join him. After that, I did not have the opportunity to do so again as long as I lived outside Charlotte, since my termination-resignation was quickly followed by a decision Steve and I made to provide home care for my mother, who was moving into dementia, and had to be watched 24 hours a day 7 days a week for a number of years thereafter. There were no off days.

Charlotte is perhaps not the place I would have chosen to march loud and proud. It’s a buttoned-down, family-values type of place, the kind of place where “Angels in America” can produce a big hue and cry due to its brief nude scene, whereas the same scene in little old Little Rock didn’t raise an eyebrow.

Charlotte is a churched city, a city with a church on every corner, the good Sunday School boy of Southern cities. Since I was in such a city, I decided to march in uniform: that is, in my everyday professional attire of a sportcoat and tie. I figured that it doesn’t hurt for people to see that gay human beings come in every shape and size, every color of the rainbow, from every walk of life. I marched beside my friend, who is an upright, starched and pressed accountant, a former Methodist Sunday School teacher (and one of the finest persons I’ve ever known).

What keeps flashing back through my mind as I remember that day is one scene. As we approached one street corner in the middle of the city, we could hear in the distance loud kerthunks: Whap! Whap! Whap!

It was a puzzling sound, like the sound of someone being publicly beaten.

When we got to the corner, the source of the whaps became clear: a group of burly men in black suits, white shirts, and ties, had bibles in their hands, and were pounding their fists on them while holding them up to the marchers. They were helpfully pointing to the bibles in case we hadn’t heard the whaps.

I’d never heard the bible used that way. As a malicious instrument to bully others. I’ve seen it used this way, of course, all my life. But the bible thumping, that was entirely new to me. It was effective. The sound was ominous. The men’s faces were grim. One had the impression that, when all was said and done, it was not really the bibles they wanted to beat.

Some of the protesters chose to respond by snapping photos of the bible-beaters. One of the latter group wrote an outraged letter to the newspaper about that, stating that the abnormal people had taken photos of the normal people as if they, the bible carriers, were the abnormal ones!

As I think about that day, I wonder what makes people think that they can bully others with impunity. What makes a bully think he (or she) will never meet his/her match?

I suppose that bullies remain bullies as long as no one ever challenges them. Tyranny has a kind of inbuilt-logic about it. It continues to tyrannize as long as it can get away with doing so, because the lack of a challenge convinces the tyrant that he—or she—is untouchable. The ability to tyrannize others without pushing back by the others does a disservice to the tyrant: it provides him/her with the illusion that tyranny is effective. Since it works (or appears to do so), the tyrant continues bullying.

I’m thinking of this in light of my experience at a number of academic institutions where I have learned valuable lessons about bullying. In my checkered academic career, I’ve found that colleagues are almost never willing to stick their necks out and assist a colleague being bullied, when the tyrant cracks the whip. They might end up, after all, at the business end of the same whip.

I’ve also learned that, when an institution is dominated by such tyranny, those who refuse to stand in solidarity with one who is tyrannized inevitably and eventually do have to confront the unhappy experience of having the tyrant seek to mow down their humanity and their rights.

It’s a karmic law, part of the moral way the universe works. Refuse solidarity with the oppressed, when your action and voice could have an effect on relieving the suffering of the unjustly tyrannized person, and you will be next in the tyrant’s line of fire. At one of the two academic institutions at which I have experienced this kind of behavior, I predicted such a karmic turn of events, and I have lived long enough now to see it happen. Those who stood by in silence as I was bullied—those who even participated in the bullying—are now being subjected to gross treatment remarkably similar to that I received, as they stood by in silence.

That’s how things work. It may even come to pass that at least one of those thuggish bible beaters who stood on that Charlotte street corner that hot summer day finds himself confronted with a gay child, a gay brother or sister—or discovers that he has “issues” himself.

Or he may collapse at the next gay pride march where he vigorously beats his sacred weapon, and discover that some despised gay human being is the one who lifts his head from the ground, gives him medical treatment, and assists him to the ambulance.

God has a wickedly sharp sense of humor about these things.

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