Though I have contemplated writing this for many years, I have continually put it off because it represents thoughts and feelings I never really wanted to make visible. I believed that if I relegated them to the recesses of my consciousness, over time, they would simply evaporate sparing me the task of putting pen to paper (or more appropriately, key strokes to computer screen). But no matter how hard I have tried to let go of the pain and hurt, nonetheless, these thoughts and feelings keep resurfacing. Maybe now if I write them down, I can let go.
It began for me back in 1987 when I first learned that one of my favorite writers and personalities had died in France at the relatively young age of 63. James Baldwin, essayist, novelist, poet, playwright, activist, hero to many including myself, expatriated to France where he lived much of his later life. He was attracted to the cultural and political progressivism of the Left Bank, where he could escape the pressures of Jim Crow racism and the enormity of heterosexism in the United States, and where his creative energy could soar. His numerous works directly tackled issues of race, sexuality, and socioeconomic class with an unflinching and inescapable honesty, and with a clear indictment of the corrupt systems of power that dominated his native land.
Reading and listening to multiple obituaries on the day Baldwin died, I distinctly remember a particular reporter recounting an anecdote in Baldwin’s life that has stayed with me and has given me permission to feel my own similar feelings ever since. Sometime in Baldwin’s life, a white news reporter apparently asked him the question, “What do Negros want from white people?” Without hesitation, Baldwin responded, “You ask the wrong question, which should not be what we want from you, but rather, the question should be, ‘Can we forgive you?’”
I clearly understand that the ways people of color experience racism are very different from the ways queer people experience heterosexism and cissexism. Nonetheless, Baldwin’s rejoinder to the white reporter hit me like a pitcher of ice water to the face waking me and releasing the anger I had attempted to stuff inside when I was growing up during the late 1940s through the 1960s as a differently-gendered gay boy then man residing in a hostile country. Emanating from my bowels and rising to the surface gushed forth from me so many questions inspired by James Baldwin, questions in which the term “you” refers to systems of power, domination, and privilege.
Can we forgive you, the psychiatric profession, for the atrocities, the colonization, the “professional” malpractice, the defining, the so-called theories of causation, and attempts to change us that you have perpetrated over the preceding centuries in the name of “science,” the biological and psychological pathologizing of sexual and gender transgressive people? Can we forgive you for the so-called “Eugenics Movement” of the mid-nineteenth century CE though psychiatry into the twentieth century and still continuing today in some circles with the medical and psychological professions proposing and addressing, in starkly medical terms, our alleged “deficiencies,” “abnormalities,” and “mental disorders”? And can we forgive you mid last century for the involuntary hospitalizations, the electroshock therapy “treatments,” and, yes, the lobotomies?
Can we forgive you, the religious institutions, for defining us as “inherently disordered,” as “contrary to God’s will,” as “sinners,” as “perverts,” as “heretics,” as “Godless,” as “deceived” and “depraved,” as a “corrupting force on civilization and on the family,” and as “contrary to the laws of nature”? Can we forgive you for your abusive “religious counseling” to remove us from the so-called “evil gay lifestyle”? Can we forgive you for your bogus and dangerous “reparative therapy”? Can we forgive you for the defrocking, excommunications, purging, and banishments? Can we forgive you for turning our loved ones against us, and for making us internalize your lies?
Can we forgive you for firing us from government service, from the private sector workforce, from the teaching professions, from serving as foster and adoptive parents, from having contact with young people over your stereotyped fears of our alleged “predatory nature” and “agendas” to “recruit young people into our deviant lifestyles”?
Can we forgive you, law enforcement, for the tapping of our phones, the entrapment, surveillance, incarceration, the ruined careers and reputations, and the social rejection?
Can we forgive you for refusing to rent or sell us housing in your neighborhoods or evicting us once your “suspicions” have been raised over who we are, often resulting in our ghettoization and segregation?
Can we forgive you for denying us service in your businesses, for restricting our access to loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes, from attending the funerals and receiving inheritances from our life partners, basically for limiting us from all the benefits and responsibilities our heterosexual counterparts have been routinely accorded?
Can we forgive you for denying us our history, our literature, our historical personalities, our voices, our subjectivity and our agency in the schools and in the larger society keeping our collective past from us and making us believe that we have been and continue to be alone?
Can we forgive you for the bullying in the schools and in the larger society, for the harassment, the threats, the intimidation, the social isolation, the violence, the injuries and mutilations, the murders, the suicides caused by our internalizing your negative representations of us, the family rejections and abandonment, and the qualified, conditional, circumscribed, and withheld love?
Can we forgive you, nations throughout the world, for your utter neglect and lack of compassion at the outbreak of the HIV/AIDS pandemic due to your misguided insinuation that “it was just a bunch of faggots” affected? Can we forgive you for the grief we experienced attending so many funerals in part caused by your inaction?
Can we forgive you for quarantining us to second-class citizenship status by banning us from serving in the military because of your superstitions of our supposed “predatory nature in bunks and showers,” your concerns that we will “crumble under the pressure of combat,” and your apprehensions whether we will place ourselves in compromising situations where we will be forced to divulge critical defense secrets to foreign governments?
Can we forgive you, the political operatives, who used our bodies as stepping stones for your ascension to power by scapegoating us as the cause of the problems that plague our nation?
Can we forgive you for accusing us of “playing the victim card” whenever we challenged the ways you treated us, as some may be doing right now? I will tell you directly that I am playing at nothing, and that I am no victim. I am resilient! I am one of the survivors who has spent a lifetime working to relegate your treatment of us to the trash heaps of history and to turn your denial into conscious action.
I realize that a number of states during the past ten years are now “allowing” same-sex couples to marry. I realize that a number of religious organizations have at least begun to “accept” us into their congregations, and some are now performing ceremonies for same-sex couples. I realize that the U.S. government has reversed its ban on gay, lesbian, and bisexual people openly entering the military (though the ban remains on trans* service members), and now provides some of the rights granted to heterosexual couples to same-sex couples as well. I also realize that our media and larger social visibility has increased, and that many good people have come to our aid and have provided continued and welcomed support.
But for many others, how dare you “tolerate” or even “accept” us? “Acceptance” implies there is something to accept, as if a superior being deigned to regard an inferior being. This feels extremely condescending and patronizing. It seems very nobless oblige.
I understand that we as a society have come a long way even from the time I was a young person, and we still have far to travel. What can never be forgotten, however, is that as racism is white peoples’ (my) problem and obligation to eliminate, heterosexism is a heterosexual problem, and cissexism is a cisgender problem. The dominant group has the responsibility to dismantle the forms of oppression that bestow upon itself the multiple array of unearned privileges not accorded to those outside, who are often viewed as the “other.”
One day, maybe, we can truly and fully forgive you, but I can never forget.
I want to thank Michael Benitez, Philip Clark, Cameron Conaway, Steven Dansky, Adrienne Dessel, Michael Kozuch, Daniel Mahler, and Ronni Sanlo for their brilliant and insightful suggested editorial changes and additions to this essay.