“I need white people to talk to white people about white people,” my boyfriend says in exasperation after another old acquaintance writes him to see how he’s holding up. For days he’s been fielding texts, emails, and Facebook messages from long-lost white friends concerned about his well-being.
He doesn’t know how to respond or even care to.
TV screens and phones endlessly report injustices as Black Lives Matters protests roll across the land. Friends post selfies at the George Floyd memorial in Minneapolis. Formerly innocuous Instagram accounts alternate between Only-fans aspirant thirst traps and woke reprimands. Everyone is trying to make sense of everything all the time.
“People have been getting killed for years,” he says with a weariness worn down to the marrow.
Every night we talk about injustice and racism on walks through our Jersey City neighborhood, holding our breath to avoid the COVID mists of our passing neighbors, exhaling just in time to take in the scent of cotton candy pink cherry blossoms exploding heavy on trees.
As we snake through our neighborhood, we cut contrasting silhouettes against the deepening blue of the night sky.
He is tall, with a shaved head and a wide smile that comes easily when earned and not at all when it isn’t. When he’s not pandemic-ing, he’s a singer and actor who has whispered truths in intimate NYC cabarets or hollered to the rafters at Radio City Music Hall.
Me, I’m considerably shorter with a puppy’s need to please. I’ve been told I resemble a former child star who grew up to do something much less exciting. It’s true. A psychotherapy career has its rewards, but a standing ovation at the end of a session isn’t one of them.
Our ongoing mini-summits are the least we can do. We wouldn’t have survived the last nine years if we avoided the complexities of being in a mixed-race relationship; the currency of our skin, our gay commonalities and racial disparities, and our fraught and disparate American histories are all ongoing conversations.
Ignoring it would be an act of betrayal; to each other, to the experiences that shaped us. Now, forces within my family have rocked our relationship with the power of a sonic boom. It comes at a time when silence is not an option. But silence is all I can muster.
On our walk, we remember his aunts after his mother’s funeral telling me what it was like growing up in the pre-civil rights South and juxtapose this against my uncle telling him that presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson was a “smart one” at a family Fourth of July celebration just before the election in 2016.
Over the years, my uncle’s racism has become a gallows humor in-joke between us that belies its own gravity. If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry. But humor as a defense only goes so far until it strips away your humanity, rendering you a non-person. Before you know it, you’ve sacrificed your entire existence for a joke.
When we’re not talking about the death of George Floyd or the ongoing injustices that play out before us on the daily, we talk about the pandemic that’s thwarted the D.C. run of a hit off-Broadway musical he’s in or what will become of our ailing 13-year-old Shih Tzu, Samson, or if we’re all going to die. It’s light stuff over here in Pandemia-land.
What we don’t talk about is my white silence.
“I can’t believe no one is saying anything to your relatives about their posts,” my boyfriend says from the crumple of our bed as I’m preparing to see virtual therapy clients in a makeshift office in the corner of our bedroom.
The other day, my sister posted a meme emphasizing the distinction between Black Lives Matter instead of All Lives Matter. It’s a simple fact and dangerous provocation if you run in the circles we run in.
Several of my cousins post daily regurgitated FOX News talking points; pro-cop, pro-Trump, and pro-All Lives matter videos and memes that rage about reverse racism and never-ending white what-aboutisms. Despite having grown up in New York, they inexplicably defend confederate flags and statues when their only exposure to the confederacy was in weekly viewings of The Dukes of Hazard.
That no one my boyfriend is referring to? That’s me. He is too polite to call me out directly. When there’s dis-ease between us, our conversation goes static. Come to Jesus moments have always been a struggle in our relationship. No matter the topic, we’ve been tentative about discussing issues that would disrupt our homeostasis. But it’s never before been about a matter this serious.
While I find responding to my cousins’ posts impossible, my sister has no problem. She offers a diplomatic counterpoint to the retired cops and cop sympathizers who responded to her post with outrage and disbelief — — a how dare you betray your blue-collar kin is implicit in their response. In her counter-response, my sister didn’t even break a sweat. I admire that.
Me? I want to retreat to my teenage bedroom and blast Bonnie Raitt like a middle-aged divorcee whenever there’s conflict. It is an ancient, automatic impulse. I am constantly stuck between the fossilization and the fury that roils my stomach as I try to break free of this familiar cycle of silence and shutdown. For me. For my love relationship. Before it pulverizes us into nothingness.
One response that has me at my boiling point is from my cousin Carl, who’s had his Facebook account suspended several times since the day Hillary Clinton sold her first pedophile pizza.
“That’s not true. They are not treated any different,” he argues, before devolving into a lengthy and impassioned explanation as to why we should say All Lives Matter.
This is not a surprise. Carl’s father once drew a bullseye over a photo of Barack Obama and hung it on his workbench just in time for the holidays. Spoiler alert: He’s the same uncle who said Ben Carson was a “smart one.”
“Your uncle believes the wrong side won the Civil War,” my father wryly explained when I asked about my uncle’s ongoing use of racial slurs. I was six.
Overlooking offensive family members is a reflexive loyalty woven into my family’s DNA, a contract of silence that keeps the peace but does nothing to make a correction.
The more my cousin Carl reveals how he feels about the murder of George Floyd on the pages of Facebook, the incongruence between who he is on social media and in person isn’t just confusing; it’s scary. Now I seriously reconsider the genuineness of Carl’s warm welcomes of recent Christmases past.
“In my family, I know where everyone stands on issues about race,” my boyfriend says later that night after our walk. “But I’m not so sure about yours.”
Me either. Sometimes, I’m not so sure about myself.
After all, there have been numerous times when another white person has issued the N-Word or other slurs and insults in my presence, and I’ve said nothing. Instead, I removed myself from the uncomfortable situation or let a friendship dwindle. I thought a nonresponse or an exaggerated eye roll was protest enough. But I doubt it registered as anything but meek disapproval, if at all. If anything, it granted permission.
With my cousin Carl’s Facebook postings, I’m again battling the insidious creep of silence over confrontation. But the stakes are much higher; my relationship is in jeopardy. A macro-level hurt is being amplified on the micro-level by the bad apples of my own family. Soon, it will be hard to distinguish between the spoiled from the bunch.
What “The Carls” (there’s more than one) of the family write and have always written digs deep into racial wounds they will never understand because they live in a world they’ve created where those wounds don’t exist. There’s no white privilege, racial profiling, or unconscious bias. They learned long ago that the world works fine for them. There’s no empathy for the family members who’ve experienced actual injustice and oppression instead of their self-manufactured falsehoods and grievances.
Rather than challenge their bigoted thinking, I’ve bridged the gap of their deep empathy abyss for years by overlooking what they say or whom they say it about to preserve family solidarity and maintain a status quo. To go against this contract would be heresy, a self-directed ex-communication from a group I still long for membership in — just not on the current terms.
The truth is, nothing scares me more than angry, aggrieved straight white men, even the ones who have my gay-ass DNA coursing through their veins. Responding to any of The Carls is akin to the terror of exposure and fear of rejection that kept me closeted well into my twenties, rendering me an apparition tentatively participating in a so-called life.
Echoes of every taunt of the word faggot haunt me in moments like these, whiplashing me back to the 1980s when the first pandemic we’ve lived through was targeting and killing gay men worldwide. Back then, I thought I could manufacture HIV in my own body simply because I was gay.
As my fingers hover over my keypad, trying to formulate a response, I’m surprised at how quickly I’m back in the 4th grade. I’m no longer a 47-year-old man in the bedroom of a converted old Catholic school in Jersey City, my boyfriend purring beside me in a midnight slumber. Instead, I’m ten years old and back in the halls of my elementary school in Yonkers, NY.
“Hey faggot,” rises from a horde of boys moving in unison in the hallway. This is the first time that word has been directed at me. It won’t be the last. I turn away, wild-eyed, panicked, searching the halls for a sympathetic teacher, a custodian, a ventriloquist, anyone to materialize and fill my mouth with words of defense.
What would I say if I told my parents or a teacher? How would I explain how one word confirmed and simultaneously shredded my human existence? This was my first lesson in emotional shutdown. In place of self-defense, I relentlessly strove for straight A’s when I wasn’t daydreaming of revenge. Mostly, I let the anger fester, turning it inward into self-loathing or depression, or sometimes a dizzying cocktail of both.
Now, a million pinpricks flush my face. The past is present; time is in suspension. No matter how many years pass, I still feel the quick stun of that surprise attack, the uneasy surge of ocean waves rippling in my stomach, my voice drowning in its frothy undertow.
Defending myself was impossible then. Speaking out would confirm my faggotry right from my mouth — a non-negotiable in 1985 when being out was part of the distant dream of adulthood. It was easier to recede into the shadows, letting silence and fear carve away at my tongue. A blueprint was drawn up.
I’m not that voiceless, frightened kid anymore. I’ve been working for years to leave him behind. But now that bullies are celebrated rather than reviled, that silent kid has returned. When trauma comes back to haunt you, it returns you to the crime scene as if it had just occurred, wild and defenseless. At a time when someone I love is hurting, my voice is on mute.
Over several days, I think a lot about how to respond. Now that words are redefined almost daily, I want to be precise. Can I translate my anger into something coherent? Have I privileged a victimized self over self-efficacy and self-advocacy, forgetting all the times I put up a good fight?
Isn’t this why I went to social work school in the first place — to advocate for others because I remembered when I couldn’t advocate for myself? Can I update my operating system, so the regressed school kids’ reappearance is a guest spot, not a starring role?
With the creeping blackness of indecision upon me, I did what I’ve instructed clients to do hundreds of times; I grounded myself in the present. I sat in a chair, put my feet squarely on the ground, and let myself settle. I did a simple breathing exercise, recalled peaceful times and good friends, and made a partnership with my kid self, grateful for the protection he offered while relieving him of his duties.
As soon as I did, vivid, rapid-fire images unfolded. A popup book of pictures from the “I’m here, I’m queer” phase of my life reminded me when I welcomed conflict with the puffed-up chest of a straight man.
I saw myself in 2001, hugging and kissing my first boyfriend on the N train in Astoria, Queens, each little peck an act of gay defiance daring passengers to say something.
There I was, age 27, with a handful of new gay friends flipping the middle finger at a carload of frat bros who yelled “faggots” from their car in Union Square.
There was the time I threatened to knock a boss unconscious after he made a homophobic comment about me in front of coworkers at my job at the local TV station. “Don’t fuck with me; I’ll take you down, old man,” were my exact words.
I remember being the only gay student in a graduate social work classroom when a classmate referred to gay people as an abomination.
“That’s me,” I said, looking the student directly in the eyes, daring them to say more.
Most recently, I remembered a time right after the election of 2016. On one of our neighborhood walks, a man yelled, “Go Back to Africa!” at my boyfriend. I yelled, “Fuck you,” without hesitation as my better half walked ahead. This was not a Dali Llama moment. I wouldn’t change one damn word.
I’d forgotten all this, deferring instead to a former self that negated all the self-advocating achievements of my adulthood. It returned me to the deep, dark closet of the past while simultaneously threatening everything in the present. It almost succeeded.
When I return to Carl’s response on my sister’s Facebook page, a manic wave surges through my body and settles in the pulsing chambers of my heart. I’m ready.
In 133 words, I state my objection to what Carl has written, to the hijacking of my sister’s post, to the position of privilege from which he writes, to the affront it is to my relationship and partner who has seen racism in ways that we will never experience; to how shameful it is to see posts like these from people I share DNA with.
Finally, my heart and mouth have aligned. Finally, I’ve said something when it matters.
I’m not asking for a pat on the back for doing something I could have done 25 years ago or even three days ago.
What I wrote wasn’t whip-smart or Oscar-award-worthy. It didn’t have to be. It didn’t put my cousin in his place by attacking him personally, either.
“That’s wrong, that’s racist, or that’s not true” are all possible responses to counter overt and covert racism. It’s something. Because saying nothing is nothing. And nothing drills down deep into a soul, and it infects, sometimes for years, sometimes forever.
As for responses on Facebook, there are a few hearts and likes from my sister and a few cousins. Mostly there’s silence. I get it; people want to stay out of the family argument.
The most crucial response comes from my boyfriend in the form of an emoji heart.
“Thank you,” he says when I return from the gym, our eyes meeting long enough to know we’ve thawed the encroaching chill.
We unfriend my cousin and the other Carls in a unified exhale that cements the cracks in our foundation.
The next day, the Carl I responded to sends us friend requests. He regularly posts memes about remaining friends with people with differing political views. I am not so generous; I delete his request with a loud, declarative tap. This is where the benefit of the doubt ends. We’re not friends here. The satisfaction surging through my body overtakes any tinge of guilt.
My boyfriend will let Carl’s friend request languish in social media purgatory for years. His longest unanswered friend request has lasted nearly a decade. Hey cousin Carl — don’t hold your breath.
More than two years have passed. Nothing and everything has changed. Windows with Black Lives Matters signs are curled and faded artifacts of a million news cycles past. Our dog Samson is ash and bone in a box on a shelf in my office. There’s a new dog, a pandemic puppy named Zeke, with the separation anxiety to prove it. My boyfriend made it to Broadway in a show that won every award imaginable. COVID got us, too, despite herculean efforts to avoid its swath.
The Carls are still The Carls, posting rants from a bully pulpit from their corners of the internet. They had long been the beneficiaries of an unwritten contract of silence etched into the rings of my family tree. Upholding it kept the peace and simultaneously silenced me, protecting the family homeostasis like a precious pearl.
I had a grandiose dream that speaking out would create a seismic shift for each of them. Considering the glacial pace of my own change, that’s a big ask. Facebook finger-pointing rarely puts anyone on the road to redemption.
Today I focus on the members of my biological family with whom I easily align. After years of tiptoeing around The Carls, it was easy to forget the family members who understood each other and always made space for us.
Most importantly, I’ve focused on our family of creation of two men and a little dog. For the last nine years, we have built a sanctuary from the world that harbors our fragile hearts, coexisting with our coalescing commonalities and stark differences. It was threatened by the interloping of my cousins’ internet insensitivity, but that was just a point of culmination.
A stockpile of hurts waited to be mined from years past; the racism of The Carls; my multilayered silence; and the disparities we experienced based on the currencies of our skin all came to a crashing crescendo one tragic day in late May 2020.
My history of silence jeopardized my relationship and threatened to maroon my love in a cruel, lonely wilderness to fend for himself. It temporarily blocked me from understanding the depth of my boyfriend’s real-time pain and threatened irreparable harm if I didn’t do something.
When faced with action over inaction, I felt an invisible thread suturing my mouth. Shut it down, shut it up, shut it off. I was stuck in a template I ached to shatter but didn’t know how.
Before I could talk to anyone else, I needed to speak to myself truthfully, to listen to the silence within, to go where the conscience resides, where right and wrong deliberate.
After I did an internal excavation, I realized I wasn’t a regressed, helpless boy anymore. I’d forgotten the scores of times I’d ever spoken up — for myself or anyone else. For the first time, I connected the dots between past and present and understood the complicated nature of my silence, its lifetime companion, invisibility, and the Devil’s bargain it brokered.
By shrinking myself to a silent speck, I avoided chronic, debilitating bullying from others and expulsion from my own family, but it rendered my existence inconsequential. Keeping the familial peace dishonored our relationship and amplified all that was unfair in a world we never made the rules for. Bending and contorting to keep a sick system intact only makes it sicker.
I learned that speaking out is as much an act of love as it is an act of protest. Funny, I always thought anger was my driving force until now. All my silence, frustration, and careful consideration was about love; for my boyfriend, my family, and even myself. In every angst-ridden word, in every action, love was there; concrete, tangible, and real.
There are experts on love, writers of books and poetry, wise sages well-educated on matters of the heart. I’m not one of them.
For years, I’ve struggled to define love, even believe in its existence. As a boy, I never fantasized about it or thought I was deserving of it. Perhaps that’s the byproduct of navigating self-love and self-loathing for so long. It keeps love in the abstract. It’s an ongoing work in progress to give it, receive it, and even know it’s possible.
Here’s what I do know. I feel love in my bones, in my flesh, in the tingles and trembles of my body. It’s in memories of backyard birthdays with cousins frolicking in my grandfather’s garden. It was lake-side vacationing with my mom, dad, and sister in little log cabins. Love was measured in the final breaths of our dog, Samson, the day we said goodbye. Love is undeniable when my boyfriend sings on stage as magical musical notes ascend into the stratosphere, enveloping the room in a warm embrace.
It’s about loyalty to family of choice and family of origin. Not versus, but together.
It knows when to listen when someone is in pain. And when to speak up, no matter the risk to family, friends, or yourself. Even if it breaks your heart or scares the life out of you.
And love is a hopeful thing that knows more than ever the secrets and mysteries of its healing power. When absolutely everything was on the line, it moved from abstraction to a solid state, etched in concrete, as if to prove to me, a great naysayer, that it truly exists, once and for all.