Greetings, darlings. Let’s talk about progress. That seems a fitting topic for a Monday, doesn’t it?
Good, I hoped you’d think so. Let’s begin.
My partner and I went to a museum yesterday. We saw a lot of interesting relics from America’s past, including (among other things) a ‘weatherproof’ house made out of airplane aluminum that hangs suspended from a pole, the chair that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in, and – the highlight of the visit for me - the infamous Rosa Parks bus. I didn't know that the bus was even there until we were inside the museum. We didn't make a special trip to see it, or anything; we were just looking for a fun way to pass a rainy Sunday because we didn't feel like doing housework.
The bus turned out to be a bigger deal to me than I’d expected. Not only because of what it stands for, but because it reminded me of how far we still have to go.
The bus itself stands as the centerpiece of a display section on civil rights and equality. We had already walked through the tableaux detailing some of the shameful history of racial segregation and the fight for civil rights in this country, including a ‘blacks only’ water fountain, and various handbills inviting people to Klan meetings, photos of lynchings, and Klan uniforms. We read descriptions of tortures inflicted on jailed women during their fight for the vote, and on those marching for desegregation (including beatings, and being bitten by police dogs). I thought it might be ‘nice’ to get a photo of the bus.
We walked up. A docent stood nearby, presumably to educate if anyone had questions about the bus or its significance. I saw her eyes take me in as we approached, and I smiled – and then she looked away, her face stiff.
I was genuinely confused, and thought maybe she hadn't seen me smiling at her. Or maybe it was my t-shirt.
I was, after all, wearing a big picture of a unicorn farting a rainbow blazoned across my chest. I find it cute, but maybe she deemed it unacceptable for a public location with children present. Still, I’m a basically cheerful person, and generally expect the best from people, and if I’m sometimes a little ‘out there’, my sunny disposition usually makes up for it. If I’m wearing something a little outre, I make it a point to be even more polite than usual, and win them over with my charm and sweetness (or something).
So, I tried again.
I walked a little closer, my eyes on her face, the warm smile still on my lips. I tried to meet her eyes. Finally, she was forced to acknowledge me or completely turn away – and she turned a quarter-turn away to avoid my eyes.
My partner, all unknowingly, followed behind me as I approached the bus. I hesitated – was it OK to board it, or was it only for looking, I wondered aloud. The docent muttered that we could go on, “One at a time.”
Someone crossed in front of me and went up onto the bus. I hung back, waiting for him to pass through the bus and leave. While I waited, three others approached and boarded the bus also. I glanced at the docent, confused – but she said nothing. I wondered if I had misunderstood her. Why was it OK for them to go on together, but not for us? I decided to just follow them in, and took my partner’s hand again, chirped, “Come on, sweetie!”, and we went up onto the bus.
It was dark in there, and cramped. It seemed somehow both smaller and more dank than a modern bus – but it was more than age I felt. We moved down the aisle, surveying the crowded-in seats – which was the famous seat where Rosa Parks had held her ground, refusing to move to the ‘back of the bus’?
I heard a tapping on the window, and looked up. The docent was there, following our progress through the vehicle. Her eyes met mine, with some urgency, and her lips were moving. “It’s this one,” she mouthed, pointing to a window seat not quite halfway back. “This is her seat.”
Was she hesitantly smiling? I believe she was. I paused, then smiled back at her, and waded in and sat in The Seat. My partner sat beside me, and we rested for a few moments, just breathing and taking things in. We used the camera on our phone to take a snapshot – the two of us together, sitting where Rosa Parks sat before us, taking a stand for what she knew was right. Then we got up and walked down, still holding hands, off the bus and out of the civil rights display. The docent was not in sight as we moved away.
Twenty seconds or so later, I was about to remark to my partner on what had happened between the docent and me (the whole thing had gone unnoticed by anyone else). I literally spoke two words (“It’s funny”, if you’re curious), and then I started to cry. No one was more surprised than me. I hadn't had the slightest warning that emotions were about to take me over.
I’m as sensitive as the next mythical beastie, of course, but at that moment I had literally no idea that I felt anything other than fine and happy. The civil rights display had brought up some ugly memories of our country’s past, but that was ancient history, wasn't it? People aren't lynched anymore. No one is beaten or tortured for their beliefs, or just for who they are.
Oh, wait. Oh, yes, I see.
And that’s when I really started crying.
I wasn't crying because the docent hadn't liked my shirt. I wasn't even really crying because I felt like she had originally judged me because of who/what she thought I was, and assumptions she made about me and my partner because of that.
In fact, it was pretty cool that she may have initially been offended by the farting-unicorn-shirt, but then realized belatedly that we might be ‘those kind of people’ (whatever those kind are) – and that we were there to see a civil rights landmark, and that she had the power to deny or support us in our wish to claim a part of that for ourselves.
I believe that’s why she made the effort to show me The Seat. She saw that it was important to me, and wanted – belatedly – to help. Maybe she saw the hypocrisy of the docent of such an exhibit treating someone as second-class based on her judgments about who we were. Who knows?
But that’s only the smallest part of why I cried.
I cried because I realized how far we've come. I cried for what was done to those who came before, who put themselves in harm’s way to try to earn the rights of all free people.
I cried for those who were beaten, tortured, or who even died fighting for the basic right to live, to be who they are, and to dare to ask to be treated with decency and respect.
I cried because they marched, they spoke out, they gathered and rallied for what they believed in, even in the face of public censure, abuse from the hands of citizens
AND in many
cases from those who are supposed to protect us from harm, and were in return
humiliated, jailed, maimed, or killed. That doesn't happen anymore, right?
But it does, my darlings. You know it, and I know it.
We like to think it isn't so. We pretend that prejudice is a dying thing, and that in today’s world, we treat everyone the same, regardless of color, religion, or gender.
Most people would never consider using the ‘N’ word, and most people don’t raise an eyebrow at a bi-racial couple. A lot of young people today have a hard time believing in the degree of prejudice that was once considered normal. Even something as world-shaking as the holocaust, where one little man with an inferiority complex murdered how many millions to try to create a ‘pure’ race, seems like a messed-up fairy tale you’d use to scare kids with. Sure, there are still pockets here and there where folks are a little more backwards, but by and large, things are different.
Mostly. In a lot of ways, yes, thanks to pioneers like Rosa Parks, and
MLK, and all the other people who
said, “This isn't right, and I’m not going to be quiet or go away because it
makes you uncomfortable. I’m staying put. Do your worst.”
Sometimes their worst was pretty damned awful. But those brave folks stayed put anyhow, and damn the consequences to themselves. They did it anyhow – because it was the right thing to do, and they just couldn’t help it. They had to do it.
Being LGBTQ is one of the ‘last frontiers’ as far as inequality. In the wake of the death of DOMA, in a time where more and more states are bringing bills to the table to consider same-sex marriages, it’s easy to tell ourselves that the tide has turned, that the hard fights are over, and we've won. “Closets are for clothes!”, we cry, and celebrate our ‘freedom’.
We've won – when in 29 states you can be fired from your job just for being thought to be gay. When 31 states have constitutional amendments banning us from marrying the person we love. When approximately two million children are being raised by parents legally unable to establish a legal relationship. When more than 250,000 ‘hate-crimes’ are committed every year, for no other reason than that the victims were thought to be gay.
Hate crime laws exist, my darlings, for the very ugly reason that it is not safe to be LGBTQ. We are at a statistically higher risk of assault, injury or death simply for walking out of our doors.
My partner took a picture of a quotation by Martin Luther King, Jr. at the civil rights exhibit yesterday. It read, “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
Who will be the Rosa Parks and the MLKs of our time? Who will speak out for us? Where is our bus? And who will pick up a sign or put on a t-shirt and put themselves in the path of harm in order to make life easier for those who come after?
It’s easy to talk some good talk, but in the new internet era of ‘slacktivism’, where one does little to help causes other than pushing ‘like’ on Facebook, I just don’t know.
I would like to think that there are people who believe so much in what is right, even if it only benefits others, and at any cost to themselves, that they would stand up and say, “This is what I believe. I will not be moved.”
I hope that there are. I hope that I am one of them. I hope that I am brave enough that, if the time comes, I am prepared to stand up – or to sit down.
And that is the reason I cried.
Thank you for reading, darlings. Share my words if they meant something to you, or leave me a little comment if you are so inclined. And, as always, be fabulous to each other!