Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Closing the distance

Let it be known that I have far more in common with my gay friends than not.

Like them, I enjoy the pleasures of a good night's sleep, keeping warm during the winter, a nice meal, the presence of loved ones, and the new "Luke Cage" series on Netflix. And let's not forget that I'm also a snazzy dresser. There is much that we share in common; that's why we're friends.

One thing I do not share with them, and never will: I'm not gay. I'm not attracted to other men, and never have been. When I've fallen in love, whether in my teens or in my twenties, my overriding concern has been a fear of rejection, not a fear of discovery. I've never needed to fear for my safety if strangers see me with my partner. No one has ever told me that I'm going to hell for wanting to be with the one I love.

And while adolescence was rough, people generally assumed that I was straight and eventually would find a nice girlfriend, and I did. I never experienced the disorientation that comes from realizing that such fundamental expectations are all wrong. I'm not gay, so all those things are outside my experience.

Thank God for good writing. It has the power to close the distance.

A bad book can treat me to an adventure in feudal Japan where all the people talk, behave and interact like 21st-century Americans, right down to their moral sensibilities. An adequate book will at least try to explain feudal Japan and its customs, while a good book will present me with fully realized characters and a setting so that I gain a better understanding of life in feudal Japan.

A truly amazing book is one that not only will help me to understand feudal Japan and the people who lived there, it will give me a personal connection to the era. By the time I'm done reading, I'll have a hunger to know more, and I'll know whether I would be a samurai, a peasant, a ronin or a monk burning incense to the Buddha. Literature can make all these things real and accessible to me.

I can't overstate how important this is. If a book, a movie, a musical, a poem or a song deepens your appreciation of the humanity you share with someone else and it fires a new connection where none had existed, then the creator of that work has accomplished the work of God.

That was my experience with “Fun Home,” a coming-of-age autobiography by artist Alison Bechdel. Originally written in 2006, “Fun Home” depicts Bechdel's childhood growing up in the living quarters of a funeral home, her teen years, and her early adulthood at college and afterward. The book is an odyssey of discovery. Through her experiences, Bechdel comes to understand not only her own identity but also that of her father, a distant and inscrutable figure throughout her childhood.

A little over a year-and-a-half ago, my daughter left a copy of “Fun Home” on the kitchen table. It's like she was trying to tell me something. Dad, look! A comic book without a single costumed hero or ridiculous supervillain in sight. You should check this out.

Not only did it avoid superheroes and their melodrama, "Fun Home" was a comic book with a complex plot and complicated characters. In only nine pages, I fell in love with the writing and kept reading until I had finished. As I recall, I didn't leave the bathroom for about two hours.

Not surprisingly, “Fun Home” was adapted for the stage. The show, which won both Tony and Obie awards, opened off-Broadway in 2013 with a script that weaves its way back and forth among the different periods of Bechdel's life, with a few surprises along the way.

Toward the end of the play, when Adult Alison is starting to truly understand her late father, she hears him ask her younger self to join him on a car ride and spend some time together. And then to her wonder, she realizes that Small Alison is no longer on stage; her late father is talking to her. I'm told that the ensuing song, “Telephone Wire,” is considered one of the most moving of the show.

That may be. I haven't listened to the entire cast album, and so I don't know the music particularly well. Still, the one song I do know well is one that affects me powerfully. It's “Ring of Keys.”

In this song the Bechdel character, Small Alison, is in a cafeteria with her father when she sees a masculine-looking woman enter. This stranger is wearing jeans and lace-up boots, instead of properly feminine clothes; and moves with confidence. Small Alison is enraptured with what she sees, and wonders why no one else in the cafeteria responds as she does to this unconventional woman.

“Ring of Keys” isn't a love song. It's a song of recognition. In seeing her, Small Alison for the first time sees something in herself that she had never been able to notice before, because it never occurred to her that it could be there. For the first time in her life, it hits her that she is not the prototypical girl of tea parties and fancy dresses. She's different. She's like this woman.

For all that I have in common with my gay friends, associates and colleagues, I'm not gay. A physical or romantic attraction to another man is something I've never known, which means that there are sizeable pieces of the gay experience that I'll never share.

I take what bridges I can. At times I've been allowed a front-row seat to the misery they've endured when they've come out of the closet and been rejected, and I've invited them to come to my home and join my family. Other times they have shared their hurt when lawmakers and Christians have proclaimed a moral right and obligation to deny them a place at the marriage table, and I've screamed like hell at their side against that prejudice.

But I've never understood how liberating it must be to have that moment of self-discovery when they discover the missing piece and unlock the secret of how they are different. That essential piece of the gay experience in America has always been foreign to me. It never even occurred to me.

“Ring of Keys” changes the equation. The song helps me to get it. I listen, and I'm able to perceive and to understand that aha! moment, and through that discovery, I enjoy our common humanity anew, through an experience I can't relate to. It's a wonderfully moving and deeply humbling encounter.

Right now in the United States, we're at a point where our nation is splitting into factions incapable of or unwilling to understand one another. A lot of that animosity and distrust would dissolve if we would make the effort to reach out listen to one another, and grasp the things we can't relate to.

That common humanity has always been what's kept us together.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

1 comment:

Minx McCloud said...

Good one, Dave. However, I kept getting the feeling that underneath your understanding of gay folks, there might be a bit of a patronizing attitude.

It's sort of like when someone says, "I have lots of black friends." Methinks ... etc.

But because I know you personally, I know that's not what you meant. I know that you have not got a drop of prejudice in you, nor do you judge.

However, a couple of sentences in your essay/column/whatever niggled at me and I find it hard to explain why, so maybe I shouldn't criticize at all unless I can put my finger on what's wrong.

Unfortunately, I can't.

(Keep up the good work. I always learn something from your thoughts.