Editors' Note: Guest blogger Alan L. Bounville is a full time graduate student studying theatre for social change at New York University and is one of the founding members of Queer Rising New York City, a direct action group fighting for queer equality. This summer Alan is traveling the country performing a solo play about activism, facilitating civil disobedience trainings and partaking in queer activism.
I remember when I had freshly emerged from my first closet. It was 1996 and I was starting my junior year at Florida State University. Finally, I was away from the religiously oppressive home of my youth. I could finally be me - all of me. At the time I thought, I'd never be back in the closet! The weight lifted from living a life in hiding was immense. And at 19 I felt like a kid - exploring, discovering, being. Yes, like a kid in a candy story, chock FULL of sweets!
During that school year I attended a movie night at the LGBT center in Tallahassee, The Family Tree. The center was housed, well in a house. It was a quaint, comfortable location where I could finally be part of a community of people similar to myself.
A handful of us gathered there to watch Fried Green Tomatoes. It was one of the first pseudo gay/living in the closet themed films I ever watched. It was a delight. After the film ended I got to talking with an older gay man who had been sitting to my left during the film. He shared with me that he had lived in and out of the closet most of his life. He would go back in the closet when he felt being ‘out’ would jeopardize his career, family relations, etc. I remember thinking at the time, ‘That will never be me! Now that I’m out, there’s no going back in!’
Flash forward to the present and I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone back in the closet, for many of the same reasons as the older gentleman at the movie night.
Then, it was this past year as I kissed goodbye – on the lips – a guy I was seeing in my home city of New York that I realized – every day contains an incalculable number of interactions with people where I am in the closet. I felt a sense of fear and insecurity that day as I gave this guy a quick peck in the perceived center of the gayverse! I realized then that I tend to ‘pass’ as a straight man walking down the street, when making purchases at stores and such and most everywhere I go. As queeny as I can be with friends, walking the planet most of the time I’m constantly in the closet.
During this summer, as I have been traveling to areas both densely populated and quite remote I have been increasingly in tune with my negotiations with this closet. Last week, when I pulled into Cowans Gap State Park in rural Pennsylvania late at night I caught myself ‘straightening up’ when talking with one of the park rangers who just happened to be passing by the deserted main office area where after dark check-in took place. In that moment I became hyper aware of the deepening of my vocal tone, the straightening of my posture and my overall awareness of my desire to play it straight in a dark, rural area where cell phone service was sparse at best.
The next day, while getting some very unhealthy food at the concession stand overlooking the beautiful lake at this park, I overheard the young woman serving me share a story to some of her coworkers about her and her friend Tara. At some point in the past, she and Tara were going to hang out and she said to some guy friends of theirs that she will ‘be with Tara tonight.’ The guys teased her and Tara assuming that meant they were going to be together sexually – that the two of them were lesbians. The concession stand employee went on to explain how she felt embarrassed by the teasing, yet cool with her sexuality.
In that moment, as I stand there alone, I thought:
- I could talk with this young woman about her discomfort as I awaited my morning pizza and coffee (the cuisine selections at the PA state parks is severely limited) or
- I could stay silent out of:
- fear for any retaliation from her or the young men to whom she was speaking or
- a desire to collect stories like these where I am merely an observer and later use these anecdotal recounts in writings such as this one.
Reality check – I was afraid, because I was alone, to address her comments and ask a question like, ‘Why would the guy’s teasing comments make you feel a sense of embarrassment to begin with?’
In rural PA, I lived in the closet so I could share a non-verifiable observation with you.
It was interesting for me to stay closeted that day – closeted as a gay man and closeted as a man who very much wanted to challenge someone’s thinking. It was interesting because just the day before I left a transgender woman in Princeton, NJ. In Princeton I spent a wonderful few days performing CHAINED TO FREEDOM, facilitating a civil disobedience training and having hours upon hours of conversations with this woman, her roommate and members of her community about the challenges transgender people have every. fucking. day. (PS – the word transgender is not in my spell check.)
I went from extremely mind bending conversation with them about the very different kind of closets trans people ebb in and out of to a place where I chose, ‘for academic purposes’ to remain in the closet when confronted with a teachable moment – a moment when I could have said something – put myself at risk – but said something or asked a question that may have provoked real thought among a group of straight people about the reasons for their discomfort with their community members’ perceptions of their sexuality.
A few days after the PA encounter, as I stood in line for one of the mega roller coasters at Cedar Point in Ohio – the roller coaster capitol of the world – a park I’ve dreamed of visiting since early adulthood – I had another brush with unintentional intolerance. I overheard a teen boy behind me use the euphemism to a peer, ‘that’s gay.’ Again, I was confronted with a choice. Here I am, again – alone, halfway through a line for one of the biggest, baddest roller coasters in the world, Top Thrill Dragster and I hear this right behind me. I thought, if I say something to him, maybe it would cause him to think and maybe in the future if he heard homophobic slurs at school targeted towards classmates, maybe he’d be a leader and say something and maybe that would prevent a future gay bashing or murder – then I thought…
I’ve been in line for almost an hour. It’s hot. This is a great coaster. I can stay silent and write about this to share with others who think like me. I can stay silent so that the boy’s perceived dad behind him would not get in my face for questioning the boy’s use of the word ‘gay.’
I chalked it all up to research, convenience and safety.
I chalked it up to my chameleon like flexibility to stay in the closet.
How very sad.
Then, yesterday I went to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center here in Cincinnati, Ohio. I am visiting here with a closeted gay male friend of mine. He is in the closet because he is afraid he won’t get promoted if he is ‘out’ at work. I can understand his fear because he has just spent the last year and a half on unemployment. This is the first job that has come along that pays – well, as much as unemployment paid, which is barely enough to survive – and I mean within dollars of a negative checking balance. But now he has his much needed health insurance he has gone without for so long and now he has some of his dignity restored as a needed worker, even though he stays silent about his sexuality. A promotion to the next level at his job would mean a lot – for the bare essentials. But if he is ‘out,’ chances are he will be bypassed on any opportunities for advancement.
(Side note – Why are we not all shutting down banks and Congress demanding real financial reform? How many of you reading this have been affected by the financial meltdown? Yet, we are just taking it up the ass – and not in the way we like – but that’s a whole other post for another day.)
Back to the Freedom Center…
There was this cool log and stucco building in the middle of the museum. I walked in it halfway through my visit. I looked around, wondered what type of building I was in, and then keyed in the audio tour number for this exhibit on my phone-like device they gave me upon entering the facility. I put the device up to my ear and learned that I was standing in an actual slave pen, a brutal holding building for African American slaves, like a railroad car for Jewish prisoners during World War II. I listened to the narrator explain that the second floor of the building in which I was standing was where male slaves where shackled while female slaves, often their wives, daughters, sisters, etc. below toiled away cooking and doing what they could to keep these men alive another day. This slave pen was just one of many slaves were imprisoned in along a domestic slave trading route in the US.
Immediately, I burst into tears. I was in the American equivalent to a transport vehicle to a concentration camp. I was in hell.
While at the Freedom Center, I learned that much of what was done to oppress African American slaves is being done today to oppress LGBT Americans. During both times we have allowed the populous to vote oppressive laws into existence, turned a blind eye to the stacking of legislative bodies with those who would seek to maintain a culture of oppression and rolled our eyes at those who selectively use religious texts to justify the despicable acts of an out of control public and private sector patriarchy.
How many African Americans lead governmental bodies or businesses? What percentage of the population is African American? Whose responsibility is it to see that government and businesses have representation at all levels equivalent to the make up of their communities? How many business leaders go out to schools and work with students so that the future workforce of America – at all levels represents the people communities comprise?
How many out of the closet LGBT people are in positions of leadership in government and industry?
How segregated in all ways are we today?
So, this week, I spent time ‘doing the good work’ in New Jersey. I happened upon some encounters where I chose not to stand up and educate. I spent time fulfilling a childhood dream riding the best coasters in the world. I took this time to relax, read the mountain of books I need to peruse for my thesis work that must be completed in the next couple months and I took a breath.
As I continue west to Milwaukee, fly back to New York City and bus it down to Washington DC for some activism and then fly back to Milwaukee to continue on to Madison, WI to perform the play, partake in a very cool art/activist fundraiser (more to come on that next time) and hopefully facilitate a civil disobedience training, I will consider taking a front seat if opportunities arise where I may partake in a teachable moment about LGBT issues or anything for that matter that agitates thinking about social justice, fear or privilege. And in doing so if I, alone on the frontier put myself in danger by questioning – I must ask myself – what good am I doing by staying silent? Slaves on the Underground Railroad, running to Canada for freedom risked far worse than I could ever risk as a gay man in this joke of a free nation.
How many breaths should I take before I scream?
And while I am warming myself at night in the west that awaits, I might be starting the fire with a burning copy of the US Constitution, just like William Lloyd Garrison did in his time as an abolitionist fighting for the expansion of freedoms for African Americans.
And maybe I’ll just say, fuck waiting for teachable moments. Maybe I’ll go to a place of danger for LGBT people and burn the Constitution there, for all to see.
Maybe my privilege will stop me short of that. How much further would LGBT people be if most of us had no choice but to run to freedom where anyone could see?