Saturday, April 14, 2012

My Son Trayvon

Trayvon Martin is my son.
            As a queer, Trayvon Martin is my son. As a father, Trayvon Martin is my son. As a human being, Trayvon Martin is my son.
            I am complicit, however tenuously, in his murder.
            A bigot is a bigot is a bigot. In what I perceive to be a racially motivated hate crime, George Zimmerman gunned down an innocent teenager because he was black, period. Any of us who falls into that vulnerable category of being different—whether based on skin color or sexual orientation or [fill in the blank]—is a walking target in this country. And if you’ve read the paper lately, you can add women, the disabled, and the elderly to the list of those routinely discriminated against—from our city streets to the halls of “justice.”
            My identification with the entanglements of the Martin-Zimmerman case doesn’t end with my connection to Trayvon. No, I must admit that some part of me understands Zimmerman. Because—even though I have consciously worked to avoid being one my entire life—I, too, am a racist.
            The crosscurrents of being a victim and being a perpetrator are blurry, as I experienced what could ostensibly be considered a comedic Saturday morning romp but contained a dark undertow that haunts me.
            For my friends Zo and Stephanie, having a garage sale is a bit like throwing an impromptu cocktail party (without the booze): lots of giddiness and frivolity naturally occurs while we try to get rid of those pesky Christmas gifts we gave each other in years past; not to mention that photo of Meryl Streep that has hung in my apartment even during the times I wasn’t a fan.
            Things were going swimmingly on this bright sunny day in Los Feliz where there are more male couples than straight couples with baby strollers and the mixed races appear to coexist with a certain kumbaya kinship. Think again.
            In an effort to purge some of the emotion I attach to things, I was determined to release my attachment to Meryl plus a few other goodies I snatched off the walls, including a fab poster created for the 1992 Sydney Gay Mardi Gras and a hand-painted Egyptian wall hanging. Both pieces were precious to me: the Sydney event (where I performed) was a highlight of my career and the tapestry represented the trip I took to the land of the Nile, the zenith of my love affair with Philip. But it was time to let go.
            I was happy to sell both pieces to a man and his companion who wandered into our place of commerce. The taller, silver-haired gentleman projected an understated elegance and spoke with what I guessed to be an Armenian accent. He paid ten dollars for both framed pieces that his mute friend--also Armenian? maybe not--chose with some enthusiasm. I thought they might be fans of La Streep but no cigar. They left with only my two mementos.
            The garage sale ebbed and flowed, attracting a hodgepodge of humanity including gay/straight, young/old, rich/poor, hipsters/nerds, and probably a dozen subtly different ethnicities, as the day wore on.
            Suddenly, a Mercedes stops within feet of our display table that contains an oversized goose that lights up and a collapsible ballet barre. It’s the silver-haired dude, holding up the colorful Sydney Mardi Gras poster, with the affect of a bad actor trying to appear jovial. “I’m sorry,” he says, indicating the poster, “This is just not my thing.” He is indicating, without verbalizing, the words “gay and lesbian” that appear on the poster. As he approaches us, we eye each other with expressions of disbelief. “I want my ten dollars back.”
            “First of all, you paid ten dollars for two pieces,” I say. “And what’s not your ‘thing?’ Posters depicting blue clouds?”
            You can imagine what ensued. Zo, Stephanie and I adamantly refused to give him his money back (incidentally, the frame was worth much more than five bucks) but he was vociferous. His silent friend hovered near the car, immobilized, as the aggressor railed on. “You people are cheap,” he brayed.
            I (no surprise) did my “I am gay man, hear me roar: monologue while in the back of my mind, I was stereotyping this man as a “fucking entitled Armenian.” I admit it: if he was culpable of a sense of superiority (coupled with a perceived undercurrent of
Homophobia), I was just as culpable of some manifestation of racism—in that particular moment.
For the record, I live in a building where half of the population is Armenian and we have coexisted lovingly for more than a decade. That does not make me less blameworthy if you consider my inner thoughts on the day of the garage sale.
            What eventually happened was indeed an act of violence. The angry man, after several minutes of demanding his money back and concluding he wasn’t going to get it, he took the poster and smashed it over a small pole, situated by the driveway. Shattered glass endangered anyone who was within several feet of the explosion. No one was hurt.
            Not true. Even though we reveled in the gossipy aspect of the outlandish occurrence, I was hurt, engulfed by an underlying sense of anger, fear and shame—perhaps the qualities that have possessed any of us, Armenians and queers alike, who have been misunderstood, maligned, marginalized. An Armenian woman at the garage sale attempted to expound on “the cultural differences” that were at play in the showdown.
            Are those the same cultural differences that played out in the shooting of Trayvon Martin? In this respect, we are all related. Perhaps not by blood but by our humanness.
Trayvon Martin is my son.
And we are all participants in the story of this horrific shooting because it offers us an uncomfortable opportunity to look within.
            We are both victim and perpetrator.
            The three proprietors of the garage sale later wondered aloud if the distraught man and his silent partner were lovers. We all know that gay men are not immune to homophobia any more than they, including myself, are immune to the disquieting power of racism.
            I teach in a number of different venues, including a high school with young people who carry variegated ethnic stripes. Recently, one of my former students—a young black man, Trayvon’s age—opened his arms to hug me and, in spite of the fact he had a handful of candy, I instinctively reciprocated by embracing him, ignoring the forbidden student-teacher territory issue.
            “I’m sorry, sir,” he said, referring to the sugary mess in his hand. “Don’t be sorry,” I said. “You didn’t do anything.”
            “That’s what you always taught me,” the young man said. He laughed, sweetly imitating me, “’Don’t be sorry. You didn’t do anything to be sorry for.’”