Friday, October 15, 2010

Out of the Bubble

For the past year I've been in a book club. In fact, I'm the founder and coordinator of it. Many of my literary friends would find this hilarious; I find it hilarious given the amount of times book clubs were the source of jokes for me and these friends in my college days. The idea invokes a group of people sitting around in a touchy-feely circle talking about surface topics like what characters they liked or didn't, how certain parts made them feel, or whether they like the book or not with no solid justification one way or the other, and very little, if any, discussion about topics of importance like structure of form, character complexity, narrative causality, sources of conflict, subtext, or line-by-line linguistic analysis of style to name a few. You know, topics with real literary significance. Is this snobbery? Yes, very much so. Am I a book snob? Again, yes, very much so. I started this club reluctantly at the proposal of a few friends, and as the only former English major in the mix, I was the logical choice for the role of organizer. Over the past year, my attitude has changed a bit. It's been refreshing to speak in a setting about a book openly with no pressure or grade at stake. Most importantly, I've enjoyed the opportunity to read books I wouldn't have chosen for myself otherwise. Of course, I've liked some more than others.

The last meeting we had was this Monday. We read War Dances by Sherman Alexie, a collection of short stories and poems. As a whole, I admire Alexie's blend of traditional structural form with experimentation, especially in a current literary community where everyone is pegged with being in either one camp or the other. As a lover of fiction, I was most eager for the short stories, and I want to comment on one specifically, "The Senator's Son." This one resonated with me the most. Book clubbers -- at least my stereotypical perception of them referenced in the previous paragraph -- tend to hate a book if they hate the characters. In this story, I hated all three central characters: a conservative senator vying for future presidency, his priveleged son, William, and William's former best friend, Jeremy, a gay republican. While I know if these characters were real I most likely wouldn't be able to stand them, I found this story, and them, powerful, because Alexie provides insight into perhaps why they are the way they are. Spoiler alert. William gay bashes Jeremy years after the latter came out to the former, which had dissolved their friendship. In a surprising reversal, I felt like William, the first person POV character, was more redeemable than Jeremy, who is essentially homophobic himself, maybe even more than William. Jeremy readily forgives William with no questions, claiming gay rights don't matter, because far more pressing issues and problems exist in the world than who he has sex with. In the end, I realize he refuses to support his own rights, the ones that are the most immediate to him, because he is a man who has become so disillusioned and beaten down -- both figuratively and literally in the case with William and also growing up with his father -- by the homophobia in the world that his only defense mechanism is to comply to it by not standing up for himself. William ponders whether Jeremy's act of forgiveness is an act of cowardice. I can't help but agree, and I was taken aback that I felt this way -- that forgiveness isn't necessarily redemptive; it can be spineless.

This story is apt for what I've been rolling around in my head the past week given all the media coverage of the suicides caused by bullying. I'm shocked at how homophobic our society is. Sure, I've known it is. I'm not naive. I've experienced it first hand since quite a young age by enduring harassment similar to what these kids faced. Maybe the extent of our culture's prejudice mind-set is becoming more real for me in these past two years out of college -- a place where my sexuality was a non-issue with the people I surrounded myself with, especially being steeped in a creative writing program. Now that I'm out of the bubble, I notice just how latent our homophobia is. I've had people telling me these suicides in the news aren't issues with being gay but are about bullying. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't almost every instance in the news over the past month a bully who is making derogatory remarks and harassing a kid because he or she was gay, or was perceived as being gay, or didn't fit into any type of gender role deemed "normal"? People who make claims like these aren't looking at the root cause of why their peers are bullying these kids in the first place. And, I wonder why now of all times the media decides to focus on these tradgedies, because they happen much more than the national news stations usually covered before. The suicide rate of gay teens far exceeds the number of straight teens. Maybe now that more people are paying attention to how harmful homophobia is, attitudes will change. In the past week, I've found the media covering more instances of violence, discrimination, and narrow-mindedness:

-The Bronx gay bashing
- A student-teacher fired for answering a student's question about his marital status
- Another suicide, provoked not by harassment at school, but by awful comments made at a community's city council meeting
- More bullying, and physical assault in school
- And, I would be remiss leaving out Carl Paladino

I could list more, but this is sufficient enough to give you an idea. Then again, I wouldn't hold my breath that exposure will make a difference. These attitudes are pretty heavily engrained culturally. Over the past year, since integrating back into Louisville, I've been surprised at certain encounters I've had. Like certain "friends" making comments to me like, "Wow, do you have any masculinity left in you at all?" because I was holding a red drink I suppose this person deemed "girly," or slights like, "It looks like we've got four women here," even though there were three, and then continuing with, "and I'm including Michael." I'm not trying to use this post to play the victim or to even insinuate at all that these encounters are on any level with the suicides, discrimination, or bashing I've cited above. I'm simply pointing to them as examples of how mannerisms and outlooks regarding sexual orientation and gender are so embedded in how people interact with one another that they become second nature, and by extention, these small, subtle attitudes yield the larger more horrific forms of violence and blatant prejudice. Despite the media coverage, I don't see immediate change occurring any time soon. So, I can definitely understand Jeremy in that Sherman Alexie story. It would be easy to forgive people who are the cause of such direct violence and hatred, if that's what would save yourself from it all.

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