Learning from Labels

Last Tuesday, I was sitting outside eating my lunch and enjoying the warm weather after the surprising Easter snowshowers when Seymour Sharpe joined me. I figured he was going to ask me about my column. "You've got egg on your face," he said.

"I know," I answered. "I saw the soapbox by Laura O'Reilly pointing out how I feel the need to distance myself from anything smacking of homosexuality."

"It looks like you've got egg salad on your face," he said. He flicked his own lips with his finger to show me where. "I'll bet everyone is eating hard-boiled eggs today. I was down in Boulder at a family gathering so I didn't see the article you're worried about."

"She wrote about when you were making fun of my book bag, calling it a purse," I answered. "I was offended, angry, and I believe she nailed the crux of the problem: I did not want anyone to think I was gay."

"Who would?" said Seymour. "Look at Matthew Shepard."

"That was precisely her point," I said. I opened my notebook where I had the soapbox taped. "For truly good, kind people to feel the need to distance themselves from gays, to make it clear that they are not gay, lest they fall victim to the same violence that is daily meted out on gays, is a crying shame. Even the best of people find it difficult to stand up against injustice, intolerance, and brutality by standing in unity with the disenfranchised when their own necks are on the block. That's why we so admire those few people in human history who have stood with and been willing to suffer the same treatment as the disenfranchised." I set the notebook back down. "My actions were certainly not honorable."

"Yours hardly ever are," he said, "but at least you weren't lying. Saying you're gay when you're not isn't honorable either. That's what the guys who killed them did."

"But I'm disappointed in myself," I said. "I didn't even think of how my own personal fear of being labeled affected my actions. I thought I was being open-minded by making fun of Falwell's Tinky-Winky accusations, but I wonder if I'm truly willing to stand for disenfranchised people."

"It's hard," said Seymour, "and a lot of people are disenfranchised just because of attitudes. Slavery and killing are easy to recognize as inhumane. But poking fun or disowning groups of people through language is far more insidious and awfully difficult to spot. I once read that being white means never having to think about race. Articles in the newspapers make Blacks aware of their race all the time simply by not acknowledging the White race. If a Black person is arrested or elected, his or her race is always made known. But we don't acknowledge that being white is being of a certain race, it's just being in charge. Consider if they were to print a news article about Kosovo: The white male Clinton met with the white male secretary of Defense Cohen to map out a strategy of dealing with the white male Serb Milosevic. Seeing it right there every day in, dare I say, black and white, makes it real obvious who is part of the in clique and who isn't."

"I never noticed," I said, "but now that I remember the Shepard headlines, they said 'Two Men Murder a Homosexual'. If the sex roles had been reversed, then it would have said, 'Man Murdered by Two Homos.' But none of the headlines would say, 'Two Heteros Murder a Human Being,' because that would imply that the heterosexuals aren't full members of the community."

"To paraphrase," said Seymour, "being a heterosexual 40-something Caucasian male means never having to think about sex or gender or race or age. But that thoughtlessness just makes everyone else aware of who they aren't."