This landed in my inbox via the LGBTPOC listserv in the past week, but I hadn’t read it until today. In light of the recent homophobic bashing in Jamaica, the public defender recently “condemned violence … against homosexuals” out of one side of his mouth only to turn around and justify such violence by saying that “flaunting sexual preference may incite violence”.
Public Defender Earl Witter resorted to the vernacular yesterday as he advised members of the gay community to “hold your corners”, and avoid flaunting their sexual preferences in the face of those who are repulsed by their behaviour.
Condemning violence in all forms, particularly against homosexuals, the public defender, however, warned members of the gay community that if they continued to shove their tendencies on others who found it repugnant, it might incite violence.
“It may provoke a violent breach of the peace,” Mr. Witter told The Gleaner yesterday evening.
… During the luncheon, Mr. Witter said that, as with most things, “tolerance has its limits” and gays and lesbians should be sensitive to the “repulsion that others feel” and should not be so “brazen”.
“What takes place behind closed doors between consenting males is ordinarily beyond the reach of the law so they (gays) should confine their activities to their bed chambers and not, by their conduct, provoke disapproving reactions. In other words ‘hold yu corner,'” Mr. Witter said.
Mr. Witter, I’ll “hold my corner” when you hold yours. Beyond that, you are asking of black gays and lesbians what dominant white culture asked of black folks for centuries, “Remember your place. On pain of death.”
Just to refresh our memories, this is what happened to an individual who was doing nothing more than waiting for a bus.
Interestingly enough, the video has been deleted from YouTube. Fortunately, I have saved elsewhere.
Keep in mind, this individual wasn’t doing anything to anyone. This person was doing nothing more than waiting for a bus.
Police who were called to the scene had to fire warning shots to disperse the stone-throwing, stick-wielding mob, which succeeded in tearing off the man’s black-and-white form-fitting blouse and jet black wig.
According to eyewitnesses, the man was spotted at approximately 8:30 am in the town centre apparently waiting for transportation. He was wearing heavy make-up, high-heeled shoes, a long pair of shiny earrings, a black leather jacket over a snug black-and-white blouse, a tight-fitting pair of jeans, a black wig, a pair of sunglasses and a handbag slung over his broad shoulders.
It was not clear yesterday how the alarm was first raised. However, the Observer was told that the assault began as soon as someone in the busy square shouted that the person was actually a man wearing female attire.
Despite what’s suggested by the description of this person’s appearance, the truth is that the only “crime” here was daring to appear in public. This person, I can only assume, is transgendered and therefore was merely dressing as was appropriate for her gender. (For the most part, I err on the side of self-determination. So if someone identifies as a particular gender and/or presents themselves as such, as far as I’m concerned that’s what they are.)
She was no more “flaunting” anything than an identically dressed genetic female would have been, and her attire should have made her no more a candidate for assault than the same attire on a genetic female should have. Of course, as many women know, in the minds of some men (and other women) wearing “heavy make-up, high-heeled shoes, a long shiny pair of earrings, a snug black and white blouse, and a pair of tight-fitting jeans,” does make them candidates for assault. Not only that, but if they are assaulted it makes them responsible for the their own assault. They are responsible because they were flaunting themselves, and thus inflamed a “natural response” that men are entitled to act upon.
(Also, take note of the gender politics at play here. Note how many of the women involved are wearing pants and are in a way themselves “cross-dressing.” But they are cross-dressing in male attire, so they are not targets for violence or derision as is a man cross-dressing in female attire. Indeed, one of the most enthusiastic stick-wielders is the woman in the black tank top. She wouldn’t look out of place in just about any lesbian bar. But the point here is that “wearing the pants” seems to come with the same entitlement to mete out violence to “other,” lesser human beings.)
Ask any rape survivor who was asked afterwards what she was wearing prior to the assault, or who had to listen to her attire described in court, and hear it implied or stated outright that she “brought it on herself.” Ask any woman who’s had to hear that she should be “sensitive” to the “natural urges” men feel when seeing a woman so attired so as not to “provoke” attack. Then again, ask any woman who knows that, no matter what she’s wearing, she cannot feel safe merely walking down the street, going to her car, or doing any number of mundane activities.
When you are not safe going about your daily life as who you are, you are being told to remember your place.
It wasn’t long ago, just decades ago, that blacks in the south had to observe a plethora of explicit and implicit social rules intended to keep them “in their place,” or face harsh consequences if they didn’t. Aside from having to enter most places through the back door, sit in the back of the bus, black men could face deadly consequences for failing to step off the sidewalk when a white person approached, or merely failing to avert their eyes downward.
Bailey said lynching had a profound psychological effect on the black community in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“Lynchings created a sense of terror for blacks,” she said.
It was not uncommon for photos of lynchings to be made into postcards or for grisly souvenirs gathered at the scene of a lynching to be sold, she said, spreading an awareness of lynchings from community to community and causing blacks to modify their behavior.
They might lower their eyes when encountering a white person on the street or even step off the sidewalk to let the person pass, Bailey said.
This practice of addressing blacks by words that denoted disrespect or inferiority reduced the black person to a non-person, especially in newspaper accounts. In reporting incidents involving blacks, the press usually adopted the gender-neutral term “Negro,” thus designating blacks as lifeless and unknown persons. For example, an accident report might read like this: “Rescuers discovered that two women, three men, four children, and five Negroes were killed by the explosion.”
In general, blacks and whites could meet and talk on the street. Almost always, however, the rules of racial etiquette required blacks to be agreeable and non-challenging, even when the white person was mistaken about something. Usually it was expected that blacks would step off the sidewalk when meeting whites or else walk on the outer street side of the walk thereby “giving whites the wall.” Under no circumstances could a black person assume an air of equality with whites. Black men were expected to remove their caps and hats when talking with a white person. Those whites, moreover, who associated with blacks in a too friendly or casual manner ran the risk of being called a “nigger lover.”
Blacks and whites were not expected to eat together in public. It was okay for blacks to enter a restaurant to buy food to take out or to stand at the end of a lunch counter until their order was taken. Usually, they would then leave and wait outside for their food to be brought to them. Some places allowed blacks to eat in the kitchen. Nor were black customers always allowed to use store implements such as plates or dishes or even boxes. Black customers commonly brought their own tin pails and buckets to be filled.
The white owners of clothing stores did not allow blacks to try on clothing as a general rule, fearing that white customers would not buy clothes worn by African Americans. Some stores did allow blacks to put on clothing over their own clothes or to try on hats over a cloth scarf on their heads. Shoes were never tried on as a general rule, but most white clerks did allow exact measurements to be made. In most towns, black customers knew which stores could be expected to treat them with respect while not breaking the rules of racial etiquette.
And for anyone who’s about to tell me “it’s not the same,” save your breath. I know it’s not the same. But I am a black gay man who knows his history, and I will not refrain from pointing out legitimate parallels, and in this case the comparison is apt. The message is clear, when you may not do as others do, you are not equal. When you are punished for doing as others do, you are not equal.
In many ways, it’s still true. One weekend while I was in college, I went home for a visit. (And to do some laundry.) When it came time for me to return to campus, I loaded up the car, and headed out the door. I was dressed pretty much the way I would have dressed on campus; in an old t-shirt and an old pair of jeans that were ripped along the legs. As I headed out the door, my dad looked at me with what I recognized as concern, and said, “Son, is that what you’re wearing to drive back to school?”
I said yes, and he answered, “Son, I think you need to change into something else. You are a young black man, and you are going to be driving through the south. I’m not saying you’re going to do anything wrong, but if you get pulled over by a southern sheriff, he’s going to take one look at you and get the wrong idea.”
I started to argue with my dad, and tell him “times have changed,” but I decided it was easier to put on something else. So I donned a pair of khakis and a buttoned down shirt, and headed back to campus. When I got back to campus, I turned on the television to find that Rodney King was all over the news.
When you cannot do as other do, without consequences, you are not equal. You are “less than.” That is constantly enforced by the generally known consequences for “assuming an air of equality,” and by the occasional example made of someone who forgets or flouts the rules.
Yesterday, as I was walking to the metro station, I passed a heterosexual couple on the sidewalk. They were locked in an embrace, kissing one another, her arms around his neck and his hands just below her waist. They kissed several times that way, and seemed oblivious to everyone else though it was broad daylight and the sidewalk was full of people on their way to someplace else. The rest of the people on the sidewalk seemed oblivious too. In fact I was the only one who stopped and stared.
I always do, because I’m reminded that — even on the streets of Washignton, D.C. — my husband and I couldn’t engage in the same activity without potentially facing violence as a result, or at the very least getting hostile stares and verbal reaction. In fact, even something as mild as holding hands would invite the same. For that matter, merely appearing together in public as a couple — calling each other “honey” or some other term of endearment rather than merely by name — can make us candidates for all of the above. Even going out as a family (at least outside of the relatively safe “bubble” of the progressive community we live in), with a four year old chattering incessantly to Daddy and Papa, is likely to get us some hostile stares and even insults. (Though, I hope anyway, people would refrain from physical attacks in the vicinity of a child.)
Of course, I see it countless time per day; heterosexual couples sitting together on the platform or on the train, holding hands, kissing one another goodbye before one gets on or off the train. I see wedding announcements in the paper. I can’t turn on the television without watching heterosexuals all but have sex in front of me, and I’ll see even more if I go to the movies. I can’t stand in line at the grocery store without seeing magazines and tabloids blaring headlines about heterosexual relationships — who’s seeing whom, who’s breaking up with whom, who’s cheating on whom and who their cheating with, who’s getting married and/or divorced, etc. I could go on an on. But I see all this knowing that we cannot do the same without danger or the possibility of danger.
When you cannot do as others do without consequences that others don’t face, you are not equal. When you cannot go about the mundane activities of life without some degree of concern or fear for your safety, you are not equal. And every day you know the consequences for “assuming an air of equality,” with your “betters.”
However, Mr. Witter told The Gleaner that, if homosexuals wished to continue their lifestyle, they should do so in private, “out of sight and beyond the reach of persons who are repulsed by that kind of orientation”.
He also reminded members of the public that buggery remained an offence punishable by imprisonment at hard labour.
… Mr. Witter however argued that th was that persons of that sexual orientation “may yet flaunt their wares, so to speak, and excite violence and mayhem, and what good can possibly come of that?”
And then there’s the obvious double standard. Heterosexuals are not expected to keep their “lifestyle” or “out of sight and beyond the reach of those who are repulsed by that kind of orientation.” But then heterosexual relationships are assumed to at least have the potential to be based on love and affection, rather than being reduced to mere physical acts. That same-sex couples fall in love too, or that the might be a moral context for homosexuality in which our relationships are not reduced to mere sexual acts.
But that would require recognition of our humanity. And the necessary recognition that would follow, of our relationships and families as equally valid, would up-end an entire social system that guarantees one group of people superiority over others, much the same way that recognizing the equal validity of black families several centuries ago would have up-ended a entire socio-economic system that relied on slavery as an institution.
Again, not the same, but the comparison is apt, and I claim the right to point it out as much as I claim the right to “assume an air of equality” with anyone else, even though every day I’m aware that I cannot do so without possibly having to face negative consequences that almost no heterosexuals would face.
However “out, loud and proud” I am, that is a constant reminder of “my place,” and what will happen if I don’t “hold my corner.” And it’s a reminder that in the minds of some people, I’ll deserve whatever I get.