When I was in 9th grade, my brother – then a college freshman at Yale – came out of the closet as gay. We both went to the same small, elite all-boys high school, and my brother had not felt comfortable revealing his sexuality until he was gone. Small all-boys schools are not always the most conducive to tolerance, though they may try. It is a constant one-upping and asserting of self.
Rumors about my brother’s sexuality had started to trickle through at my school even though my brother was no longer a student, and eventually some of the older boys started making fun of me. At the time, I had denied knowing anything about it. This was back in the early 2000s, not long after Matthew Shepard had been dragged to his death, and well before the renaissance of the gay rights movement which would come years later. Homosexuality was not en vogue at that time, and in the testosterone-rich, competitive environment I was in, such lack of tolerance was magnified.
I remember the moment when my parents had revealed to me that my brother was gay. I was doing something on the computer and listening to music when my parents came into the living room and told me they needed to talk to me about something. I watched as my mother struggled to emotionally tell me that my brother was gay. I remember not being particularly shocked by the news and a little confused as to why this was such a big deal. After they got through telling me, I politely asked if I could get back to doing whatever I was doing. I think they were surprised that I seemed unaffected.
Some time shortly after that interaction, I tracked down my mother, who was crying upstairs. Tearfully, she told me that she had known about my brother’s sexuality for many years and it was never a concern for her. The reason she was crying, she said, was because of how worried she was for him and how others would treat him. Again, this was in a time where hate crimes against gay people were fairly prevalent, and certainly my own brother was not comfortable enough for anyone to know except for his own mother.
To say that my non-reaction to the news of my brother’s sexuality makes me a good ally to the gay community somewhat misses the point though. The reality is, the middle school version of me was not nearly as accepting of homosexuality as I am today. Unknowingly, I had participated in some suffering on my brother’s behalf when years before, I had recited to him some Eminem lyrics that used the word “faggot.” Countless times I probably bore witness to people calling other people gay as some sort of slur, or using the aforementioned “F” word to demean and degrade others. For all I know, I might never have stood up properly with my brother as a witness. Fortunately, I evolved.
Candidly, I was very proud of my brother when he came out of the closet. Though we never had much in common and were not very close growing up, I always admired that he seemed to excel at everything. When I compounded his success with my newfound understanding of the additional pressures he was going through as a closeted gay man, I felt even more admiration: I was following in his footsteps and finding it quite difficult, and all this with the privilege to not have this looming monkey on my back about my sexuality.
I felt a desire to express this admiration to my classmates. The word was starting to go around the school and I wanted to control the narrative. For art class, I put together a project that was supposed to symbolize my brother’s sexuality and my admiration for him. I remember being so nervous to explain the project to my classmates. Indeed, that moment was very tense, the room was very quiet, and people were pretty surprised. All in all, I was glad to have done it. The art teacher took me aside to tell me how proud he was of my project. A classmate of mine who has two lesbian mothers went home and told his parents how moved he was; they called my parents on the phone to say “thank you.”
I am telling this story because as I have been reflecting on some of the current events happening around us, I cannot help but feel some similarities in my story about my brother and some trends that I am noticing. Let me explain.
The death of George Floyd was tragic and unacceptable. The outpouring of emotion and the response has been justified. Many people have called others to action, and justifiably so.
The thing I notice in the messages is that racism is often made to be simpler than it actually is. It is as if there is a group of all of us good people who donate to a charity, or who suggest some literature to read, or have many black friends, who are incapable of being evil. And then there is everyone else: the ignorant dolts who do not know any better, who were taught from a young age to be racist. The bad people.
To be sure, those ignorant dolts do exist, and there’s a lot of more of them than there should be. But if everyone who said they are were good people were actually ridden of guilt, we really would not be having these problems today the way that we do. I think the reality is that we all bear some responsibility, whether it be very small or relatively insignificant, versus a greater responsibility we are consciously embarrassed to share.
What I am trying to say is that unconscious bias is at the heart of some of the issues we are facing, and we might be better-served looking inwards at ourselves – educating ourselves – versus preaching to others. The reality is, the racists are racists and the rest of us – though we may be trying our best- are probably still falling short somewhere. It is an inconvenient thing to admit and that is why you will not see people openly declaring on their social media the time that they wish they spoke up about something. It is not a sexy thing to do, but it might be more brave to pave the way for others and have a conversation about unconscious bias rather than to signal one’s virtue by donating to the ACLU and encouraging people to watch “The Color Purple.”
This may sound entirely counter-productive, but time might be better spent not trying to convince the KKK that they are wrong, and focusing on the overwhelming majority of people (pretty much everyone else) who would say they are not a racist. Realistically, there will always be fringe groups no matter what. There are people who deny the Holocaust, there are people who believe the Earth is flat, there are people who compare refusal to wear a mask during a pandemic to the right to have an abortion, and there are racists. The problem is, if only the “fringe” groups were the racists in America, then we would not have the type of racism problem that we have today: a gigantic one. This means that the work that needs to be done is with a group of people that already knows better, and needs to learn to act better.
My support for the gay rights movement largely came from my association to my brother. I became what I hope is a great champion for gay rights. My thesis advisor and college professor was the great Edmund White, probably the foremost gay author of his generation, and to this day I still have a letter of recommendation he wrote for me in which he praises a story I wrote about the hardships of being a gay man.
But wasn’t I deeply flawed up until then? Sure, my family had always taught me to treat everyone equally, but had we had serious conversations about homosexuality before I knew anything about my brother? Had I stood up for gay people prior to knowing about my brother when my friends were jockeying one another for status in the locker room? Did I – even after learning about Matthew Shepard on the news – take an interest in trying to do anything? Granted I was 11 years old at the time, but there is a distinct difference between awareness and perseverance.
All this to say, there is a banality to intolerance oftentimes. Whether we are outright apathetic when we should not be or whether we have an unconscious bias we do not even realize, it seems likely to me that we have more of such individuals than those who outright declare themselves racists. Thus, we might all do well to focus less on rooting out the racists and telling them they are racist. Perhaps we would do better not to assume we are all perfect just because we made a donation or have a black friend. Perhaps we need to search deeper within ourselves.