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april 2009

Come Out, Come Out Wherever You Are To That "Glorious Bountiful Nightmare": musings on Christopher Nolan and "Milk"

 One night, I'm rushing up the escalator with my friend X in the subway station.  We hope to catch the next train, because if we miss it, we may have to wait 20 minutes for the next subway.  Unfortunately, the train arrives before we do, and X shouts obscenities at an ear-piercing volume that echoes to the other end of the platform. 

I love (as a friend) my brilliant, funny, kind and loyal pal X.  Yet, X sometimes becomes extremely angry at things, like missed trains, that don't merit such outrage.  When this happens, X is terrifying to be around.  Thankfully, X's outbursts are brief.

Since my encounter with X that evening, I've been thinking about rage.  On the one hand: Isn't rage sometimes misdirected or inappropriate?

On the other hand: When is anger productive? When is it not only good to be outraged, but wrong, not to feel angry?

How does anger jump-start and infuse art? 

I don't have the answers to these questions.  If I did, I'd bottle them, become rich and invite you to join me for champagne on my yacht.

But I have a few thoughts, fueled by the Irish writer Christopher Nolan (who died in February at age 43) and the movie "Milk" (now out on DVD). Nolan, who had cerebral palsy, was renown for his inventive wordplay and imagery.  His autobiography "Under the Eye of the Clock" won the distinguished Whitbread Prize, beating out work by  poet Seamus Heaney and the late biographer Richard Ellman.  "Milk" is the stunning film about the life of Harvey Milk. Milk, was the first openly gay man to be elected to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1977.  In 1978, Dan White, a former supervisor killed Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone.

To you, there may not be a connection between Nolan and Milk.  But, to me, a legally blind lesbian, the spirits of these two men were (and remain for us today) on the same page.

Their lives were quite different.  One was a stellar writer whose creativity defied disability-based prejudice and the other was the Martin Luther King Jr. of the gay rights movement. Nolan, who was a quadriplegic, spent much of his time living with his family and writing, using a pointer strapped to his forehead (which he called his "unicorn").  (I don't know if Nolan was straight.  I believe he was hetero.)  Milk organized marches, campaigned for elected office and galvanized crowds.  Yet both, Nolan and Milk gave people hope, confronted bigotry and used their anger to fuel their work.

Many of us, though we may express our pique less loudly, get angry at the kind of things that enrage my friend X.  Last week, I muttered "damn it!" when I learned that I couldn't get toilet paper on sale at my CVS because the price had been marked wrong. You'd have thought that getting the best deal on toilet tissue was the most important thing in say, the history of the universe.  I laughed and regained my perspective when the person next to me in line turned to me and exclaimed, "I didn't know that blind people swear!"

The stories of Nolan and Milk teach us when to stop, as the cliche says, sweating the small stuff.  Despite the gains of the gay rights movement, homophobia is alive and well (as evidenced by Proposition 8).  People with disabilities, nearly 20 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, face discrimination in every area of life from parenting to employment.  On top of all this, there's the tanking economy.  Under these circumstances, shouldn't we all chill about the missed trains and wrongly priced toilet paper?  If we can't calm down through humor, meditation or putting these annoyances of everyday life into our art, maybe it's time to check-out our local therapist. (My 552 years of therapy really helped me.)

But, Nolan and Milk had reason to be angry, and worked tirelessly to fight the prejudice that ignited their anger.

Nolan couldn't speak or control his hands.  As is the case with many of us with disabilities, people often thought he was incompetent or shunned him.  One doctor told his family that Nolan would remain "a perpetual infant." This story rings true with me. When I was born, the doctors told my parents that I would "always be a vegetable" and that my being born was "a horrible mistake."  My father had the presence of mind to tell the physician that "my wife and I greatly enjoyed making this mistake."

Nolan knew when he was being dissed.  He wrote eloquently that throughout history "crass crippled men {had been} dashed, branded, and treated as dross in a world offended by their appearance."

Once, the British paper the "Guardian" reported, a journalist falsely claimed that a ghostwriter had written one of Nolan's books.  Infuriated by this, Nolan had his father take him to a church. There, he swung his left arm in a "two-finger gesture" at a crucifix.  This helped to assuage his rage.  Eventually, the "Guardian" reported Nolan forgave the journalist and God.

Throughout his life, Nolan's mantra was "accept me for what I am and I'll accept you for what you're accepted as."  When a Hollywood producer asked to make a movie of his life, Nolan declined his offer.  "I want to highlight the creativity within the brain of a cripple," he told the producer, "and while not attempting to hide the crippledom I want instead to filter all sob-storied sentiment from his portrait and dwell upon his life, his laughter, his vision, and his nervous normality.  Can we ever see eye-to-eye on that schemed scenario?"

If you have a disability, and if you want to be treated with respect, to assert your rights, and be apart of your affinity group, the disability community, then you need to come out.  Nolan was out.  By that I mean, Nolan insisted that he be treated with dignity and he had disability pride.  He was one of the first disability culture writers.  His work and his life inspire hope.  His life inspired U2's "Miracle Drug" song.

It's not easy coming out.  As a queer crip, I can attest to that.  In my youth, I once tried to pass as sighted on a blind date.  Without using my cane, I bumped into a bus stop and broke my nose.  Fortunately, I realized that I wouldn't have any dates or much of a life, if I kept hurting myself trying to pass.  Coming out as a lesbian in my 20's also had its difficulties.  Though in those years – the late 1970's, spurred on by the Stonewall rebellion and the youth movement of the 1960's, some of us felt a sense of liberation as well as risk, when we revealed our sexuality.

As the film of the same name shows, "Milk" spoke eloquently about the need for gay and lesbian people to come out.  "Three of my relationships ended up as suicides," he tells Dan White, "because I made them stay in the closet."

I remember, in 1977, holding hands with my (then) lover, as we watched "The Wizard of Oz" at a movie theater in the Castro (gay) neighborhood in San Francisco.  The roaring sound of applause whenever we heard "come out! come out! wherever you are!" coming from OZ is still in my ears.

In "Milk," Harvey Milk makes a rousing speech calling for all oppressed groups to work together.   For me, as a queer crip, it's one of the most moving moments of the film.  The movement isn't about "ego or power" Milk says, "(it) is about the 'uses' out there," Milk says, "not just the gays–the blacks, the Asians, the seniors, the disabled –the uses."

This is the first time that I have ever heard any one gay, or any one from any progressive movement, include people like me (disabled folk) in any mention of the struggle that so many of us wage for our civil rights.  Hearing this makes me want to work together with all people, rather than feel angry that my pain isn't being understood.

Milk was a brilliant strategist.  He urged gay people to come out, to stop hating themselves, to get angry, and to use that anger to fight for their rights.  Before he was murdered at age 48, Milk organized gay people, using their collective anger against bigots like Anita Bryant to defeat Proposition 6 (an effort to fire openly gay teachers in California.)

Getting angry often isn't pretty and coming out, even in the age of Ellen, isn't easy.  Fighting for one's rights is hard work.  For every right that is gained by a civil rights movement, there is a backlash. But, we must wage this battle, through activism or our art, or our spirits will die.  If we stay closeted, we'll unleash our anger on ourselves or missed trains instead of injustice.

Nolan called life a "glorious bountiful nightmare."  I couldn't agree more.  Come out, come out wherever you are, to it.



©2009 Kathi Wolfe
©2009 Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine: Kathi Wolfe
Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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