The gods of terror don't telegraph their punches, and the snakes of prejudice and bigotry, slithering near the waters of civility, can release their venom in a nano-second.
That's what I learned the other day standing in line to pick up train tickets at Union Station in Washington, D.C. Legally blind, holding my white cane, wearing sneakers (so I wouldn't fall while walking on subway platforms) and a t-shirt with jeans (who dresses up for Amtrak?), my thoughts weren't about bigotry. I was thinking about an upcoming out-of-town poetry reading: what poems I'd read, how many copies of my chapbook I should bring, if my brother would be able to come...when...
I had my very own brief encounter with one of the Budding Bullies Of Our Time. It began, as such things usually do, quite innocently. A father, a tall, soft-spoken 30-something man, holding the hand of his adorable four-year-old son, stood next to me in the long line. "We're on the way to South Bend, Ind. to catch the Notre Dame [football} game," I heard the dad tell a woman standing near by.
"We're going to see Grammy and our cat," the child piped in sweetly, "the kitty goes 'meow! meow!' Do you have a kitty?"
I tuned out as the conversation continued between the kid, the dad and the woman. Until the cute little boy, with the blond hair and winning smile, turned to me. Only now, he wasn't smiling and the sweetness in his voice was gone. "You look like a boy!" he sputtered in the hostile tone of someone with a pitchfork saying "get out of town, you (pick your epithet)."
"What did you say?" I asked, wanting to be sure I'd heard him correctly.
"You look like a boy!!!!" the child shouted, looking ready to spit on me.
"Stop it!" his father said, "that's not a nice thing to say!"
Is this little boy literally like someone with a pitchfork? No, of course not. I wasn't afraid that he or his dad would literally turn violent against me. It was clear to me that his father was embarrassed by his son's behavior and commendable that he reprimanded his child.
This having been said, it's fair to say that this little boy gave voice to our (at least U.S.) prejudice against people who look or act in ways that are different from traditional gender norms. Somewhere, from someone, he's learned in no uncertain terms that boys should be boys and girls should be girls. That it's okay to let folks know if they're crossing over the line. My guess is that this knowledge, even at the tender age of four, is already embedded in his DNA. I hope, for his sake and that of his future peers, mates, family members and co-workers, that this prejudice can be removed from this young boy's DNA. Like most stigma, this prejudice is born of ignorance.
Why am I ranting about this? Because gender-based prejudice is one of the prejudices of our time. I'm not transgender. I'm quite happy with my gender. Yet, like many women I know (both straight and queer), I sometimes look like a boy.
Try looking girly, if you don't look good in long hair, are allergic to make-up, can't wear high heels, and don't feel like wearing an evening gown to write or paint. Ladies and gents, let me know how this works for you.
As a lesbian, I sometimes feel that those folks who are prejudiced about my sexual orientation, aren't so much bothered by my sexuality as they are by my short hair and sneakers. Some of my gay (and straight) male friends run into gender-based prejudice.
Why am I telling you this? Because as, it's often been said, we are the diseases (prejudices) of our time. And bullies often aren't monsters. Budding bullies can lurk within cute, sweet, smiling little boys or girls.
I so wish that the seeds of prejudice were only planted in others. But unfortunately, they're embedded in our own DNA. Years ago, riding the subway in Boston, I refused to acknowledge a guy who I thought was nuts. Waving his hands in the air, I thought he was on drugs. A couple of weeks after my encounter with him, I ran into a pal who was a friend of the fellow's. "Why were you so rude to Fred on the train the other day?" my buddy asked me, "He's deaf. He was saying 'hi!' to you in sign language."
My aunt tells me that one day when I was six, I began writing "KKK" on the walls. No one in my family knew where I could have learned this vile epithet. My father, I'm told, took me aside, explained to me about the Ku Klux Klan, and strongly admonished me never to do this again.
We all have the diseases of our time.
Recently, I've been thinking about this as I've been reading "Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy" (Hyperion). In 1964, four months after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the historian and Kennedy aide Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., interviewed Jackie Kennedy. On the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's inauguration, the lengthy interviews are being published as a print book and audio recording. When she spoke to Schlesinger, Jackie Kennedy, who died in 1994 at age 64, was 34 years old.
Like every fellow baby boomer who I know, I believe that my emotional virginity was lost the day JFK was shot. I grew up watching my parents dance to the record of the Broadway musical "Camelot." Despite, JFK's womanizing, his secret health problems, the beginning of our involvement in Vietnam, the smoking, the drinking, the useless ducking and covering, the sexism, the racism–the time of John F. and Jackie Kennedy still is Camelot to me. It's stuck in my DNA.
But reading Jackie Kennedy's interviews with Schlesinger, it's clear that the snakes of prejudice, bigotry and denial lurk within Camelot. Kennedy calls Martin Luther King Jr., "a phony." While never mentioning her husband's philandering (which it's hard to believe she didn't know about), Kennedy lambasts King over his rumored extramarital affairs.
Of Clare Boothe Luce, an assertive woman who was a member of Congress, Kennedy insinuates that she wouldn't "be surprised" if Luce was a lesbian.
Perhaps knowing what people in 1964 thought of assertive, intelligent women, Kennedy assures Schlesinger that her marriage to JFK was "rather terribly Victorian or Asiatic."
Before jumping to judge Jackie Kennedy, let's remember that, intelligent and cultivated as she was, she harbored many of the prejudices of her time. She's the Betty Draper (of "Mad Men") of her era. Except Betty would never, as Jackie did, read "War and Peace" during the Wisconsin primary. Nor can one imagine Betty caring about her family, history, politics or culture the way JFK and Jackie did.
Yet, there hasn't been and never will be a Camelot. At least not a Camelot that isn't tarnished with the disease of its time.
As creative artists, if we're talented, we help create Camelot through our art. Yet, no matter how good, our art will always be embedded with not only the truth and beauty, but prejudice of our time.