it’s not about the hoodie

The internet is been alive with rage and protest in response to the February 26th murder of 17 year old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL. Martin was a slight boy of 160 pounds armed with nothing more than candy, an iced tea, and black skin. He was gunned down in cold blood by a man with more than ten years and dozens of pounds of advantage on him who walks free and protected by Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law that categorizes his actions as self-defense. In the intervening weeks the focus has shifted from Trayvon to his hooded sweatshirt. I have to admit that I find this concerning. Why? Because America — white America — needs to sit up and admit the truth to itself and others: Trayvon was not shot because of what he was wearing. Trayvon was shot because he was black.

It’s all well and good that everyone’s putting on a hoodie and saying “I am Trayvon Martin,” but here’s the fact of the matter, white folks: You’re not, and white guilt isn’t going to change that. As a brilliant friend of mine said recently, “unpack your white privilege.” The hoodie is a red herring. It’s an excuse for America to blame something other than blatant and pervasive racism in this country for the death of this young man and, let’s be honest, thousands, millions just like him. It’s not ok that Trayvon is dead. It’s not ok that his killer walks free. It’s not ok that this country gives one race the power in this country. It’s not ok that this country sees other races and their children as expendable. It’s not ok that we’re not honest with ourselves about it.

Trayvon was somebody’s son. He was a young man with a future he will never realize. We will all miss out on what he could have been, because we can’t see beyond the end of our noses. Sitting in my class discussing race theory last week, the discomfort was palpable, because we can talk gender and class and sexuality until we’re blue in the face in this nation, but we still can’t talk race The class only had one American student of “non-white” decent (although, ethnically speaking, she’s Caucasian, but all that matters in this country is skin color, unfortunately), so the discussion was largely held by white people and a couple of newly-arrived international students who are new to the nuanced complexities of racial relations in America. The young white male leading the discussion was obviously unfamiliar with people not of his own race, and he said the magic words: “Well, I’m not a black person, so I don’t know how they feel.” And that did it for me.

Here’s the deal, folks. People are people. It’s not hard to imagine how they feel. They feel how you would feel about most things. They feel the same rage, helplessness, grief, loss, frustration, isolation, and injustice that any of us would feel when faced with discrimination, oppression, threat, and murder. Everyone loves their children. Everyone is devastated by their deaths. Everyone would come straight out of their skin if their child’s killer walked free. It shouldn’t take a stretch of the white imagination to recognize the black experience in this country. Granted, no one can be an expert on any direct life experience other than their own individual one, but we should be able to recognize when justice is done and when it isn’t. And we shouldn’t tolerate the latter regardless. And we shouldn’t have to focus on what a victim was wearing, whether the case is rape, assault, robbery, or murder. Saying the hoodie got Trayvon killed is no different than saying the low-cut, knee-length cotton sundress I’m wearing today would get me raped walking my dog around my neighborhood this evening. Clothing is a performance. Clothing is an excuse. It isn’t what makes criminals act out and hurt other people. Don’t get mad about the hoodie. Get mad about the person. Get mad about the national mindset that reduces the person to race or gender. Get mad about the truth that Trayvon is dead because he was young, black, and male, and THAT is what makes a person suspicious and somehow less than a person in America still. Today. In 2012. That is inexcusable.

I have to admit that my heart breaks every time I see Trayvon’s face in the media. In that child, I see in it the face of so many boys I know and love. It’s a sweet face. It’s a face I can’t help but think was the light of his family’s lives. I think about the friends he had. The friends he would have had. The people he would have loved. The people who would have loved him back. And how that’s not going to happen now. Why? Because he was young, black, and male, and in America something that we view as criminal. As threatening. As subhuman. As disposable. We need to fess up to that. We need to be honest with the fact that many of us cross the street when we see that coming, hoodie or no, and that’s not alright. It’s so not alright. That young black man is your neighbor. He’s someone’s son. Someone’s brother. Someone’s boyfriend. Someone’s friend. Someone’s nephew, lover, co-worker, classmate, pet owner, and a million other things that makes him human. His life, his experience is not different from your own, except that he has to live it as a young, black man in an America full of George Zimmermans. God, that has to be scary. Scary for him. Scary for his mother. Again, take a minute and imagine that. It shouldn’t be a stretch. I know I feel bad enough when people cross the street to avoid me with my big dog — and yes, that happens all the time. I know the small white girl isn’t the perceived threat. Well, I can’t tell you, but I can imagine what it must feel like to be seen as the threat yourself all the time, every day, 24/7. It’s got to feel awful. It’s got to color your life. It’s got to make you wish it would stop. And you know what? We need to fucking stop it already. Stop with the guns. Stop with the gated communities. Stop living in fear of the people who live down the street, walk down the street. Stop being afraid of ourselves. Shutting yourselves away and arming yourselves in fear. THAT, my friends, is what got Trayvon killed. When we take the time to know each other and what it’s like to be someone other than ourselves, it’s a whole lot harder to see someone else’s son as something you can shoot. It becomes a whole lot harder to pull that trigger.

I get the hoodie thing. I really do. It’s a brilliant protest icon. It’s a savvy rallying point. It’s something white people can put on and make them feel like they’re doing something. The semiotics of it is something we can all recognize. The sign and the signified work together beautifully in our brains that want to believe we can do something small that will wash our hands clean. But, if we learn anything from this case, if we are going to do Trayvon and the America that killed him any justice, we need to stop relying on what he was wearing to be our rallying cry for justice and start focusing on his humanity — and ours.

It seems simplistic and idealistic to say, but this case, this turning point, needs to be the last straw for us. We cannot let it go. The protest needs to be one of honesty and accountability. We need to not pretend like racism just showed up. Like it was just hiding somewhere in some Southern backwater and we’d forgotten all about it. We need to recognize that it’s here, all around us, everywhere, every day. It’s an experience every person of color lives with every minute of their lives in America. They don’t get to take a vacation from it. It’s their reality. “Post-racial American” is a myth that only exists in the mind of white people, because we are the only ones who can afford to believe in it. We (and by we, I mean EVERYBODY) need to stop treating people of different colors as “others.” We need to stand up for black men and stand against what we keep doing to them. We need to recognize our parts in it. We need to make the change meaningful and lasting.

When I did my first master’s degree, I wrote about an organization of women in the 1930s and 40s who ended lynching as an accepted practice in the South. It was called the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, and, with what they learned about community organizing from their roles in the preceding Commission on Interracial Cooperation, they worked to make it happen. Go ahead. Look it up. We don’t talk about them today, but we have them to thank for standing up for social justice and instituting social change because they dug in their teeth and they didn’t let go. It can happen, people. All it takes is saying, no. Enough. This man is a man. He is my brother, and I’m not having it anymore.

I am not Trayvon Martin, but Trayvon Martin was my brother. And I say enough. He was a man. He is our loss. And I’m not having it anymore.

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it’s not over

The last moments of AIDS activist David Kirby in 1990. credit: Therese Frare, LIFE Magazine

I really want this post to be intelligent and eloquent. To not be just one long string of the f-word (per usual). To be ruled by logos rather than the pathos brimming over from every pore of me. Given that last sentence, I think you can guess how this is probably going to go. Oh well, here’s nothing.

So, while reading The New Yorker yesterday, because, as a Ph.D. student, I have tons of time for leisure reading, I came across this article called The Changing AIDS Epidemic. It’s fair to say that my blood pressure has been through the roof ever since. I will say this once, and once only, people:

AIDS is still with us. It is not cured. It is not a Third World disease only impoverished people in Africa get. It is not over. People still die of AIDS here in the United States every day.

How do I know this? Because I feel the absence of the friend I lost to the disease last fall every day. I am still haunted by his decline. How he had more than 60 pounds fall from his already-slight frame in a matter of months. How his drugs made him sicker than the disease. How he became unable to work. How he stopped eating. Stopped talking. How he became pale and dry like a piece of chalk — quickly dehydrating and slowly bleeding internally from God knows where in his gut. How it took a toll on his partner’s health, and I started to watch him waste away from stress and worry and lack of sleep and a broken heart. How I helped to care for him in his last weeks as he died of a simple stomach flu. The norovirus. That’s what killed him. Something that usually puts most of us in bed for a few days with nausea and diarrhea killed him. No amount of Pedialyte and bed rest could save him. The doctors didn’t pay attention to what was happening. They didn’t care. They’d give him IV fluids and send him home with us. Ignored our concerns until his electrolytes became so unbalanced that his heart suddenly gave out in his bedroom at home one night. His partner called 911 and performed CPR until the paramedics came crashing in his door and dragged his spouse up the stairs and pounded on his poor, broken, empty body on the living room floor for almost 20 minutes before pronouncing him dead and walking out the door leaving him there for his loved ones to cover him and sit with him until the coroner came to pick up his body four hours later. His death left a hole that affects me and everyone else who loved him on a daily basis. I can’t even begin to do his memory justice here. Or describe the chaos left in his wake. Our lives are forever changed by his passing, and it didn’t have to happen.

It happened because we don’t talk about AIDS anymore in this country. We act like it’s some artifact that killed a bunch gay guys in the 80s and was somehow cured by Magic Johnson in the 90s or caught a plane to the Congo in 2000 and was never heard from by straight, white middle class America again. Bullshit. It doesn’t matter where you are — there are people in your community living with it every day…and some of them are dying.

What really killed my friend wasn’t AIDS so much as silence about it. Even in 2011, he wore it as a personal badge of shame. He wouldn’t openly admit to having it, for fear it would cost him his job. He was afraid it would still be seen as a “gay disease,” and so his health care suffered — partly because he was afraid to advocate for himself, partly because he was the victim of cut-rate managed care under his employer’s HMO, and partly because his doctors honestly didn’t give much of a crap about the two middle-aged gay men who went to them looking for help. That’s not the kind of health care everyone with AIDS gets, but it is the reality for others. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s still 1985 for some of us here in America, and I’m here to tell you that’s not ok.

To make things worse, I downloaded a copy of Outkast’s song “Roses” on Spotify earlier this week, not realizing it was some cleaned-up, uber-Walmart censored version. About a third of the words in the song were bleeped out because they were deemed offensive. Words like “bitch,” “prostitute,” and even “bra.” Because women’s foundation garments make them dirty whores like that. I was shocked to find that among the offensive words omitted from the song was “AIDS.” As in “AIDS test.” That’s right, a lyric about responsible sexual health was bleeped out of a song in 2012. Because AIDS is offensive. People with AIDS are offensive. Because it’s dirty gay disease you get from anal sex. If you don’t talk about it, no one can learn about it, and then no one will catch it. And those who do catch it can just slink off to the margins of society and feel they have to lie about who they their whole lives are even though they’re beautiful, loving, kind, gentle, contributing members of society who do important, undervalued, and thankless jobs like teach bilingual special education kindergarten classes and die quietly in their living rooms and no one can be the wiser. Whatever you do, keep whispering the word “AIDS” in the second decade of the 21st fucking century so no one ever gets their hands dirty. So no one ever learns anything. So ignorance can reign free. So we never cure the disease, because who cares about a bunch of black Africans and aging fags?

I play my friend’s funeral over and over again in my mind. How we all stood out at his graveside on that freezing early winter day. How his partner touched his casket, choking on his tears, and said, “Goodbye, my love,” before we steered him away to the car. How I’ve spent endless hours with him at the kitchen table going over finances trying figure out how he will make ends meet and keep a roof over his head on one meager income in the months since. How I held him in his driveway last week as he bawled his grief out, soaking the shoulder of my blouse after a long day of changing all their bank accounts to take his dead partner’s name off of them — feeling like he’d erased the love of his life forever in one afternoon. It’s cruel. It’s horrible. It’s all so very unnecessary. And I won’t tolerate it. I won’t tolerate the attitude that gay people don’t matter, don’t deserve health care. That sick people, regardless of gender or sexual orientation or race or class or disease, don’t deserve dignity and treatment. That people with AIDS aren’t people. That they don’t exist here in America anymore.

I won’t tolerate whispers about AIDS. I won’t tolerate a society where those who battle it feel they have to live in secret and shame. I won’t tolerate blaming people for being sick. I won’t tolerate us acting like it’s a piece of 80s nostalgia like a Michael J. Fox movie. I won’t tolerate the media perpetuating the idea that we’re somehow out of the woods and that it’s Africa’s problem now — just something we need to send a few million dollars overseas annually for in the name of humanitarian foreign aid to make us feel awesome and lily white and absolved. Because it’s right here, people. Right in front of us. The fact that you cried at Tom Hanks’ performance in Philadelphia 20 years ago isn’t enough. Not nearly. Wake the hell up and speak up. Don’t let the media or the right wing or politicians convince you otherwise and whisper this very real epidemic away.

For shame, I say. For shame.

(ETA: I am pleased to share with you that there are some bright spots out there, and I have the incredible honor of knowing someone who works at the Ponce de Leon Clinic in Atlanta, GA. I am proud to call him my friend.

Please, do a simple Google search for local charities and clinics in your area that support your neighbors living with AIDS to see how you can get involved. They always need help and can let you know how you can work to battle the deadly ignorance that still plagues our nation when it comes to this disease.)

fire woman

It’s taken me almost two weeks to write about this, mostly because that’s how long it’s taken for my blood to cool. And because it taught me something very frightening about myself.

The Saturday before last was a beautiful day. The sun was out. The weather was warm, and spring fever was in the air. I decided it would be a perfect afternoon for my beloved dog and me to pay a visit to our neighborhood dog park, which is something we do pretty much daily anyway. Little did we know that there would be twenty gazillion other people and dogs with the exact same idea at the exact same time. Well, I’m exaggerating, but not much. There were easily 100 people there with easily 100 dogs. I’d never seen it so busy. I even had trouble finding parking, which is unheard of. Granted, it’s a large park, but it was crowded. And it had a bad vibe. An angry and anxious vibe. Something about the dogs and people felt all amped up. I hadn’t seem most of them before, and since most of the dogs were not regulars, there was most definitely a socialization issue for many of them. Lots of snarling and snapping and growling that I don’t usually see. I figured the vibe was coming from the dogs. The people were mostly strangers that didn’t give me a super reassuring feeling either, but I certainly didn’t expect circumstances to turn all Bad Day At Black Rock on us while on a basic outing.

Now, a word about the park. Like I said, it’s pretty enormous as dog parks go. It’s in a neighborhood that used to be our city’s airport, and the park itself is a piece of property used to be a runway. In fact, there’s a small chunk of concrete in the center of it that tends to be the hub of activity as far as dog play and people socializing goes. Given the size of the place, I can lose sight of my dog pretty easily, even though he’s 130 pounds and covered in lots and lots of long white hair. It’s got bends in places and a small hill in the corner and some tucked away corners, so I tend to stay sort of close to him and keep track of what he’s doing, but I don’t hover. Nobody likes a helicopter parent. It’s also a big sandbox, which is perfect for running and rough play. The ground is soft, and nobody gets hurt. It’s also a great workout for a dog to run in sand. Everybody wins…normally.

So, because of the parking situation, I had to park on the east side of the park, rather than our usual spot to the south, so we entered by a different gate than usual. My dog was immediately disoriented by this. He has a routine where he starts marking the perimeter from a certain point, makes his rounds, and then gets a sip of water from the bowl and heads to the middle chuck of runway for some wrestling and running around with the other dogs — mostly regulars he’s come to regard as friends. He’s kind of stuck in a rut that way, but it seems to work for both of us. He has a checklist of things to do, and I can predict his behavior and know when we’re done and ready to go home. The fact that we came in a different way and got off on the wrong foot just sort of blew the whole routine out of the water. It was all downhill from there. He went into the far corner, did his business, did some marking and sniffing, and then suddenly made a bee line for the runway chunk in the center. I got hung up chatting with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, and I let my dog put some distance between us. I never lost sight of him, though.

My friend collected her dog, and we parted ways. I started for the center of the park to hang out and supervise my dog, who I could see was playing with another very large dog — a Tibetan mastiff — that I estimated to have 20-30 pounds on my dog and a massive Great Dane that clocked in at around 200 pounds. The Dane was also a park regular and one of my dog’s favorite playmates. I often stand around and chat with the man who brings him — an older, Latino gentleman who seemed friendly enough — while our boys wrestle. My dog always lights up when he sees the Dane, and that day was no exception. I was glad to see a familiar dog there for him to play with in the midst of that crazy crowd.

As I approached the gaggle in the middle, I saw the Dane’s “owner” (I hate that term — we don’t own our friends) chatting with the man who had brought the Tibetan while the three dogs played. As usual, my dog was in alpha mode and was really enjoying the big dog style of physicality with the other two giant breeds — lots of standing up and butting chests and pushing into each others’ sides and really going at it all Greco-Roman. It was all above board. No one was being aggressive. Problem is, the Dane, despite his size, was getting rolled by my large, but much smaller, dog. This is nothing new. As with most Danes, he’s sweet mutt, and really kind of a big pussy cat at heart. It’s not unusual for him to roll over and show his belly. He’s a submissive dog. However, there was another dog in the mix, too, and the smallest dog of the three was winning. The smallest dog was also the only dog there with a woman. I’m not sure what pushed the Dane’s man over the edge, but all of a sudden, I saw him reach down, grab my dog by the collar, and haul him up onto his hind legs by his throat — and then he started YELLING at him.

Oh. HELL. No.

I was completely floored. At first, I was so shocked that I couldn’t even move. I froze in my tracks to take in the scene, my mouth agape. It was at that moment that I saw the look in my dog’s eye. His eye was twice its normal size — so open I could see the white all around the brown iris that usually fills the socket. He was choking. He was terrified. And he was frantically searching the landscape for me — wondering where the hell I was and why I wasn’t over there putting a stop to his attacker.

The whole world turned white with rage. Not red. Not even black. White hot white.

Now, I am not a fast runner. You can’t even really call it running. Doing it on sand? Well, that would a fucking joke — normally. I have no idea what my feet were doing, but I closed the ground between me and my dog in record time. I mean, I fucking transported over there. One minute I was 100 yards off. The next minute I was in the face of a man with a good eight inches on me screaming at him from the top of my lungs — one hand white-knuckling the collar on my dog who was, thankfully, all four feet back on the ground, and the other balled into a fist I was employing every ounce of self-restraint to not use.

Letting this guy have it, it quickly became apparent that his issue was one of bruised ego and fragile masculinity caused by the fact that a smaller dog (and by extension, his woman) got the best of his giant metaphorical penis extension laying there in the sand like a little bitch. And I said as much. Loudly. Repeatedly. That’s right, I was standing in the middle of a crowd of 100 people yelling about this man’s bullshit machismo and inadequate genitalia as his mortified wife tried to pull him toward the car. I can’t even remember everything I said, I was so enraged, but I do know this: I may be small. I may be a woman. I may not be physically formidable, but dear sweet and fluffy Lord, do not give me a chance to use my words, because I will verbally castrate you and put your balls in my purse to take home and stomp on before I feed them to the rats in the alley in front of God and everyone and you will never forget it. Time and again I’m told by people I love that they will avoid a match of wits and words with me at all costs (translation: I’m a huge bitch), so imagine what I’m like when dealing with a stranger. I did not hold back. I told him that I wish my dog had turned his head and bitten his fucking face right off in one chomp. It would have served him right. I told him that I’d do unimaginable violence to him if I ever saw him lay his hand on my dog again — or even come within reach of him again. I called him every name in the book and told him to stay the hell away from me and mine. I also told him to get out of the dog park.

And he did.

I stood there heaving and panting and catching my breath. My head and face were on fire. I was ten shades of deep red as I checked my dog over and hugged and kissed on him in the aftermath. I had enough adrenaline pumping through my veins to launch me to Mars. And then, I looked around me to find that everyone in the park had backed off and left a 50-foot blast radius around me. And, they were standing there — staring. You could have heard a pin drop. It was like the scene in the old Spaghetti Westerns when the gunslingers face off on opposite ends of the street in the crappy little Gold Rush town, their fingers itching to draw their weapons under the hot, noonday sun as a lonely hawk shrieks overhead. There was no hawk, but there should have been. I looked around at everyone, announced that they, too, could all go fuck themselves, and informed them all that I was “out.” With that, I tightened my grip on my dog’s collar and marched us off to the car without so much as a glance back.

I got to my car, put us both inside, closed the door and just did everything I could to calm down. Then, I burst into tears of rage. I had truly lost it. Now, I know I have a temper. I can get my Irish up on a regular basis, if I let myself. This was off the charts, though. We’re talking homicidal. The slit-your-throat-and-watch-you-bleed variety of angry. I was just thankful I didn’t have anything in my hand that I could have used as a weapon. I got a real glimpse of what I might very well be capable of, and let me tell you, it wasn’t pretty. I think I now understand how people commit murder as a crime of passion, and man, my dog wasn’t even injured. Granted, he was being hurt, and he might have been hurt if I hadn’t have acted, but man, can I act. Thank God my words were all I had with me. I was just so furious that a man — a NEIGHBOR and fellow dog person — with whom I rub elbows several times a week could treat my companion that way. My sweet-natured, highly-sensitive, well-behaved companion I have taken great pains to not only train but to heal from severe anxiety issues. A creature who has made so much incredible progress in the past two and a half years with me. I take being a dog’s companion very seriously, and we work hard to be a couple of good citizens. And we are a fantastic pair. He’s my best friend and my co-pilot. He goes everywhere with me like a shadow. He’s the best dog ever. He wouldn’t harm a fly, and I’m very proud of that. I trust him with small dogs, cats, and infants, despite the fact that he was bred to take on and kill bears that threaten his flock. Yelling at his breed is just not done — doing so has severe emotional repercussions. He’s a good and trusting and friendly boy, and here was this man hurting him and shouting at him out of the blue. All I could think about was the damage being done in his head when I saw that look in his eye and how I wasn’t there to prevent it as I crossed that park to put a stop to the attack on my friend. Man, do not mess with me and mine. I will not have it. You hear? I will not be having that shit. Clearly. And clearly, I should never, ever own a firearm. Because I just might use it.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking, “Man, if you get that worked up about a dog at a dog park, don’t ever have kids and take them to the playground.” Yeah, I had the same thought. I called a friend and expressed as much. I was scared of myself. I’ve been scared of myself for days. Even my dog was scared of me. He wouldn’t get out of the car for hours after the incident, and I’m pretty sure my reaction was as much a part of that as the stranger danger attack. But, Jesus, his safety and security is my responsibility. He is a rescue. He’s had a hard life, and it is my job to make sure that it’s never, ever hard again — not for a minute — even if that means doing everything in my power to come between him and disaster. That’s what loyalty is about, right?

For the most part, I’m well adjusted and somewhat easy going — more so lately than ever — which is why I was so blown away that I went from zero to OMG I AM GOING TO RIP YOUR FUCKING THROAT OUT AND FEED IT TO YOUR ASS in no time flat. And I might have just been angry enough to do it. Sometimes I am so scary, I scare myself. And I really did scare the hell out of me. I didn’t show up at the park on a sunny day looking to go all Dark Phoenix on anyone, but hit the right trigger, and man, I’m gone. Total ballistic, take-no-prisoners Slavic fury, and I’m not in control when it happens. It’s primal and primitive and dark and explosive and dangerous and at the same time reassuring. Maybe I don’t want to control it . Maybe it can be useful. And maybe, just maybe, I’ve used it in the past to take care of more business than I care to admit to myself and others. Call it a case for anger management, but when it comes to my kin, man or beast, I will shoot first and ask no questions later. I have been processing that fact for days now. I am going to have to add it to the “One More Thing I Know About Me” list.

Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.