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.)

i hate people when they’re not polite

This is what the state of our union should look like.

A study in contrasts, or why the Susan G. Komen Foundation can go screw itself, and why I will be working to re-elect President Obama this fall. 

Talking to my sister-in-law last night, she mentioned that Facebook is too much for her right now. “It’s all breast cancer and Planned Parenthood.” She’s right. You open your news feed right now, and it’s a wall of pink and rage over the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to pull its grant funding for breast cancer screening from Planned Parenthood. People are mad, and rightly so. It’s intense. It’s emotional. It’s good to see people wake the hell up and care about something.

I have to admit, I’ve had a personal issue with the whole Komen Foundation brand for a while now. The pink thing has always bugged me. It’s just so girlie and patronizing. I hate how it genders. I hate that it serves as a “brand” for females as a whole when people are not products. It doesn’t speak for me. I’ve never been a pink girl (although, most of my sporting equipment is lavender, for some non-premeditated reason). I’ve never really wanted to be around girls who were. If I were suddenly diagnosed with breast cancer, I wouldn’t want to have to regress to wearing that color as my mandatory badge of honor. I have to agree with author Barbara Ehrenreich that the whole pink ribbon marketing that the Komen Foundation has injected into the battle against breast cancer not only sets back feminism as it infantalizes women as a whole, but it is especially damaging those who are in greatest need of strength as they fight the fight of (and for) their lives. Why make women into girls at the point in time when they’re facing their mortality and losing a part of their body that defines their mature femininity? It never does ring true with me, and it doesn’t rob the cancer boogey man of its malignancy no matter how rosy a shade they give it

The whole Komen Foundation is just too glossy, too slick, too corporate for my taste, too. I shouldn’t be surprised that they were in the pockets of politicians, especially given that their founder, Nancy Brinker, served in George W. Bush’s administration. I never really saw the work they did or any tangible gains being made. Breast cancer and those it strikes aren’t a commodity to be sold, and yet they’ve been selling them for decades now. I think the women who actually battle, survive, and yes, die from breast cancer get lost in the message like the trees for the forest no matter what kind of show the Foundation makes of trotting out pink-clad survivors to do their little turn on the runway and wave their little hats in front of the crowd at the start of every Race for the Cure (a trademarked term, by the way) or at the occasional NFL halftime during the month of October.

This is difficult for me to say given that I actually lost an old and dear childhood friend to breast cancer late last year. I grew up with Ronda Martz Lopretto. We went to junior high and high school together. We both worked at the local movie theater our senior year. I still see her face on the ticket girl every time I approach a box office. I liked her immensely. She was a sweet and bright and kind and funny and gentle and beautiful soul with big blue-grey eyes and a voluminous head of gorgeous hair. Her smile lit up the room. She was a loving and loved wife and mother. She was my age when she died and spent her 30s battling breast cancer only to lose the fight before she turned 40. I miss her, and I’m devastated to know that she no longer walks this planet with me. It’s cruel and unfair and bullshit. She should be here still. Her friends poured out their grief by gathering together to honor her memory and strike a blow against her killer at the Race for the Cure last fall. They formed a team and raised money and ran and walked to forget the pain of the sister they had lost just weeks before. It gave them something to do to make them feel like they made a difference, an annual ritual that made breast cancer’s victims and their loved ones feel like they could take action against an invisible foe. That ritual was designed to take away the victim stigma. When the Komen Foundation politicized the fight against breast cancer this week by attacking Planned Parenthood, an organization that should be their close ally in the cause for women’s health, they robbed women like Ronda’s friends of something to believe in and an constructive outlet for their grief. They betrayed and victimized and dis-empowered and diminished women everywhere. They insulted and abandoned us, and we don’t like being made to feel like dupes or second class, baby-making, abortion-having citizens. They did a disservice to the memory of the woman for which the foundation is named. Poor Susan G. Komen. She doesn’t deserve to have her name maligned so. Her sister should be ashamed of herself.

Mostly, though, they woke a sleeping giant. Instead of feeling victimized and disenfranchised by the Komen Foundation’s baffling move, they took up arms in social media and the traditional press to make their enraged voices heard, and the Foundation listened — too little, too late. Bye bye now. It’s a public relations disaster that any moron could have predicted for them. And can I just say that Nancy Brinker’s face freaks me out? Seriously. Eat something, woman. You look like the Crypt Keeper. Really, though, my own personal pettiness is neither here nor there. The fact of the matter is that the Komen Foundation helped to remind women and the men behind them of their mass influence this week. Taking away an outlet to strike out against cancer means that the hate and anger is now redirected and focused on the Komen Foundation with laser precision. Power to the people has meant the end of the Race for the Cure and the pink hats and t-shirts and water bottles and all the branding that hasn’t done a damn thing to cure breast cancer over the past 20 years. The Komen Foundation has met its match, and it’s called Facebook. Welcome to the 21st century, bitches. Lesson the first: Don’t fuck with your fan base. They are the hand that feeds you.

As an aside, I would like to mention that I myself have been a benefactor of Planned Parenthood’s services, and no, they’re not my abortion provider. When I was working on my first graduate degree back in the early 1990s, I did not have insurance, and the campus health center did not provide annual well woman exams, STD testing, or birth control. Planned Parenthood to the rescue. Thank you, PP. I still support you financially to this day because of it, because I want the frank, respectful services you provide to women that say you believe we have brains in our heads and the ability to think and advocate for ourselves to be there for other women who need you. I also want you to be there for me, should I need breast cancer screening in the future. Women need options. I am heartened to see that Komen’s loss has parlayed into Planned Parenthood’s gain in spades. Good on you, America.

This week’s development around this issue has been fast and furious and couched in the larger issue of increasing animosity and disregard for our fellow man in this country. Those in power seem to have nothing but the deepest disdain for those weaker and more in need of help than they, to say nothing of the general vitriol that characterizes the campaign for the GOP nomination in this election cycle and their sickening displays of nastiness and hate that we have been calling as “debates” but come across as more of a an attempt to replicate a WWE Smackdown match. The debates are really nothing more than a rhetorical pillow fight among a confederacy of dunces. No battle of wits there.  I will admit to rubbernecking more than one multi-car pile-up with casualties in my time, though, so I know more about the debates than I wish I did. Every glimpse I get of them robs me of a little piece of my soul I’ll never get back. This pitiful display has offered up a political counterpart to Komen’s snafu this week by sacrificing Republican front-runner Mitt Romney on the altar of current affairs with his statement that he doesn’t care about the very poor in our country. Like Komen, he tried to retract and backpedal on this statement, but the horse has already left the barn. We all now know he’s a bootstrapping asshole (well, we already knew that) who sees no value in our nation’s “have nots.” Being poor or a woman or in need of any help at all from something like Planned Parenthood in this country makes you less than human in the eyes of the power elites. Worse yet, they’re ok with saying so. Being a hegemonic jerk is in vogue. They think there will be no repercussions. No comeuppance for them from the great unwashed. It’s somehow acceptable and politically chic to be a hater. It’s ok to be dismissive and rude to your fellow American. What the hell is that all about?

And this is why I have the now-famous photo of President Obama embracing Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at last month’s State of the Union Address at the top of this blog post. Not only is Giffords a hero — an example of a strong woman who battled adversity to keep her life and thrive despite daunting odds and an icon of the survivor myth that the Komen Foundation has been selling us (note: she’s not in pink) — but she’s a symbol of class, courage, and quiet strength in the face of insanity and hatred in this country. She is a pillar of forgiveness who has put her ego aside to serve her state and her nation. She’s what we should all emulate. And she’s a woman. A powerful woman. She and the leader of the free world are locked in a tender, loving, honest, and touchingly poignant embrace in that picture. They are both so strong and vulnerable — and strong in their vulnerability — in that photograph. He obviously loves and cares about her and is glad that she is alive and well for him to put his arms around. She is happy to be held and so melts into his arms and goes so far as to relax and rest her head on his shoulder like a child. Time stops around them in this intimate moment between two people who seem to have no regard for the fact that they’re in a room full of people that the whole world is watching. The President has important business to attend to, but not so important that he cannot stop to properly greet and show affection toward his friend and fellow public servant. It is a moment that give earnest and unmistakable insight into their character.

The photograph captures a moment of love and compassion and civility and proper priorities that our national discourse is sorely lacking at the moment. Those are my values, and, to be honest, as silly as it sounds, it reminded me of why I voted for Obama in 2008 and why I will be voting for him this November. In that instant, he won my vote back. Call me emotional, but that’s all it took. Actions speak louder than words; rhetoric and politics be damned. That little moment, that pause in the crowd reminded me that our President is an advocate for social justice and human who really and truly gives a damn about his fellow man and our condition as a whole. The least among us is his brother. He treats us with respect, including women. We need more of that. I need more of that. He might not be Superman or the Second Coming, but he’s kryptonite for hate and greed and selfishness, and how can I not choose that? I don’t recall much of the speech he made that night, but his embrace of Giffords, and hers of him, was a political watershed moment for me. I will continue to believe in and choose a love and hope that says “yes” to humanity and the social condition, and I hope as many Americans as possible will wake up and choose it with me. We might not solve all of our problems that way, but, like we did this week, we can send the message that the growing culture of meanness and intolerance in the country will not be tolerated.