Monday, November 03, 2008

Coming Out American

I have always subscribed to the belief that you are not truly out-of-the-closet until you have been the only gay person amongst a crowd of heterosexuals; it’s one thing to be gay with your gay friends – it’s a whole other shebang to be the gay. The gay has to decide whether to bring a partner or a friend of the opposite sex to a work event, has to field a plethora of logistical questions about sex, and is even sometimes metamorphosed into the face of universal gayness via boosterish friends and family members.

I have grown to embrace my level of authority when it comes to representing the entire gay population on occasion, but my stance on being an American is not quite as solid. It may sound somewhat preposterous, but I believe that one cannot truly understand what it means to be an American until they have been the lone emissary. It’s one thing to be an American in America, it’s another to carry that passport abroad.

I was in the Panama Canal when I first heard the news that California had legalized gay marriage. It seemed an appropriate setting – a controversial test of American strength and conviction. I spent eight months traveling around the world with Semester at Sea, living on a ship and helping students enhance their studies within a global context. I had already traveled to a majority of the countries we were exploring, but this was the first time I felt my identity come into serious question -- not whether or not I would chose to be out as gay, but whether or not I was comfortable being out as an American.

Annie was a 31 year-old Indian chemist I met while held up in a train station outside of Delhi. She spoke 6 languages, was raising 3 children, and had worked her own way through college despite the setbacks of having been born into a lower caste, yet her ultimate dream was to move to the USA in search of greater prosperity – which had already begun with the adoption of a new first name. As we sat for 4 hours beneath a blinking fluorescent light, I felt the inherent awkwardness of being the physical manifestation of her presumed greener grass -- I hold the privilege of having conversations with people all around the world despite my inexcusable monolingualism, I can choose to apply for and obtain a visa to almost anywhere, anytime (with the unfortunate exception of Cuba), and I was the one who eventually boarded a first class train while she and her crying children waited behind for second.

To her, it was no surprise that my ideal of the greener grass had a lot more to do with India than a fondness of hot dogs or the Pledge of Allegiance. Her country had recently launched a branded campaign in lure of the spiritual tourist, and my thirst for all things communal and non-materialistic seemed to fit that mold. We were at a place of mutual and somewhat idealistic envy until she finally asked why I wasn’t married, she herself having been the happy product of an arranged, 10-year relationship. I hesitated a moment, then simply responded that my country did not allow me to. Never had I seen a look of hope diminish so swiftly.

A few months later as I sailed up the Atlantic, I was just about to take a bite of my blueberry bagel when Archbishop Desmond Tutu politely asked if he could join me. Curious to hear about my overall experience, I told him about the Brazilian luck ribbons I had been handing out to friends like Annie, and how I had even given one to a man I met in Cape Town. “It’s funny,” I reminisced, “here I was passing these three wishes on to an African man who had just seen the beach we were sitting on only a few years before (post-Apartheid), and when I eluded to one of my wishes being the ability for gays in the US to have equal rights, he was completely dumbfounded.” Water, power, and food are not always stable in South Africa, but whether or not gays should be allowed to marry is off the table -- it’s legal.

When I arrived back home and learned of Proposition 8, I felt a cold shiver of humility run up my spine. I desperately want to believe that there is something beyond consumerism that unites us in this giant melting pot we call the United States. We may not all be into World Soccer nor share a belief that Showgirls is the greatest movie of all time, but if there’s common ground we all share as Americans, please let it be our ability to live our lives as free individuals. Let us be responsible for ourselves. Let us take that leap of “till death do us part” if we so choose, and let us be financially and legally obligated to it. And while we say “I do,” let us further pump more money back into the fledgling economy – for if there is one more inappropriate generalization I can make – gay weddings have a penchant for extravagance.

The archbishop had wisely responded at the conclusion of our breakfast, “God is crying to see people wasting even more time and resources on hate and discrimination.” Coming from the man who ended Apartheid, I see this as hope. Please vote no on Proposition 8. Not because you’re gay, straight, liberal or conservative. Because you’re an American, and so am I.


Patrick Cavan Brown said...

Blog: Beautiful!

Showgirls: Not so much... :)

Truth: "I believe that one cannot truly understand what it means to be an American until they have been the lone emissary."

I miss you... "no" it is.

Taylor said...

This is an amazing blog post. Great job! From someone who has done a small amount of traveling outside the United States, I find your thoughts eye-opening and I will take them with me when I travel again outside the U.S.

I'm not sure about Showgirls though.