There are so, SO many blogs and posts out there about the downward slide of the discourse all around the country since this administration came into power and enabled people to openly voice their racism and xenophobia. But I’m not going to write one of those.
Warning: this will be a bit of a ramble.
One of our newfound delights is an HGTV show called “Home Town.” It’s based in Laurel, Mississippi and features a young couple named Erin and Ben Napier, who remodel homes for people looking to move up or settle in Laurel. More about that later.
I have always been out at work, at least with my coworkers. In addition to my gayness not feeling like something I need to be ashamed of or try to hide, it always seemed to me that if I was out and open, that takes away the power of others to try and use it against me, if anyone was so inclined. There’ve been a couple of negative reactions over the last 30 years, but very few.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a patient, a Vietnam era veteran, who has been seeing me for back and hip pain. He was in a talkative mood on this particular day. He and his wife were going to be traveling to an upcoming wedding of a son of one of his platoon members, and he was looking forward to seeing his buddy. He started telling me about this dream he’d just started having for the first time in over fifty years—a very detailed dream of saying goodbye to his family when he got drafted and had to report, of boot camp, and then his deployment to Vietnam via Midway and Guam. The whole thing seemed to have played like a movie in his head.
While in Vietnam, he had a few hand-to-hand encounters, and did kill some of the enemy who had infiltrated a communications station he was working in. And then, a platoon member lost it and began shooting up their barracks, killing a few men who were in there. My patient, when he got to the barracks, saw where a few of the bullets had ripped into his empty mattress—the bed he might have been sleeping in if the attack had happened a few hours earlier or later. He even has one of those bullets in his office.
And suddenly, he was sobbing, unable to speak.
All I could do was be there with him, assuring him when he kept apologizing that it was perfectly all right. I offered him some toilet paper (it’s softer than the government-issued tissues around here) to dry his eyes and blow his nose. I let him know we had three mental health providers in the clinic, if he felt he wanted to speak with someone. He declined that day, but said he’d think about it.
Yesterday, he came in for his next (and last) visit with me. Turns out the wedding of his buddy’s son was to his fiancé, not his fiancée. My patient had never been to a same-sex wedding and said he found it very moving.
And I found that very moving. This 74 year-old man, instead of being angry or disgusted or repulsed by the exchange of vows between these two men who loved each other, listened to the vows they’d written and made to each other, in front of, not only their friends and family, but friends of family. Just like any other wedding.
It was so tempting to share with him that my wife and I got legally married on our 20th anniversary. I think he would have been open to that and would have accepted it without any issues, but I really needed to touch base with him about his flashbacks from our previous visit, and I didn’t want to distract from that.
I firmly believe that the only way to change hearts and minds about LGBQ people is for them to know us, for us to be out and open. But it’s different when I’m contemplating crossing that line with patients.
I have done that, many times. I met two of our dearest friends, M&M, by opening up to them when I was treating each of them. But in each situation, I always have to step back and question whether it feels okay.
Of course, I don’t always need to come out. Like the day one patient called me a fucking dyke. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the hate in his eyes.
We fear what we don’t know. I do believe that. But we also disdain what we don’t know because we don’t value it. It doesn’t mean anything to us, so… who cares? And disdain is just one short step away from hatred.
Which brings me back to Mississippi, and Erin and Ben Napier and their TV show.
I’ve never given Mississippi a thought. It ranks 49th or 50th in nearly every statistical category: lifespan, health indicators, per capita income. It has a long history of rampant racism. I’ve never had any desire to live there or to visit. I disdain Mississippi because I don’t know it. And there may be parts of that state that live up to every preconceived notion I have of it. Especially the parts with lots of red MAGA hats. But not Laurel.
As Erin and Ben squire folks around Laurel, showing them houses to possibly remodel into their dream homes, they’ve worked with all kinds of folks: the older black woman who owns a local diner, a young lesbian couple (one of whom grew up in Laurel), the woman who headed up the town’s revitalization campaign. But they’ve also had a couple from Canada who have decided to retire there, and an older man who chose to move there from Belize, along with an actor and his wife from California who decided to help remodel some more modest homes and provide them as lease-to-own for lower income folks.
What Erin and Ben wanted to do was to introduce people to the charm to be found in a small town. But the other thing they’ve done, whether they intended to or not, was to bring all kinds of different people to Laurel. I listen to the strong southern accents, and I know my first inclination would have been to think all of those carpenters and painters and floor refinishers were uneducated, racist, homophobic, xenophobic bigots. And maybe they are off-camera. I don’t know.
What I do know is that I have been just as guilty of assuming the worst of them and everyone else filling in the vast spaces in the middle of the country. Which makes me realize that if I am willing to assume the worst of people based solely on where they live, I am part of what is tearing this country apart.
But by bringing all these disparate people together in one small town, the Napiers are helping to create tolerance. When you live among people who are different from you, you learn acceptance and tolerance, because you see those folks aren’t that different after all, not in the ways that matter.
The challenges are only mounting: the coronavirus outbreak; the tanking of the markets and their possible impact on the economy as a whole; several more months of soul-sucking political campaigns before November gets here.
No matter how disgusted I am by the behavior of people sporting MAGA hats, the hooting and hollering at the rallies, I have to believe they do not represent everyone in their community. If I lose that hope, well… I don’t want to be that person. I won’t let them make me that person.
This time will not last forever, if we only remember to have courage and be kind. (okay, I borrowed that from Cinderella – the Lily James version).