Performing at the Cringe Festival: Becoming an Ally
By Adam Katz
Early on in my relationship with my very first girlfriend, she told me about how she broke the exciting news to her friends that she was dating someone new: this guy who has all these interests: he likes to knit and listen to opera and draw and play piano, and… To which her friends responded: “Wait—are you sure he’s not… you know… you know?” This conversation didn’t take place at a Baptist potluck in South Carolina; it took place in Barnard College, and, because of that, if told that their line of questioning was homophobic, the women in question might have used a phrase like ‘statistical likelihood’ in place of the expected ‘just telling it like it is.’ Or they might have said: “Yeah, I suppose you’re right. I was just looking out for my friend.” But at the time it was just some funny anecdote to me. When I heard the story, I laughed. And if you had told me at the time that their comments were homophobic, I would likely have shrugged, and perhaps laughed again.
It took me a while to make the connection—as a grown-up no less— that the kind of thinking represented in that conversation–the same kind represented in numerous episodes of bullying for which I was both aggressor and object–had its roots in the same homophobia and misogyny that I now choose to ally myself against. The toxicity of those cultural norms affects all of us. No, the enormities that women and LGBTQ+ people are forced to confront were not visited on me directly, which is perhaps why I was slower to notice. Does a fish notice they are in water? If misogyny and homophobia can result in serious injuries, both physical and psychological, then it must be said the way they affected me is more like lead-poisoning, in that it was slow, easy to overlook, and, if left unchecked, would have rendered me stupid and unfeeling. I wish I had been exposed earlier to the doctors and educators who make exactly these points. Homophobia and misogyny might focus their trauma on the select few, but they have what video-gamers would call an area-of-effect that includes bystanders, both innocent and guilty, not excepting the homophobes themselves. My goal in writing this is not to elicit pity for my story; it’s to use what I have seen to discuss how homophobia reproduces itself. This is an important conversation to be having just now. I see and hear people talking about how we just have to wait until all the old folks die out and then racism, homophobia, et al., will be no more. I find this attitude disturbingly naive.
So about these “gay” hobbies I was into. Playing piano was something I did at home, so that wasn’t a big issue, and yet in my mind I would always compare it to other members of the rhythm section: guitar, drums, bass. The piano was clearly the geekiest of the lot. The other side of that coin was that my heart lifted every time I listend to someone playing my instrument, making the kind of music I wanted to make; and yet in my stomach there was always this pit: I’m not good enough, I’m not cool enough, I’ll never fit in. I could set my watch by it, so to speak.
The instrument I played in the school band was trumpet, which should be a manly instrument, because it’s associated with soldiers murdering each other with muskets on 18th century battlefields. But for some reason, it always felt dorky to me. I envied saxophone players. To my ears I always sounded piercing; they always sounded mellow. Anyone with half a musical ear would say: Duh! That’s the point! I think that no matter how much Miles Davis I listened to, I always felt dorky with my trumpet, whereas playing the saxophone just seemed so… cool. Why would that be? Was Hans Saxe, when he invented the saxophone, any cooler than the first shepherd to cut the tip off of a ram’s horn all those millennia ago? Is there a list of instruments that are cool and not cool, and more importantly, is this list not embarrassingly simpleminded? And yet. I recall that, all through middle school and high school, I wished I played saxophone or drums or guitar or bass, and my saving grace was that at least I did not play a girly instrument like flute. Even back then, I listened to Miles Davis or John Coltrane or Pink Floyd or Beethoven, not because of whether they were cool or not; I listened to them because they made me feel that joyful electricity; they attuned me to the cosmic dance in a way I would not have had the words to describe at age twelve or so. So I could listen to trumpet music or even flute music just fine without thinking: Is this man manly?, which, by the way, he may or may not be, and who cares. But for some reason I couldn’t make the leap from listening to playing without getting cold feet.
I don’t know if this is as frustrating to read as it is to write. Every sentence that appears on the page, I type it because it’s what happened, and then I read it over, and it makes me want to go back in time and slap some sense into my younger self. If I were actually able to go back in time, my experience as a teacher, an older brother, an uncle, etc., would take over and I would give the lil monster a much-needed hug. Then let him cry on my shoulder. I don’t think he cried much; at first he was afraid to, and eventually, he forgot how.
So the question that I still don’t have a particularly good answer for is: if I was so hung up on how dorky I secretly thought it was to play trumpet, why in the fuck did I switch to tuba? Don’t get me wrong. I grew to love the deep, mellow, occasionally romantic sound of the tuba. But I still remember the way my cheeks burned when I had to carry my instrument from the band-room to the auditorium for pre-concert-rehearsals. A grand total of about 50 feet, and I could barely manage it for fear someone would see me with my brazen albatross.
“Tubas are for fat kids with pimples.”
I don’t remember where I read or heard that, but to my delicate psyche, I might as well have seen it on as many billboards as Frozen III: the Frozening inevitably will have. It didn’t help that I was sensitive about my weight, and was pimpled like a plucked goose.
I remember being unwilling to sing out loud in music class as an eight-year-old—an eight year old!—because I was afraid of being thought of as a sissy. You know, like this guy or this guy or this guy. Sissies all, right? Right?
I remember being afraid to stand up to bullies in my school who tossed around homophobic epithets, lest I become tarred with the same brush. If I close my eyes, I can still see one such scene. I was walking through the door of the middle school that led to the athletic fields, which means it was either gym or recess. A few people were walking near me, one of whom was my friend. I’ll call him ‘Corey,’ since he may not want a guest spot in this particular vignette. Anyway, apropos of nothing, one person says: “Hey, Adam. Name someone who’s gay.” By a sense deeper than thought, I knew that I had to put someone in the way of his making fun of me. I had to name someone else. I said: “I don’t know. Corey probably.” I believe I thought that if I passed the buck to someone who was near me, then one of three things could happen: everyone would know I was joking, or we could handle this together, or, if worse came to worst, I did in fact think Corey was more of a geek than me, so he would make an effective scapegoat. The response was a hoot of laughter and “Oh my god! Is that true? Are you gay?” And Corey, bless him, just shrugged and said: “probably.”
The lesson I want to take from this episode is that little seeds grow big weeds. The shame surrounding that moment is so intense that it has lasted to this day, some 25 years later. But the discomfort I felt as a direct result of hurting someone else would be of little relevancy to this or any conversation, had I not mended my behavior. For I can readily see how Corey’s response to that bully was a lesson I took with me. I don’t have a linear memory of this sequence, but it was around this same age that I decided I was never again going to use a homophobic slur. That’s not an easy decision to make on Long Island, where we drink racism and homophobia with our carcinogenic groundwater. I am proud of lil Adam for making that decision, and I can attest that Corey’s micro-heroism was one of the seeds for that change–one of many. Good going, lil Corey.
So what happened then? I will say there was progress towards being an ally; but there were times when I lagged behind, or went backwards. In high school, working for the school newspaper, we regularly wrote and solicited articles on the topic of queer inclusion. I myself wrote one such article, dated about 2003, criticizing then-president George Bush for making gay marriage the center of his reelection campaign as a cynical ploy to distract from his disastrous economic and foreign policies. I mean. My article did not go on to prevent his reelection, but I am proud of that moment in my development as an ally and as an author. I hope someone read that article and thought that I would be a person they could talk to if they needed to. I was still loath to join the groups that made a direct impact on other people’s lives: the charitable clubs, the politically active clubs, and so on, at my high school. Again: those were clubs girls were involved in, and so I was unwilling or unable to take an interest. Sigh.
I’m not sure how give a more realistic, nor a more urgent, picture of the stakes, than to quote Freddie and Bowie: “love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the knife.” We who grow up in a culture of homophobia (and, not incidentally, of xenophobia, racism, et al., but that’s a whole other pile of stuff for a whole other pile of articles), cannot help but imbibe the ambient toxicity. Even if these fears and hatreds are motivated by seemingly positive values like decorum and tradition and not wanting to get bullied yourself, or by not wanting your child to get singled out for ridicule. Even if the person in question would never knowingly hurt or even exclude an LGBTQ+ person. Nor was the environment I am describing uniquely toxic. The solution; the way to purify the toxicity is to value love above other considerations, and to put that value into practice. That means that if a boy loves to play the flute, he gets to play the flute; and if a boy loves another boy, he gets to have those feelings. I credit my parents who encouraged my interests, however outlandish, and I credit my mother, who made it clear, despite so many messages to the contrary in pop culture and among my peers, that love is love.
We ask about the balance between free will and societal pressure, because of course both are involved. I can be an ally in a toxic environment. But every act of allyship one of us performs makes it easier for the next person to join us on that ever-widening platform. Andrew is right when he says “I don’t need to wait for you to give me the key.” I can take my rightful place as an ally without anyone’s permission. All I need to start is to feel that sinking feeling in my gut when I see an LGBTQ+ person getting bullied, or when I hear someone throw around a homophobic slur; next, I need to realize that experiencing that feeling and doing nothing is worse than having the homophobic slurs turned on me. And the rush of satisfaction from helping someone in need, from attending a Pride parade (Covid willing), from affirming in speech or print the idea that love is love, is greater than the pleasure of fitting in with people whose views are not even particularly worthy of respect.
“Love is love” doesn’t only mean that the love between or among queer people is as valid as the love between two straight (or straight-presenting) people. It also means that you cannot deny one type of love and yet still hope to nourish another as fully as it deserves.
I made the conscious decision to love people, and to embrace as fully valid the love other people feel for each other, and I have felt my heart and imagination grow to accommodate that decision. I am now able to cry while listening to my favorite songs without feeling ashamed. I am able to hug my male friends without having to thump them on the back like a frantic parent trying to dislodge a grape from a child’s windpipe. And I am able to give and receive help on matters ranging from the trivial to the catastrophic. And it turns out life is more pleasant for me and for the people around me if I do the work of actively rooting out negativity from your psyche.
A last word on the cloying positivity of these last few paragraphs: I have had a sarcastic, pessimistic outlook for as long as I can remember. I lack faith in most groups larger than 20, and particularly in politicians and corporations of all shapes and stripes. The difference between now and a few years ago, and all the more so between now and when I was an adolescent, is that back then, I was quite negative in my personal relationships as well. I was much quicker to make jokes at others’ expense and much slower to reach out for help, to offer praise, to express my affection for friend and family alike. My embrace of allyship is part of a larger desire/attempt to conquer, or at least rein in, my depression and anxiety and relentless negativity. My steps in this direction were tentative at first. I worried that if my mood changed, I would not know myself anymore. Well I’m happy (or at least not totally miserable) to report that I am just as dour and pessimistic as ever; the difference is that there is an island of positivity in the middle, and the people I care about are welcome to join me there. Well. It’s more like the weather on that island is cloudy with a chance of positivity.
But dammit, I’m trying.