English Final

Identifying the Pine Stripped Chameleon

Is the reward of individuality actually a punishment?

Keith Covington

(I) Life as a Reindeer

Rudolph the red nose reindeer had a very shiny nose, and if you ever saw him, you could even say it glows. All of the other reindeers used to shout and call him names, they wouldn’t let, poor, Rudolph play in any reindeer games…’

As a child growing up in the urban bustle of New York City, that song was one I heard time and time again. Always a sign of the holiday season, the song marked the start of the present giving and the spoiling of the youngest child, the sun’s heat faded, the days didn’t last as long and the snow came down more continuously and dreams of Turkeys, Reindeers and overweight men in red costumes became fragments of reality, even if they were only for hours. When I was young though I didn’t think that the song was anymore than a merry melody, I would have never have guessed it was a premonition to the whole of my teenage and large chunk of my adult life.

High School eluded me until I was three years in, my freshman year was by far the worse. High School was the exact opposite of my years in Junior High, it was elementary school magnified. I wasn’t ‘Black Enough’ from the start; people saw me as some kind of weird creature because I wasn’t wearing my pants baggy or somehow asserting some kind of violence to confirm my status to the other students. I came to a critical point, I know was absolutely sure I was gay and either I was going to be myself or try my best to fit in to the social norm of the school so I could survive the remaining years.

I wasn’t the first though, many people in history have had to make the choice to either be who they really were or to continue to live their lives as what was expected of them. The most famous cases are people like Rose Parks who knew she was important enough to sit in the front of the bus to Bayard Rustin who, whilst trying to motivate the civil rights movement, was openly gay and largely unaccepted by fellow African Americans even though he was fighting for equal rights for them and others. History has shown that their can be benefits to being ‘who you are’ but, sometimes it really isn’t the best choice for great actors like Rock Hudson who, only in his later years in life, came out the closet so that he may continue to have a career in Hollywood without the ‘shame’ of being known as a homosexual. The choice isn’t always clear, it isn’t always simple enough to “be yourself” and to be “true to yourself” fairytale lives like Rudolph the red nose reindeer can live lives as outcast who are accepted but, in the real world an outcast can be something that is potentially impossible to recover from.

Lionel Stander an actor who helped fund the Screen Actors Guild and raised money for the Spanish Loyalist during the ‘Red Scare’ (a period in time where the fear of communism lead to Americans to act in very conservative ways against anyone even marginally suspected to be a communist, coincidentally the original motive for the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was blamed on the fact that the assassin thought he was a communist) that fund raising lead Hollywood to Blacklist him, essentially shutting down any opportunity for work in Hollywood, at the time Stander’s agent Abe Lastvogal wasn’t concern that the blacklisting would last too long and assured him that the situation would ‘Blow Over’ (Lawrence Van Gelder, NewYorkTimes.com), but it took nearly three decades for Stander to overcome the sentence. “Abe was right. But it took 24 years. Between 1939 and 1963 — when my friend Tony Richardson put me in ‘The Loved One’ — I didn’t work for a major studio, except when somebody with courage, like Preston Sturges, decided to use me.” (Lawrence Van Gelder, NewYorkTimes.com) Stander explained, he later insist that he had some ties with the communist party but never actually joined but, after almost three decades of being out of work what did it matter? That’s just one example of many actors blacklisted at that time because of their political affiliations, never mind their sexual orientation or race or sex. The road to individuality isn’t always clean and clear, a lot of the time it can be life changing in a negative way, and knowing this is the prospect of being “yourself” worth the potential side effects?

(II) Self Protection vs. Self Direction

People may argue that the point of life is to try to maximize one’s happiness as much as humanly possible before they die and if that is true then self protection is a large part of that. Being safe and free from as much danger is usually something that keeps people happy. Individuality is defined as “the interests of the individual as distinguished from the interests of the community” in this case the community is any larger order of people you associate with be it school, work, church or family. So if one is distinguishing their interest from that of the community aren’t they in turn putting themselves at risk of alienation or ostracization and then as a result possible excommunication and ridicule? If this is true then individuality is just some misguided idea that pleases the ego but, in turn does nothing to really help the person. Usually, people just want to fit in to society, no grand purpose or motives, at different intervals of life people feel its more important not to stick out and, instead, blend in to continue a comfortable ‘normal life’. “We practice our French on the cab driver: I explain to him why we’ve come to Paris. He warns us that we shouldn’t tell strangers we’re Jewish. It is only a few weeks since the terrorist attack on Goldenberg’s restaurant, and no one knows when the next anti-Semitic attack may come. I reply that if I hadn’t said we were Jewish, we wouldn’t have found out he was a Jew as well, adding that in New York the names of taxi drivers are posted inside the cabs. He says he wouldn’t like that at all.” (Boyarin, The New Humanities Reader,87) Jonathan Boyarin writes in ‘Waiting for a Jew,’ an essay in which Boyarin recounts his journey to discover the Jewish culture he didn’t get a chance to grow up with,. It shows that fear of persecution, this time under the pain of physical harm, sometimes can trump the idea of expressing your individuality.

Sometimes individuality can overcome fear and start a new order of thinking. In 1999 the Orange Board, a Los Angeles School district, voted to prohibit the forming and meeting of a Gay Straight Alliance at a suburban school. The board cited the state education code which defined how sex education and other similar ideas should be taught. Similarly in some mid-western states G.S.A.’s were found to be legal under the law decreeing that all clubs have the right to meet in school, as retaliation some schools opted to ban all clubs from meeting to keep the G.S.A.’s from ever meeting. Many of the staff and parents used the idea that clubs are used for promoting and recruiting members, which in turn must mean promoting Homosexuality and attempting to recruit members to homosexuality. Eventually though all the cases turned over to the side of the G.S.A.’s the law in the California case allowed for the group to meet by changing the law on what noncurricular groups could and could not do, with a few provisions such as they can’t discuss ‘sexual conduct’ and aren’t allowed to make announcements on the loudspeakers like the other groups.

My first year in High School started similarly. Either I was going to be like the cab driver in Boyarin’s essay or I was going fight like the GSA’s in California, and after that I was either going to have some acceptance or be run out of the school. I chose the latter and came out to everyone I knew, with the exception of family, in a matter of two days, in two days and a half everyone knew.  When I came out I was the only out gay student in the entire school, I wanted individuality and I got it seven fold. The backlash was immediate but not severe, a few odd comments here and there, some name calling and the occasional threat every now and then was a lot better than I was expecting but, the battle wasn’t won. My second year of High School was almost identical as the first, the kids were louder and meaner this time around and now I was starting to see the ‘Revenge Effects’, (a concept coined by Edward Tenner in which he describes that the advances in technology often come back in negative ways such as accidents and overdependence on flawed systems*), of my doings. In my second year a few more people came out publicly and at first it would seem the heat would be taken off of me a little and it was but, a new problem arose. These new people coming out were so radically different then I, I had literally nothing in common with them except sex and sexuality, they were also becoming popular. The backlash I had seemed to have skipped over them, suddenly the gay and bisexual kids were part of the A-team except me. Initially, I admit, I was jealous, I wanted people to accept me and not give me the cold shoulder. The new out kids were also stereotypical, this problem would turn out to be the most difficult to battle, and their image was eclipsing mine. Not only was I fighting to just be how I was, I was know fighting to not be what I was. The idea of the limp wrist and the high voice was brow beating me everyday, the other gay male in my school had totally succumbed to it and his popularity was broadcasting that that was the proper way to go about living. I had no interest in that though and now I felt too individualized, I was too gay for the intolerant kids and not gay enough for everyone else, I didn’t know who was going to accept me or if any one was.

(III) Loss of Me

Unfortunately this lead to an odd way of thinking for me, I began to go to a center for Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered and Gay youth, here I was immersed in gay culture, too much to swallow at once, I was suddenly flooded with ‘my people’s’ way of life. But now this was all I knew, I learned a lot from the Center, but I took too much in as a fact. The sudden explosion of ‘gay’ was too much to handle, I suddenly felt the need to be grossly gay. I wanted to be accepted by ‘my people’ so bad, I felt they were all I had in the world. I already wasn’t black enough to fit in with the black people and that wasn’t going to change because I was undeniably gay and those two don’t mix, the least I could do was try to fit in to my gay family so that I can have some kind of community. For six months I lost sight of myself, I was this thing perpetrating to be interested in the lifestyle of the ‘typical homosexual’ and I wasn’t even fitting in at school, I was the talk of the town for sure but, it wasn’t because people accepted me. I had lost the individuality, accept the terms of conformity and was still not receiving the benefits from society.

In the midst of my cultural stupor a voice called out to me and served (and continues to) as a guide to bring Keith back to Keith. The first time I heard The Pretenders, an English rock group formed in the early 80’s (eleven years before my birth) I knew I had stumbled onto something different. There was a brash and terrible demeanor to the lead singers, Chrissie Hynde, voice, In ways it was so right and simultaneously so wrong, but one thing it never was was apologetic. That struck a chord in me (no pun intended) this was a woman fronting a rock band, talking about the trials and tribulations of living in a flawed world, interacting with flawed people and living as a flawed person without once saying ‘I’m sorry for how I feel’ and willing to place the blame on both the people and herself. No one had ever spoken to me this way before, to be unapologetic you had to be right all the time. It had to be ‘right’ that I was gay, I had to ‘right’ about how I felt but, the Pretenders gave me something new to chew on: that it was fine to be unapologetic even when you were wrong. I’m a human being, I make mistakes and I accept that as who I am, I strive to do better but, until I get there I have to live with this person now. It was as if I was smacked across the head with common sense I suddenly got what I was looking for.

(IV) The Readjusted Mind

I went back to the same high school for the third year willing to try this new approach in thinking, and to my surprise it worked. More than ever kids were coming out and they were all falling in similar patterns and social circles, all of which didn’t come close to mine. I didn’t care though I liked what I liked and found interest in things deeper than the new shoes coming out. My life suddenly became interested in the state of the world both human and non-human, I could see and understands things my peers couldn’t. I knew that I could be ‘gay’ without having to be the mainstreamed packaged kind. The war was never fought, that was the key! There was no war to begin with, fighting with people to be who I was was a daft idea to begin with. For me individuality was all that mattered, the acceptance into society would come with what you could provide. I found that I enjoyed my own personal time more than I did trying to understand why people like the same thing as everyone else, so in the end it didn’t matter if I was accepted or not, as long as I accepted myself and was comfortable. That’s not to say that every know and then I don’t wish that I was more in tune with popular culture but, in the end what’s that going to do for me when I don’t really find any interest in it?

My last year of college was not as good as the third but, only because of stress. By then I was defined and I was the gay person people came to for help with their problems, be it academic or whatever else. I showed a wisdom in my acceptance of myself that other people seemed to notice and occasionally admire. My homosexuality gave me an advanced knowledge in sexual education and I was able to use that to teach my Health class for my teacher (who was an English teacher thrown into a new subject without proper training) and in return she allowed me to forego her class a few times to teach about Bayard Rustin and the unjust stigma against homosexuals throughout history to my peers and open a few eyes.

(V) Please Read the Fine Print

Individuality isn’t a road I would suggest for everyone its difficult and full of diverging paths that could lead to anyplace. The last part of the song I started with goes: ‘…Then one foggy Christmas eve Santa came to say: ‘Rudolph with your nose so bright won’t guide my sleigh tonight’. Then all the other reindeers shouted out with glee ‘Rudolph the red nose reindeer you’ll go down in history!” and while that’s a happy ending that doesn’t mean that the ends will justify the means for everyone. The trials of being an individual in a group society is not for everyone, it’s akin to buying a fantastic product with the finest of fine print. You have to make sure you’re willing to go through everything that comes with being an individual and sometimes, for some people that may be too much. The most important thing to understand is that being part of a group is fine if that’s your comfort zone and the same goes for being an individual, what isn’t acceptable is the limbo between figuring them out. Making the decision to be a part of one or the other is hard but, ultimately, a necessary thing to do to continue on with life.

–         Lawrence Van Gelder The New York Times, newyorktimes.com Lionel Stander Dies at 86; Actor who defied Blacklist http://www.nytimes.com/1994/12/02/obituaries/lionel-stander-dies-at-86-actor-who-defied-blacklist.html?scp=5&sq=blacklisted%20actors&st=cse)

–         Jonathan Boyarin ‘Waiting for a Jew’ (archived in The New Humanities Reader 3rd edition, 87)

–         * Edward Tenner Another Look Back, Another Look Ahead (archived in The New Humanities Reader 3rd edition, 717)

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