That Gay Bar on 2nd and Broadway

Pictures of shirtless men distract me.
Especially that blond with the blue eyes and the loose jeans and the tattoo of the sun on his left forearm, staring at me as he leans over the rusted railing of some bridge in some distant, unknown city.
Twelve minutes and thirteen seconds.
That’s how long it takes for him to appear on the flat screen above me.
The sky behind him gray and dull.
Bland, out-of-focus buildings in the background.
I look back down.
My hands sit next to an empty beer glass and a notebook and a pen almost out of ink.
I pick up the pen, bouncing it on the edge of the bar.
I think carefully.
I write.
The pen transcribes the events of last night:

I took a walk along the Platte.
Night.
No moon. Correction—It was there, but it wasn’t reflecting any sunlight.
A dark blemish on the surface of space.
I came across some kids trying to drown a cat.
A black cat with narrow, yellow eyes.
I kicked a few of the young hoodlums into the cold water.
The others fled.
Sneakers slapping the pavement with laughter and smoldering cigarette butts.
The animal clawed at my arms.
Hissing loudly.
The small body shaking violently.
Its eyes closed.
I took my shirt off and wrapped it gently.
Holding it close to give it warmth.
I spoke softly.
It just cried continually.
Inconsolable.
I never thought a cat could cry.
Cry with such conviction.
Was it somehow aware?
Did it know how close it was to death?
I walked back quickly.
Air cold on the shoulders and chest.
Goosebumps.
I heard a glass bottle break in the distance.
A few bicyclers passed by.
Their flashing strobes carved my shadow into the sidewalk.
The cat wheezed and whined and sneezed.
Black hair stuck to the cotton of my shirt.
Broken glass crunched under my feet.
Then, I was home.
An apartment below ground with cages for windows.
They call it garden level.
I ran a shallow bath of warm water.
I unwrapped the animal, and it did not shake.
It did not cry.
It did not move.
So I let the water run in the tub and it overflowed as I held the animal to my chest.
I did not weep.
Because death is just a matter of cruel timing.
It’s a…

“It’s a fag bar,” I hear.
My pen stops.
I look up.
My glass has been replaced with a full beer.
I look higher.
It’s been twelve minutes thirteen seconds.
The blond on the bridge is staring at me again.
I turn my head.
There’s some guy standing at the entrance.
More like swaggering.
Wearing a bright orange Broncos jersey.
Pointing his swaggering finger at us.
“You’re sick motherfuckers and…and you’re all going to hell.”
The bouncer pushes him out.
A few people laugh at him.
The bartender pours some more.
I look back down at my pad of paper.

It’s a…

I tap my pen on the bar.
Someone shouts out for a round of whiskey.
The music in the bar gets louder.
It’s now that I want to weep.
To weep silently because words are so easily forgotten.
Because the cat was so easy to bury.
Because I was so easily distracted.
I try to write.
I try to finish.
But the pen is out of ink.

The F-Word

A few weeks ago someone came into my workplace and called me a fag. Now, I’ve been called a fag (or the longer, more sophisticated variation: faggot) on a number of occasions. I’ve usually been able to laugh it off or just walk away. This time was different. I was tired. I was stressed. I hadn’t had my caffeine-saturated Mountain Dew yet.

I could feel my face getting red, and those veins in my forehead sticking out. I yelled back. He yelled louder. So, I yelled louder. It turned into a pointless shouting match. No one really won. He left when I called the cops, and I couldn’t help but think he got the best of me—with a word. A single word. Fag. Three letters. One syllable. It means cigarette in England.

Dan Savage once had his readers address him as “Dear Faggot” in his advice column. The idea is that the word gets its power not from the speaker, but from the receiver. Reclaim the hate speech!  I agree. But easier said than done. Try turning the other cheek when you are in a bad mood, or before your daily caffeine fix. And try telling that to the kid who’s called fag or faggot everyday at school. He can’t just call the cops. We should banish the word, like we did that other notorious f-word: French! (Remember Freedom Fries?)

But censorship solves nothing. It’s just shouting at hate speech with silence. That night, after I downed a few Mountain Dews, I reflected on how I use f-words (fag, faggot, and fuck) extensively throughout my novel. There is such a thing as being too PC, after all. There is also such a thing as overreacting to haters, homophobes, or to people who write letters to Dan Savage. Fag is like any other word—in that it is nuanced depending on intent and context. Consider that the next time you hear the word fag—or any hate speech. More importantly, before you react, ask yourself if you’ve had your caffeine yet.

Duality

I love imagining what it would be like to live on other planets.  What if the Orion Nebula filled the sky each night—a giant specter spreading its gossamer wings over our heads?  Imagine if rings of fragmented rock tens of thousands of miles wide encircled the planet, rings that could be clearly seen during the day splitting the sky in half, ice crystals in the rings refracting the light in a beautiful spectrum of colors.  Or what if our planet orbited two stars?  How would that affect our mythos?  Our philosophies?  Our religions?  How would we define ourselves differently?

The latter cosmic phenomenon we don’t have to imagine anymore.  The Kepler probe discovered a planet (called Kepler-16b) that is part of a binary solar system.  This is the first empirical proof of a planetary body orbiting two stars.  Though only a gas giant (which makes watching a dual sunset from its surface a bit difficult), 16b brings up a host of possibilities—with intriguing implications.  Civilizations use physical environment to define their societies.  The Egyptians worshiped the sun god Ra.  On planet 16b, Ra would have a younger brother.  They would battle daily for supremacy of the sky, one occasionally eclipsing the other.  Moral lessons would perhaps be drawn from their cosmic duel:  “Though the two brothers fought throughout the day, in the evening they both came to rest on the same horizon.”  Monotheism would perhaps be an entirely alien concept (pun intended).
There are biological implications as well.  Life forms on that planet would probably be less sensitive to light, and be able to endure our hottest days of the year without any complaint.  And if a planet found itself orbiting between the two stars, there would be no night.  Eyes would never evolve to see in the dark (except for cave dwelling animals or creatures that lived underwater).

This is all speculation, of course.  But it emphasizes how physical circumstances play a large role in how not only our species evolves, but how our philosophies and religions evolve.  If I follow that line of logic long enough, I could argue that physical circumstances define purpose.  Meaning is a construct created as our experiences wind their way through physical circumstances.  The objects that surround us are more than just inanimate objects (what Jean-Paul Sartre called the thing-in-itself) existing solely outside of our consciousness.  They become part of us as we interact with them.  Existence is a duality between the mind and external objects.
I could stare at the concept images of 16b all day, imagining how different my life and our civilization would be if Earth orbited two stars.  I’m cynical enough to declare that our more malevolent behaviors would never be truncated by a change in scenery.  But I’m optimistic enough to concede that possibilities, future possibilities of individuals and of societies, can be created and destroyed by mere objects shifting our perspectives and playing a dynamic part in how we define ourselves.

Check out the NASA article about Kepler-16b: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/kepler/news/kepler-16b.html

Business As Usual

     6,482: Number of days DADT was in effect.  14,000: Approximate number of service members discharged under DADT.  363,000,000:  The price tag in dollars of DADT.

     0:  The number of service members from now on who must perpetuate a lie to keep from being discharged from the military.

I’ve often wondered how different my experience in the Air Force would have been without Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  I wouldn’t have needed to lie about who I am.  I would have been able to confide in my friends—the people my life depended on in a combat situation.  Some people would have treated me differently, I’m sure.    But one thing that would not have changed was my work.  Being gay had nothing to do with how well I did my job.  Which, of course, is the point of all this.  Someone coming out as a homosexual should have the same impact as someone stating their religious preference.  These characteristics are simply part of who we are, but they play no part in our ability to carry out a mission.
Of course, there is still much work to be done: The ban on transgenders from serving, military benefits for non-married domestic partners (gay or straight) of service members, legal recourse against discrimination and harassment, and discharge upgrades.  But the first step has been taken.  The numbers above will no longer increase.  Servicemembers can now get back to work.

Irony

Hill Air Force Base, Utah.   1999.

It was my first duty station and a small group of us were sitting in a break room situated behind the squadron’s radio maintenance workshop.  The room was actually the back of a large vehicle bay where we parked and loaded our 5-ton cargo trucks and deuces (2.5-ton cargo trucks).  Surrounded by radio equipment, rolls of coaxial cables, and boxes of supplies, one of the airmen sat in his chair and complained about the way people treated him.  He was a Mormon, and he was tired of being told he was part of a cult.  The airman leaned back in his chair and lamented about how certain people stereotype his particular faith.  He said he was weary of the ignorance of individuals who called him crazy or associated him with strange rituals that had nothing to do with the Mormon religion.

I quietly agreed.  I had been taught by teachers at my private Christian high school that Mormonism (along with any other religion that deviated from the Baptist church) was a cult.  Even as a self-proclaimed Christian at the time, that kind of polarized thinking didn’t sit well with me.  So that day, in an effort not to be one of those ignorant individuals, I started a dialogue with Mormon service members in our radio workshop (there were several others).

A few weeks later, the same airman complained about homosexuals (a subject that didn’t come up very often in the workshop).  He said he didn’t want anything to do with gays.  He added that if he ever met one, he’d want to stay as far away as possible.

When I heard this, I was still in the closet.  Buried deep in the closet.  I’m talking about sealed-beneath-the-floor-boards-of-the-closet deep.  It was more my religious background than anything else that kept me in there.  But it was statements from my Mormon friend, along with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” that kept that closet door locked at all times.

So, I said nothing.  Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one who saw the blatant irony in his statements.  Other airman criticized him for being so dismissive.  A few even mentioned they had gay friends and that they deserved the same respect you would give any individual.  Encouragingly, this perspective hasn’t changed.  According to the DoD report on the repeal of DADT, 29.6 percent of military personnel believe service members coming out will have a negative, or more than negative, effect on unit cohesion.

But that’s still 29.6 percent.  There are still individuals in the military who are ignorant or outright hateful to homosexuals.  Coming out will be difficult or next to impossible for some service members.  But on September 20th, the closet door will be kicked down.  And had DADT not existed when I was in the Air Force, I would have politely replied to my Mormon friend that I’m not to be generalized either.  No one is – gay or straight, Mormon or agnostic.  In the end, the only thing that really matters in the military is the mission – and watching your buddy’s back while he or she watches yours.