Chances to Learn Empathy–or Bigotry

Chances to Learn Empathy–or Bigotry September 18, 2012

Yesterday morning I seem to have badly sprained (but thankfully didn’t fracture or break) my right ankle. Yesterday afternoon and evening it was excruciatingly painful to walk most of the times I tried. Today I hobbled over to the Urgent Care center eight blocks away and left with crutches and this comfortable air cast. Walking without the crutches is still pretty painful from the lower inside corner of my foot shooting pain to the middle and front of the bone. While I am not good at all yet walking on the crutches–I don’t have the arm strength or the coordination to have them do all the work–I use them in a makeshift way that at least minimizes the pressure on my foot, even as it was stepping on hard pavement wearing only a sock.

The upside is that after seeing the x-rays, the doctor was very optimistic that with just a couple days not walking and keeping my foot in the air cast I will be able to heal. It had better be healed soon because traveling to Connecticut, New Jersey, and Long Island via public transportation, as I regularly do for work, is going to be really hard with a hobble or on crutches for days or weeks on end. I am hoping that by canceling classes I have to travel long distances to get to both tomorrow and possibly Thursday, I will be able to heal sooner and be healthy enough for the rest of the semester.

Whenever I have to deal with a pain I’ve never had before–this is the first time I’ve had a serious injury to my legs, feet, etc.–I try conscientiously to use the experience to feel some identification and solidarity with people who more chronically endure that pain which I am feeling (hopefully) only temporarily.

Today I thought about my friend Al Stefanelli, who spends a lot of his life in a wheelchair. And I thought I would share with you a story of cruelty he endured from a church group this summer for daring to disregard gender norms and carry a purse to conveniently carry the numerous items he needs with him at all times. As I explained almost a year ago, it is quite possible for many anti-gay religious people who think homosexuality is sinful to do so without hatred in their hearts (though functionally this makes little difference when their actions and their ideas hurt gays so much anyway). But sometimes it really is, if not hatred, at least cruelty and a bigoted disgust that leads them to say the bullying and false things they routinely do about gays. Al’s story of being confused for gay and being mistreated and having his disability used against him on that account illustrates both the bigotry itself and shows the socialization process by which it happens–among the church crowd explicitly in this case.

I am happily playing Skee-Ball [at Chucky Cheese], sitting in my wheelchair with my purse on my lap, along with a digital camera (I was taking pictures of my niece and nephew), and a little plastic cup full of tokens – when the church van pulls in. I knew it was a church van, even though I couldn’t read the writing on it (I was below the window sill level), as out poured about a dozen youth that looked to be about eight or ten years old, three older teens that looked to be about 15 or so, and a pastor that eerily resembled Reverend Kane from the Poltergeist movies.

One of the younger kids wanders over toward where I was sitting and stops dead in his tracks. He is staring at me. At first, I just chalked it up to the fact that young kids tend to stare at people in wheelchairs. That fact has been the catalyst to some very insightful conversations with children and their parents about disabilities, etc. This was not one of those times, apparently.

The kid runs away and comes back with another little boy. They are standing there, giggling. They wander off after a few minutes, but the original one returned a short while later with one of the older teens, a girl who looked to be about fifteen. This got my attention, particularly when she bent down and whispered into the young boy’s ear while making the international sign for “the gay,” which consists of making a limp wrist.

Al goes on to relate several more rounds of gawking from the church kids:

Couple minutes later, I see the older boy out of the corner of my eye. He had come back with Reverend Kane in tow. The boy whispered something to the Pastor and made a “patting” gesture on his side, which I can only guess as the international sign for “purse.” However, I was at an odd angle and was in no mood to put on a show, and continued feeding tokens to the machine. About a minute later, I see Reverend Kane peeking from behind a free-standing game, but from my other side – apparently seeking a better view of the offending accessory. He scowled, and wandered off.

Parting Shot…

While taking a picture of my little nephew riding a roller-coaster simulator, the older boy approaches me from behind, leans down and whispers into my ear,

“Nice purse, faggot. No wonder you’re crippled.“

Apparently he’d lingered back specifically to tell me this, because the rest of the group had already left the building, loaded into their van and was waiting at the curb.

Al makes the lesson explicit:

Bigotry is learned. The smaller children were probably just curious because in their world men never carry a purse. I doubt they had the moxie to think it anything other than odd or childishly amusing, however they did know enough to “report it.” No, it was the older teens who appeared to have had their bigotry training already well under way, and the parting shot I got from the older boy only solidified my disdain for religious indoctrination.

Read more.

Al and I also participated in a terrific video chat about whether people are “better off godless” earlier this month.

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