A Little Discomfort in Public Places

A Little Discomfort in Public Places December 11, 2016

I have lived in many different cultural contexts around the world. And because I frankly like adventure and new things I’ve voluntarily been places and done things that were, well, a little different. But you don’t grow unless you are uncomfortable. I’ll be 61 in a few days and I’d like for something to keep growing besides my ears and my nose.

Now when I bought tickets for the Turtle Creek Chorale’s Christmas performance I didn’t  expect that it would bring me into a space that was a little uncomfortable. Yes, I knew the group was largely made up of gay men. But I had friends (and a roommate) in grad school that were gay. The world of gay men was not per se anything new. And in at least some of my social circles gay couples are simply part of the group.

But the scene at the Dallas City Performance Hall was a little different. With a chorus of 200+ men and an audience of their friends and families the public space was clearly one where gay men could be themselves. And they were. Not in any particular stereotypical way. But in a dozen ways that are still outside the common place even for an arts event. Mostly, to be clear, in terms of the forms of causal physical contact that are usually observed only between men and women. Hand holding, momentary kisses, hugs, walking arm in arm. And yes, some gender bending takes on formal wear and facial hair.

Then the concert started. From a musical standpoint it was often great. and definitely entertaining. My friend in the choral had told me that they were looking for the range from laughter to tears, and they delivered. Which again is a little uncomfortable for me. When someone tells me about a movie or a book and says, “It was really moving.” or “I just couldn’t stop crying,” I run, not walk in the opposite direction. The only time I’ll watch romantic comedies is on overseas flights when I can lean back in my window seat in the dark so no one can see me.

The most emotional part of the concert is supposed to be the moment when the choir pays tribute to the more than 200 members who have passed away over the last three decades, many of them from complications arising from HIV/AIDS. But even though the name of one my friends scrolled across the screen behind the choir this was not the most moving part of the concert for me.

No, that came when the choir sang “Silver Bells.” Projected pictures of city streets “dressed in holiday style” surrounded the stage while on stage men dressed for winter created an animated tableau of Christmas in the public square. “Children laughing, people passing, meeting smile after smile.” Shoppers “rushing home with their treasures.” A couple bringing a child to see “Santa’s big scene.” Until above the bustle the chorus returns, with the silver bells.

We saw the world of the theatre lobby, suitably wrapped for cold weather, transported into the streets of Dallas, or Houston, or Austin, or New York. Or perhaps even Abilene or Lubbock or Tyler or Lufkin. We saw a vision of the public square in which gays would have a place. Where Christmas and its joys are for everyone, including all those men.

That brought tears to my eyes. I have lived in places where my people were made to feel unwelcome in the public realm. Indeed where they were being pushed slowly from it. They were pushed out because they were called “immigrants.” They were pushed out because of their skin color. They were pushed out because of their language. They were pushed out because of their religion (which is what we shared in common.) They were pushed out because of their political views. And mobility problems. And yes, they were pushed out because of their sexuality.

I have seen the hollowing out of public spaces and the poverty that it brings a nation. I have seen how it leads inevitably to the rise of autocrats and oligarchs. What the Turtle Creek Chorale brought alive was the hope at the heart of America: open public spaces where every citizen, as himself or herself, is not only accepted but welcome. Not just gay men, or all LGBTQ persons, but people of every religion, ethnicity, social class, education, and background.

That can be a little uncomfortable. It can be very uncomfortable if it outside your experience. But that discomfort is the physical therapy we need when we stretch our democratic muscles. It is the momentary pain of growing up into what our founders expected the United States to be. It is the medicine of freedom that cures the disease of bigotry. It is last gasp of oppression giving birth to liberty.

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