The Uncomfortableness

You know that thing where you wake up with the whiff of a hangover and you’re feeling a bit fragile and grumpy but have to start your secret civilian job in the local cinema at 9am so you get your shit together and suddenly it’s 9.05am and your manager is casually warning you that they’ve had complaints about the cinema’s decision to screen a toddlers’ film that morning called ‘Hopster Pride’ and that there may be other complaints so beware? You know that? No, neither did I until a few days ago. Having now lived through this lukewarm mess, let me tell you all about it.

So, first up, ‘Hopster Pride’ is a series of very short films made specifically for toddlers. Sweet little films where, for example, Goldilocks goes to visit her friends, Daddy Bear and Daddy Bear and their two baby bears. They’re lovely little films that gently introduce toddlers to the idea that the heterosexual template that still permeates every fucking crooked corner of our society isn’t all that there is on the menu. These films are gentle and subtle and a bloody beacon.
“People are complaining in North London?” I asked.
“Yeah, I was surprised too,” my manager offered, “so just beware that there may be other parents complaining.” With that parting shot ringing in my ears, I pootled off to set up the cafe for the day and then swiftly proceeded to have a meltdown.

Why does it have to fall on me to educate the straights? Where are the enlightened straights in my time of need? Why can’t they do the heavy lifting for a change? I don’t know how to have these conversations. I don’t want to. It shouldn’t be my responsibility. If push comes to shove I know that I’ll just end up lashing out and that’ll be of no use to anyone…
And then…Right, this is a growth opportunity. For all parties. I can do this.

I calmed myself down and thought about how I would approach the hypothetical conversation from a more kind and empathetic standpoint. I’d really enter into a “dialogue.” When my colleague arrived at 9:45am we role-played the scenario. She came at me all guns blazing and with my first response I took the wind out of her sails. I was ready.

Shortly after, the parents started arriving. Lovely, lovely parents who all seemed to know that the film was a Pride movie and seemed far more interested in their children’s wandering hands or leaky bladders than the trauma of having to watch Goldilocks deliver letters to homosexual bears (of the four pawed variety). These parents thoroughly warmed my cockles. As indeed did the church. Every Sunday, a church hires out one of the smaller screens to host their weekly service. They’re a lovely lot and were in a very friendly mood this particular day. At one point, a lady who was new to the church came and asked me which way to go to find her peeps. I pointed her in the direction of Screen 4 and marvelled at her funky frameless glasses. As she walked away, I couldn’t help but feel a wee bit perkier. Some people have that effect on others; they’re natural uplifters, like sunbeams. Something about this lady’s energy was CLEAN. We only exchanged a few words but I could tell that she was good people. Annika, I decided she was called. A good, clean Scandinavian name. She was dressed all in white. Very Scandinavian. Very clean.

About fifteen minutes later, a parent came storming out, “Excuse me, I think it’s really offensive -” I stiffened. I was ready. Here we go. I can do this. My manager was there and interrupted before the parent could finish or before I could even get a word out. D’oh! I was ready for this. Shut up, manager! This ain’t your fight; it’s mine! This is my conversation to have. I’d sure changed my tune. But as it turns out, the lady wasn’t here to complain about the film; she wanted to complain about the church who were handing out flyers outside the Pride screening; flyers protesting the screening of the Pride film.

Manager returns minutes later with the culprits who were actually nothing at all to do with the church. I repeat, they were nothing at all to do with the church. They were three middle-aged ladies who had come on their own and their ring leader was none other than…Annika. Lovely, clean, sunbeam Annika. You think you know someone.

The three Supremes were swiftly evicted. Outside on the pavement, they unfurled their banner which rightly declared that women’s bodies are their own. So much confusion in the state of Denmark right now. Our security guard (a gentle giant who I adore) told them they couldn’t do this. I actually think they could in the eyes of the law but that’s by the by. Still, fair credit, they swiftly took photos of each other with the banner then kindly cocked off probably to tweet the photos to their 12 followers. As I stood at the window, reading their banner before they left, I felt that I should go outside and talk to them. I didn’t. I didn’t know what to say. The other week on the date with the racist I didn’t call him out on his shit ‘cos I didn’t know what to say. Besides, I was leaving in 5 minutes. That was how I justified my failure to myself that day. I don’t know what my excuse was this day. I’ll never forget a dear friend telling me that when you lose a parent you quickly learn who your close friends are: they’re the ones who are willing to wade into the awkward; the ones who are willing to have those uncomfortable conversations. It seems that the world is crying out for awkward conversations at the moment. It’s the only way we’ll get any better. Removing these women from the vicinity of the little ones was absolutely the right call. Banning them, without conversation seems a wasted opportunity. It’s merely sending the virus elsewhere and then turning one’s back. It’s absolutely the most comfortable thing to do but maybe not the most responsible.

The whole thing shook me up. I kept having to put a lid on the tears. And then the film finished and all the parents came out. Several of them complained about the three Supremes. I kept suppressing the urge to say, “I’m gay; I agree with you.” One mother was disappointed she hadn’t been able to confront them because she really wanted to say that she didn’t want her children to be exposed to THEM. Probably for the best, thought I. The church came and expressed their disgust at the Supremes as well. Then someone else remarked, “Honestly, I don’t get it; all these films are doing is asking people to be tolerant.” I thought to myself that there’s probably not a gay person alive who wants to be tolerated. Loved, welcomed, included? Yes. Tolerated? Not so much. I kept quiet. Time and place ‘n all.

So, there we have it. If you want to know what the shape of bigotry looks like; it looks like Annika. Lovely Annika who I still maintain is probably a delightful sunbeam of a person. A sunbeam who has been conditioned by society to believe what she believes. And because (I’m guessing) she’s a fundamentally good person she believes that she has to be the change that she wants to see in the world. And so, out of the goodness of her heart, she puts on her funky glasses, rolls out her banner, goes to her local cinema and lies to the man at the counter so she can do her bit to protect the young children of this world. There’s a lot of good in that (and a lot of danger).

The racist the other week? I’m not racist but… A thoroughly lovely guy. Kind, generous, polite, thoughtful and unable to contemplate being attracted to half the planet’s population because of the colour of their skin. He doesn’t think he’s racist because he’s a lovely guy who’s only too aware that racism is not a good life choice. But he is racist no matter how many black friends he may have and no matter how unfavourably he may view racism. He’s racist because he’s a product of a racist world. Annika is homophobic because she’s the product of a homophobic world. We’re all a little bit racist; we’re all a little bit homophobic; we’re all riddled with our own colours of bigotry. How could we grow up, part of this world, and not be? We’ve been conditioned from birth. It’s what we do with this conditioning that counts. If you can’t recognise that you have bigotry in you you probably need to brighten up OR give me the number of your therapist/guru/Buddha. Annika, for all of her loveliness, is ignorant; ignorant of people’s stories. But worse than that, she’s wilfully ignorant. When a parent tried to tell her that children have committed suicide because of not being able to see themselves reflected in the world she replied, “That’s a lie.” WILFUL ignorance. And this is how the virus spreads. Her ignorance was offered an alternative. She slammed the door shut. This is the true face of bigotry. And I can’t help feeling horribly complicit in it by my refusal to engage with her and her cohorts.

When I finished my shift I saw the flyer that the Supremes had been handing out. Apparently one of the short films told the true story of a young girl called Stella who just wanted to be a boy called Stuart. The flyer said “Teaching children that they can change sex is a dangerous lie and results in some young children taking life-changing medication, going on to have unnecessary and mutilating irreversible surgeries, and being medicalised for life.” Suddenly I felt like some sort of fraud. Because this wasn’t what I’d originally thought. This was specifically a transgender issue. Except that teaching children that they can change sex isn’t a dangerous lie because like it or not, Annika, sex-change operations are a part of the world. I doubt that anyone tries to encourage a child to have a sex change operation but you wouldn’t know that, Annika, because…ignorance. You also wouldn’t know about the countless young Stellas who want to be Stuarts, or the countless Stuarts who want to be Stellas; you wouldn’t know about them because…ignorance. You blindly set off out of the goodness of your beautiful kind heart to help protect the children of the world without knowing the full story because…wilful ignorance.

When I came home, I got a bit teary. I actually wanted to call my mum but decided against it as I didn’t want to upset her. The burden of not wanting to upset your parents is a tough one at times. So I just sat with it and let it stew inside me all evening.
To be clear: nothing happened to me, I wasn’t on the receiving end of any negativity or prejudice, I’m very in touch with my feelings and able to analyse what’s going on and what’s triggering me, and I’m intelligent enough to work out why people might be behaving in a way that doesn’t agree with me and YET I was still profoundly shaken by this whole affair. Imagine actually being on the receiving end of this kind of behaviour. Imagine being a child; a child who hasn’t learned how to process such things, subjected to this day in-day out. Imagine that and then tell me that child suicide is a lie, Annika!

After my most recent solo show, a well-intentioned woman told me how the thing she loved about my show was how refreshing it was. Specifically, it was nice to see an openly gay man on stage not banging on about being gay but actually taking about other things. Again, I took the easy route but really I was thinking how I wanted to say that I’m thoroughly bored of seeing plays where straight characters bang on about straight things; how I’m sick of listening to songs in which men drone on about loving women; how I’m sick of switching on my TV or going to the cinema and seeing stories of men and women falling in love and shagging and marrying and divorcing (except I’m not really sick of those stories if they’re told well). I looked at the well-intentioned woman, smiled and said thank you. But that doesn’t really get us anywhere, does it? It’s a cop out. I bet Harvey Milk didn’t smile and say thank you. Do you think Martin Luther King smiled and said thank you? These dudes wouldn’t have shied away from the awkward conversations. They would have actually stepped out of their comfort zones. I wasn’t going to write about all this…‘cos why? Why bother? Why come on here and depress you? Well, the thing is, I didn’t have the awkward conversation the other day. I chickened out. I checked out. So this is the next best thing. Yes, this is probably a lovely little echo chamber but still, I’m calling out. If there’s anyone there…can we start having the awkward conversations, please? Please!
Thesis over. Oh, and to be clear, that was a rhetorical question.

The picture at the top of this post is of the incredible Desmond Napoles. Read his brilliant mother’s words here:

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