I’m dreaming that I’m organizing a nude photoshoot of over 100 dancers in the courtyard of a Bavarian cottage. There’s a French woman there assisting me who’s modeled for me before. She’s very hard and matter of fact. One of the new models who shows up for the shoot of 100 dancers asks the French woman what she did with the photo she was in after she was done. “I tore it up,” she says with a cigarette-toting matter of factness that I have only seen in foreign films. And yet she was still there to help make more happen. Adversity, for her, was an essential part of the process of making art.
My mind starts to become lucid, but I try and force myself back asleep so I don’t get up any earlier than 3am, when I have to. I took a formidable pill to knock myself out at 9 so that my upcoming 3 day shoot in Birmingham could proceed with a rested and high-functioning photographer. I finally open my eyes out of exasperation and look at the clock. 5:15am. The time of my flight precisely. Adversity, today, is part of the process of making art.
I spend the morning at the airport, waiting on a sequence of standbys to Dallas before finally biting the bullet and buying a seat that gets me there that day. I invested too much in this trip to not make it today.
Birmingham is a place that I was sure would only be a concept in my lifetime. I never imagined a reason that I would go. My only previous trip to Alabama was when I was a young child and visited my two evil stepsisters and that seems like a dream of its own. But here I am, getting a rental car and driving downtown within 8 minutes. I’m staying with a metal sculptor and wetplate photographer in a loft bed in his workspace. It’s the kind of place I dream about to work from, where you can fuck things up and there’s nothing to fuss about. There’s an intense cross-breeze from the industrial fan to stave off the murderous summer heat. I drop my things a head out to meet Max, the dancer I am there working with.
Max and I met through a mutual friend and decided to embark on a photo project together. I scheduled 3 days for the trip and in the course of planning, decided that rather than work for 3 days on one shoot, I would attempt a comprehensive portrait of a person who I am just meeting in person for the first time.
It is a bitter pill to swallow about human nature, that we are slow to empathize until something relates directly to us. The terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 has held weight in my life experience as an example of this. The church was noted in Birmingham as being in a prominent neighborhood and also as a meeting place for organization in the civil rights movement. The bomb that killed four little girls, I have come to understand, was a turning point for much of white America, in that they were on and supporting the wrong side of history. The notion that these were innocent children, and not somehow less deserving black humans who had been murdered because of their skin color, was enough to awaken a morality that had previously been weak or absent in some people.
I have the afternoon to see the city a little bit and take photographs. I appreciate the members of this church in that they maintain this building and it remains as a reminder for us of what happened there…what happens so easily in our country. It’s my first stop of the day and the heat is intense. Pulling into the parking lot, I feel like I’m floating above the surface, like in the shallow end of a hot swimming pool. It’s quiet. The sun takes up all the space, as a heavy balloon in my ear drums. It’s hard to see anything past the building for the brightness of the sky.
As I step around the corner, a sickly hand bursts through my feet, up my legs and torso and out through my face. It happens in an instant. The loving embrace of thousands of people, standing with unfathomable bravery, asking for basic human rights in a stand of non-violent dignity, radiates from this place. Our heroic sisters and brothers were teaching us how to be human and they were met with the ugly, selfish cowardice of 15 sticks of dynamite in the control of a hateful human being. It is horrible to feel.
There’s one other woman there, a tourist like me, looking at the building. We smile at each other and I want to know what she’s thinking. And I want to know it because she’s black. The action of this bombing is a part of my white heritage and I want to somehow say with my presence, “I am not one of those people.” I want so desperately for the truth not to be that this level of hate still exists and probably always will. It is a fumbly, white-liberal moment and I feel inept and useless.
Days later, I am taking the day off in San Antonio with my partner Bryce, and he tells me that 49 gay Americans have been murdered by a terrorist in Orlando, Florida. My first reaction is to the repetitiveness of it. Gun massacre has become commonplace in America. Is this really happening again? I don’t immediately notice its escalation as the largest body count in an act like this since the massacre of Native American Indians. And it takes me several hours to really feel the weight from this being targeted at one specific group. And that I am a member of that group.
And then came the dark cloud of losing faith…though I try to live a life of good and to contribute as much as, no to give MORE than my neighbors. To prove whether consciously or not that I am an American just like they are and that I care about what a great country this is…only to be shown that no, you can’t be a part of this. It is a sick feeling that I cannot compare to anything else.
More that twenty years ago, when I was living in Houston and dancing with Houston Ballet, I was leaving a club to drive my very drunk friend Phillip home. A guy walked up behind us from an empty lot to ask for a light. I knew immediately from the tone of his voice what was up and before I could even turn around, a brick hit me squarely in the back. As I fell forward, Phillip was punched in the face and fell to the ground. He was bleeding everywhere. There was a group of about 10 dudes, all holding weapons, standing waiting. I grabbed Phillip and made him run and I found a bathroom to take care of his bleeding. In the early 90’s we were so un-represented as gay people that we didn’t even think to call the police until much later. Once Phillip was home with his partner, I called and when the cops eventually arrived, they used the excuse to search the apartment and look for drugs.
Later that evening, the same group of guys beat and stabbed Paul Broussard to death in that empty lot. A death that was partially caused by the slowness of emergency response. This was early in the days of the AIDS epidemic and ambulances were negligent in this gay area for fear of contamination I suppose.
Straight friends of mine rallied around me somewhat afterward, but I remember clearly that it felt like more of the same. Their sympathy was not empathy. It was all colored by their assumptions. It came to me as “oh you poor little gay boy, getting beat up on the playground.” Their sympathy was what separated us and said “you are different.” The implicit bias was still everywhere that being gay was a tragic life and you got beat up because you were weak and you died because you were evil.
It didn’t upset me that the motives of this gang were because I was gay. I knew well enough by 21 that anyone who does something like this…it’s about them. It’s about their own internal horror, and most likely, when it comes to violence against gays, their own struggle with their sexuality. Nothing else matters in this moment other than that we protect fellow Americans from projected hate and violence. This is one of the primary things that should unify us as a country and as human beings.
When I learned about the selfish cruelty that had happened in Orlando, I took it personally. There are groups of people who cannot handle someone like me finally getting the basic human rights of other Americans and are willing to kill because of something outside of them.
I try to stay far away from communicating on social media about anything other than animals being awesome, because I don’t want to give up precious moments of my life debating with people who are so entrenched in their beliefs that they think they have nothing to learn. And I don’t want that kind of confrontation to enforce my own rigid beliefs. Whether it be about guns, or religion, or supporting Bernie Sanders, there is little that is black and white enough to person-splain with the righteous indignation that is the norm of social media. And I also make it my discipline to make some air even for the opinions that are terrible to me. If anything, just to both learn from and to love my enemies.
But it turns out I am a human, and people were being murdered for being like me. And I wanted to tell any person who was Tweeting about hockey scores hours after 49 people were murdered in cold blood by a monster, that they needed to go fuck themselves and as much as I had in the past, understood privilege in concept, I was Feeling the ugly, childish, self-importance of people who have never known true oppression.
And it makes me sad for my country that after so many lessons, recent lessons in American history about the ugliness of violently expressed hatred, that a presidential candidate has a shot at being the most powerful man in the world, by repurposing the time honored tactic of demonizing groups and pitting brother against sister against brother. I am ashamed of who we are right now. I want to look to any person who does not get to fully participate in the American dream, I want to speak to anyone who is blindly scapegoated, I want to look to the rest of the world with all that I have in me and say “I am not one of them.”
Later in the day, Bryce and I are in in line at the H.E.B. Food Pantry in the 15 items or less lane. The girl with the nose ring in front of us convinces the older couple in front of her to let us go first because we only have one item. She does it without prompting and she does it with a conviction. I think what prompted her was seeing the two of us leaning against each other and loving each other. I didn’t need to cut in line at the H.E.B., but her gesture said “I am not one of them.” The gift from her was two-fold because one, an act of kindness and consciousness the day after what happened in Florida was deeply generous, but two, being on the other side of that gesture that can never say enough…is still appreciated. That any fumbling act of kindness, even to smile at someone, is worth it.