The "A Letter of Thanks" Edition
The sheer number of people in New York City can give us permission and space to be ourselves freely. This openness is a variety of bravery that most of us take for granted.
Regular editions of The Briefly will resume this Friday.
Last week, autocorrect caused me to get VERS, the name of the gay bar that had multiple attacks against it this month, incorrect, and I regret that. I’ve thought more over the Thanksgiving weekend about that attack and the attacks against the LGBTQIA+ communities across the country.
In cities, we often think that the sheer number of people walking around gives us permission and space to be ourselves freely. There are multiple posts about the best places to cry in public. We feel anonymity on the city’s streets, take job interviews, have private conversations, tell each other our fears and secrets, and feel safe doing it out in the open. This openness is a variety of bravery that most of us take for granted.
Being yourself shouldn’t be considered brave, but today it is. Despite what’s broadcast on Fox News, we know that New York City isn’t the haven of self-expression it’s portrayed as.
When I was growing up, my parents taught me about the Holocaust. My family had immigrated to America before the First World War, but it was instilled in me that being Jewish meant that, historically and currently, some people hated me without knowing me. When I was being taught these lessons, I was taught other people were hated how they were born too, and that I should understand that those people and I share a struggle.
In 2009, I stood outside Park Slope’s Congregation Beth Elohim in a counter-protest against the Westboro Baptist Church. Those bozos were caricatures of hate, imported from outside New York, and were essentially tourists with signs. They came to NYC twice in 2009, each time treated with all the seriousness you might treat a villain from the 1966 Batman TV series but was shouted down and counter-protested. This was our city, and they and their kind of hate were not welcome here.
The hate that drove the Westboro Baptist Church is still here, but it doesn’t carry brightly-colored signs with over-the-top offensive phrases and photos. It’s hidden in plain sight and can look like our neighbor, someone at work, or a random person on the street. It doesn’t plan when it will appear for media attention or headlines. Like a light fog, it can be everywhere. It can be someone smashing the windows of VERS three times in one week. At the same time, it can look like the NYPD sitting on its hands until there is public pressure for them to act or not charge the person responsible for a hate crime, digging the metaphorical wound from the first attacks deeper.
Being ourselves in public is a luxury that not everyone feels they can have. For some, the ability to be themselves happens in private or in dedicated spaces, like VERS. They are keeping themselves out of the public eye by choice or out of fear of that hate.
It might be hard to see hate if it’s not as apparent as the Westboro Baptist Church, but if we don’t stand up to it whenever we see it, we allow it past us to become accepted. As we learned firsthand from the flood waters of Hurricane Sandy, it’s much harder to remove water than it is to prevent it from reaching somewhere it shouldn’t be. I understand I’m mixing metaphors here, but if we allow minor transgressions, we won’t notice major ones, and soon enough, our dry spaces will be flooded.
In NYC, it was multiple broken windows at VERS. In Colorado, it was a mass murderer that killed five at Club Q. The message of both is “you are not safe.” Not safe to be yourself in public or with others.
This message is amplified and cheered in bars across the city, even if the people participating don’t realize it. The World Cup is happening, and the human rights violations and atrocities are there for everyone to see, just outside the pictures of the brand-new stadiums built by slave labor in a country that has outlawed homosexuality. This is the definition of doing nothing when the literal least we can do would make a difference.
Being openly LGBTQIA+ is a learned bravery that shouldn’t be necessary but is. It demands courage that the rest of us don’t have. I am thankful for the LGBTQIA+ community’s bravery to be open and themselves despite a city and world that, at times, will not stand shoulder to shoulder with them.