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    Tuesday
    Jun122018

    We Can Do Better

    When I first started coming to Nashville in 2007, I was different in many ways. Not all, but some. For one, I loved some Bluegrass and Country music and was interested in seeing the artists whose work I enjoyed, live. I attended the show of one such artist at the Station Inn in August of that year. I’d been renting a room in Murfreesboro for the months of July of and August, but was heading back to where I lived in Brooklyn later that week. He was a recording artist for Rounder at the time and his debut album had floored me. To this day, I consider him one of the better vocalists I’ve ever met. (For the purposes of telling the following stories, I’m not going to name him. This writing isn’t necessarily about him, and I want to respect his privacy.) That night, I met him and two of his fellow musician friends who were also there to see him play. They later had a hand in introducing me to another Bluegrass/Country musician/songwriter/producer whose work I admired from a distance. I would go on to know all four of those men for some time. All four, incredible talents. Three of them, no longer in my life.

    Back then, I felt a real obligation to toe the line with people who had different world views than my own. It seemed progressive and positive to be able to know people who voted Republican, or prayed to a God I didn’t believe in . . . and in theory, I still want to be able to do that. But it comes apart for me when the viewsand corresponding outward behaviors—cause any brand of shame, discomfort, or harm to others. And by “others,” I don’t mean just me. If your attitudes and behaviors threaten the safety or dignity of anyone around me, you and I are at odds. I’m not smiling anymore. I’m not making it okay for you. I wish that were true of everyone around me. I have come to learn that it’s not. That, if anything, has changed me over the years. 

    * * *

    I moved down here full time the next year, in late April. I continued to know those men in that first year of living here. I collaborated with two of them on various things; like I said, the talent was immense—I’m sure it still is. But before long, it became more difficult to observe our differences in a positive way. In a conversation about hip-hop, one of them, a guitarist from New York, told me he’d never heard anything by Run-D.M.C. I said that they had changed music, and that I highly recommended checking them out (I mean, seriously), and he said, “Yeah, but did they change it for the better?” 

    It was as though a dark cloud suddenly emerged from nowhere and held fast above our heads. Was he saying that a foundational black rap group had contributed negatively to the history of American music? To me? What the . . . If you don’t know me, I’m from Miami and grew up with Miami Bass as one of the many rad cultural backdrops to my childhood. I’m not interested in a potentially racist debate about the validity of Run-D.M.C’s music, dude. Best of luck with the olde tyme re-enactments.

    Pass.

    Speaking of racism, there was also a presidential election in 2008, as you may well remember. Let’s just say that Obama getting elected (twice!) cleared up any questions I may have had about one of the other guys, the producer. And years later, when Trump was elected in 2016, that guy’s Facebook post was simply, “Praise Jesus.”  

    Pass.

    And then there were two. One of the guys, I still know. He’s a fine, regular person. I run into him like every two years and it’s always nice to see him. Whatever. The fourth person, was the first person. The one performing at the Station Inn that night in 2007. He and I became friends. Actual friends. We’d talk for hours on the phone and get together when neither of us was on tour. I really liked him and cared about him. I think I still care about him, in a human-to-human way. But, it got weird, and here’s where.

    So, in 2010, he invited me out to Columbia TN. His friends, whom I’d also come to know, were having a festival on their property out there. I’d spent time at their home, we’d broken bread, I liked them. Those people were, of course, Joey and Rory. My friend was very connected to them, personally and professionally, and he was going to join them on stage for a few songs. I was happy to be included and accepted the invitation. (I think this was eight years ago this very week, now that I’m thinking about it.) Anyway, we were sitting outside, it was a beautiful night. My friend wasn’t performing until later in the program, so he and I were just hanging out, listening to all of the other singers and songwriters. I didn’t know who many of them were, but it was alright. Mostly Joey and Rory singing duets with their friends. Not really my bag, but it was exactly fine. AND THEN: all of a sudden, I realized I was witnessing a song that was unquestionably homophobic. My body temperature changed like it does when I’m in crisis. Joey and Rory were laughing and smiling and singing along with some other man, who seemed to be leading the song. The lyrics to the chorus were: 

    “I ain’t going down on Brokeback Mountain

    That shit ain’t right”

    I was panicking. I looked at my friend; he was laughing. I looked around; other people were laughing. Families. With children. Hundreds of people. I was in the fucking Twilight Zone. I was at some sort of nightmare bigot festival where everyone but me thought that this song was not only acceptable and allowed, but HILARIOUS. My friend could see that I was coming apart; I was so embarrassed and ashamed that I was there at all. I wished someone had told me that I was going to a picnic where bigotry would be celebrated. But no one had. I had to figure it out the hard way. I got the fuck up mid-song, sort of said goodbye to the person I had previously considered a friend, and I ran to my car. Through all kinds of people on lawn chairs and picnic blankets, I ran. I got to my car and peeled out, driving away like I was in a horror movie. Because to me, I was. I was in Columbia TN, where I had no community, and where respect for others was momentarily absent. As soon as I was on the highway, I called the person I knew at Sugar Hill Records, Joey and Rory’s label at the time. I told him I’d just seen his artists perform a hateful, homophobic song on stage in front of hundreds of people. In front of children.

    And guess what? Nothing happened. NOTHING HAPPENED. To this day, nothing has happened. Joey and Rory went on to get significantly more famous. The man who wrote that song still works in town and hasn’t experienced any negative repercussions that I’m aware of. His name is Wynn Varble. The song can be heard here. I’m sorry in advance; it’s worse than you think. 

    Years later, when I heard that Joey had been diagnosed with cancer, I was incredibly sad for her and her family, especially because her daughter Indiana had just been born. I didn’t hate those people then and I don’t hate them now. Of course I don’t. I wept when Joey died. She was a human being. I’m a human being. I have empathy. But the thing about empathy, is that it extends our capacity to care and to love, not just based on our lives and immediate loved ones and neighbors, but based on the lives and walks of others—all of which have value. It makes us capable of concern for what others might be experiencing. 

    And what about that? What about what others experience? What about living as a queer person in the world and hoping to not be fucked with every time you leave the house? How about doing it in the Bible Belt? How about going out to hear music you enjoy, and seeing artists get on stage and sing a song that makes fun of what and who you are? How about seeing children there, already being indoctrinated into bigoted perspectives? How about not knowing if you’re safe? How about trying to blend in because it very well might not be safe? How about needing to know where the exits are?

    I’m a cisgendered, straight, white woman. Privilege for days. But I can understand how actions and words can harm a person who might already be at risk, just like I can feel grief for a woman whose life ended much too early. How about you? I ask this, because the disbelief and anger and resentment that I have (whether I want to or not; it lives in my body) about this Nashville situation, is that people know this goes on, and no one does anything. To me, a song that slams homosexuality is hate speech. That doesn’t seem to be the case for many people around here. That night changed something for me, for good. 

    Pass. HARD PASS.

    * * *

    So, now it’s 2018. I’m still here. Tennessee is still a weird place for me to be at times; most of the time, if I’m honest. I do participate in local activism relating to LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, immigrant and refugee rights, our HIV/AIDS community and their rights. I try. I’m not nailing it, just like I’m not nailing anything else in this life. But, I do try. It feels more important than ever to be on everyone’s side, including my own (something I’m still learning about). I’m sure I don’t need to get into why this feels more important of late. The dark cloud that I mentioned in the story about Run-D.M.C? It’s always there now. I’m, like, nostalgic for the days of the Run-D.M.C. comment. Because now I feel like I’ve looked into the abyss and it has looked right back into me, you know? I’ve sat in TN General Assembly committee and sub-committee meetings where the rights of transgender people are being voted on, and I’m here to report: it’s not good. While we do occasionally enjoy a victory (we beat the Bathroom Bill this past session!), the number of anti-LGBTQ bills that are generated by the conservative House and Senate members per year is insane. I don’t know what the exact metric is, but I’m sure they do over at Tennessee Equality Project, with whom I’m proud to do some of my activism. Go check out what they’re about, and what they’re/we’re up against here in TN alone. It will blow your mind, especially if you live in a blue state. I live in Tennessee, and they’re slow to progress here. Like, crazy slow. Still, we suit up and show up. It's the only way change happens. I’m always glad to be part of the movement, and I’ve met some of my only real friends in Nashville through this work.

    Imagine my surprise when I encountered a band that people are sweet on here—with whom I have many mutual friends and professional relationships—and they busted out a song in which they make fun of a person by likening them to a transgender person. Oh, and the refrain and the title of the song employ a known derogatory slur. Right in front of me, this happened. I’m going to spare you the context, but I saw it in real life. And all over again, I had the crisis feeling. Fight or flight. All over again, I ran out out of the room. I stood outside the venue, hot with panic and shame. What the fuck? Were there transgender people at the show? What was I to do? What was my responsibility? How do you reconcile “do no harm” with “what the fuck”? How do you stay focused on your primary purpose in that moment but also say, this isn’t for me AT ALL? I still don’t know the answers to those questions. This was weeks ago.

    Since then, I’ve lived with the experience (it sits in my gut like a rock) and have had all kinds of feelings about it. The one thing that never leaves me, though, is: NO. This can’t be allowed. This can’t be Wynn Varble 2.0. The song was recorded, mixed, and mastered; no one said anything. The song went to several digital platforms; no one said anything. The song was released; no one said anything. The album was reviewed favorably by multiple media sources; no one said anything. The band performed several more shows; no one said anything. And just like that, I’m back in the Twilight Zone. I made a post about it on Facebook two days ago, not naming them, because I wasn’t quite clear on how to address the outrage I felt and still feel about this piece of work, and someone gave me the all-too-familiar shame/blame for speaking out. I’m the problem. My communication style is the problem. Choosing to be offended is the problem. Choosing to not name them is the problem. 

    Well, maybe. Maybe you’re right, dude. Maybe you’re just doing it all correctly, and I’m a lunatic with no moral North. But I don’t think so. I’ve been here before. I’ve spoken up about things before in my life—however imperfectly—and there always manages to be someone there to tell me I’m the problem. And while it’s tempting to crawl back into the shame-based belief systems of my youth and shut up, I’m not going to. My gut hasn’t failed me before and I trust it today. This work is inappropriate and it needs to be removed from the digital platforms. It needs to be removed from the live shows. Amends to members of the community need to be made—not hollow apologies that gloss over the real impact of the work. AMENDS. Changed attitudes and behavior. 

    But what about the rest of us? Because, as much as I’d like to direct all of my discomfort toward this band, it’s not entirely correct. I’m uncomfortable with us; with you and me. With how this happened in the first place. With the fact that I had to bring this up to Nashville, Music City—in 2018. I don’t want to pit myself against the town in which I live—and in which I make my own music—but I think it’s time for us to take a seriously hard look at what complicity means. At the cost of silence. At the cost of fear. Am I afraid of being blacklisted? Sort of. I’m more afraid that a member of the LGBTQ community will hear these kinds of songs (and these specific songs, unfortunately), and take their own life. If that sounds dramatic to you, it isn’t. This should be a real concern for every single person reading this. How is it that when we lose a celebrity life to suicide, everyone instantly takes to social media to post their support for their fellow humans, but we have this as a collective blind spot? This is a form of bullying. This is a form of hate speech. This kind of work can push people to feel so isolated and alone and different that living no longer seems like a viable option. Are you okay with that? Please say no. PLEASE SAY NO.

    I don’t want to fight harm with harm. I also don’t want to victimize people who are not victims. I’m not attacking who these humans are; I don’t know them and I don’t plan on knowing them. If they’re your friends, please be their friend and tell them why this work is hurtful. These songwriters have chosen to make and release this work, and it exists in the world. It’s the only reason I’m naming them and not others in this piece. I feel a personal responsibility to say that I am against work that is homophobic, transphobic, sexist, misogynistic, racist, or hateful in any way. I want to say that clearly and plainly. I am not yelling; I am not attacking. But, I am drawing a line. Someone needs to draw a line. We all need to draw this line. Join me. Let us not be a community which allows for this kind of Othering. A community which looks the other way and hopes someone else will say something. You speak up. I will, too.

     * * * 

    In closing, I recommend reading this brilliant book by Cleve Jones: WHEN WE RISE, My Life In The Movement. Cleve founded the NAMES Project (also called The AIDS Quilt), now the largest public art project in the world. He was part of the San Francisco LGBTQ Movement in the 1970s and has amazing, important stories to share about meeting and working with Harvey Milk, Gilbert Baker, Sylvester etc. The book is a must-read for anyone who feels like they need more information on that branch of the movement. Plus, Cleve is just an astonishing writer and thinker. I also recommend this movie about Marsha P. Johnson. I recommend reading about the Stonewall Riots, about Sylvia Rivera. These people are my heroes, along with John Waters and Divine. Maybe watch all of John’s moves, too, just for fun. If you want to see an important film about a transgender child, please watch my friend Eric Juhola’s film, Growing Up Coy.

    Also, I know I’m an outspoken, bold-as-shit person, but please ask me questions if you have them. Please talk to me (which isn’t attacking me and shaming me; they’re different). Please join in on the local activism, if you feel moved to. I can answer any questions you may have about how to get involved. I’m here. I am not your enemy. I am a person who believes in dignity and equality. I am not your enemy.

    Quick Pointers:

    -Trans women are women. Period.

    -Trans men are men. Period.

    -Using slurs that may (or may not) have been reclaimed by members of the marginalized groups they target is not acceptable if you're not in the group. Simply put: if you’re not trans, you don’t get to say “tra**y.” Ditto, the N word if you’re not black, and the F word if you’re not a gay man. 

    -Just because someone is nice or kind to you, doesn’t mean that their work or behavior isn’t hurtful to others. Those two realities can coexist.

    -Allowing someone to experience the consequences of their own choices and behaviors is an act of kindness.

    -Run-D.M.C. are fucking awesome. This song is for the haters.

    H A P P Y   P R I D E