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Wearing our tormentor’s mask

A small anecdote in a “Talk of the Town” article by Michael Schulman in this week’s New Yorker (Feb. 17 & 24, p. 36) struck me harder than I would have thought. The article — “Get me rewrite” — tells of the controversy when a private middle school decided to perform the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” The co-author of the script, Dick Scanlan, defended a scene as a satire of the Chinese stereotyping in the 1967 movie version, a point that was perhaps just a tad too subtle for middle school, and perhaps just too subtle.

What got to me, though, was what Scanlan, 53, told the student cast about “how he dealt with getting ‘brutally teased’ for being gay as a kid in Maryland”:

I would go home and imitate the imitation of me in the mirror — “Hi, my name is Dick Ssssscanlan and I’m soooo excited — and I would think, That can’t be the way I’m behaving, because I can imitate that and it doesn’t feel like me.

This simple story hit me at a couple of levels.

I’m 63 and graduated high school in 1968. Some of our crowd were obviously gay, but we had an informal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell social policy. (It was sometimes ok to tell, too: my girlfriend came out to me on the night of the senior prom. Long story.) We didn’t call our gay friends names or mockingly imitate them behind their backs, but we also didn’t know how to talk about it, and public displays of affection just were not in our vocabulary. And, I’m not sure how we phrased it, but we assumed (along with the rest of America) that something had gone wrong to make them that way. It was a syndrome, maybe caused by a domineering mother. So, at Herricks High in middle class Long Island, it could have been a whole lot worse. But it could have been a whole lot better.

So, when I hear Dick Scanlan talk about standing in front of a mirror to see if he was truly like his tormentors’ image of him, a bit of my heart breaks. I can too easily imagine my friends doing that. Having to try on the clothes the bully hands you has to be so unsettling, even if you are wise enough to come to the conclusion that Dick did.

The anecdote hit me hard also because I know I’ve done the same thing for the weaknesses I think others perceive in me. In these cases I’m internalizing my own bully, so it’s by no means as serious as what Dick and many of my gay friends went through. But I think I understand it.

I know I’ve talked about this topic before, and I expect I will again. When a change this deep and liberating occurs so quickly — we’ve come so far albeit not far enough — and when it’s a change not only in your culture but in your own attitudes, and when you don’t have the luxury of thinking that the old attitudes were held only by other people who you can write off as bigots, then what can you do but dwell on it and try to understand how wrong things could have seemed so right and how then so quickly have gotten better.

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