Trigger Warning: homophobia/transphobia
“I am proud to know you. Seeing you stand down hate with courage and resolve inspires me. XO”
A friend sent these words to me along with some pics she snapped on Friday after I spoke at the local Trans Day of Visibility rally and then engaged some protesters in conversation. She wanted me to see how she saw me, which was nice, because I mostly just see myself as a special kind of crazy.
Her pics were taken after I gave possibly my worst “speech” ever, because I had a hard time tuning out the protestors who were shouting vile, hateful words through a megaphone to every statement I made.
I spoke about the courage of our inspirational youth who risk being vulnerable in order to get schools to be spaces where EVERYONE can feel safe, valued and respected while two masked men stood threateningly behind the crowd displaying intolerance and disrespect. It was a perfectly dichotomous moment that summed up my work, my calling.
I know that protestors should be ignored, but I just couldn’t stand there while they tried to hurt people with their words. I noticed that they stopped speaking into the megaphone to have quasi-respectful conversation when a retired teacher engaged them. I hoped to do the same to keep them from disrupting if nothing else, but by the time I approached him, the guy with the megaphone was on to that strategy and he mostly tried to ignore me. I spoke with him anyway, doing my best to channel a Mother-Theresa-like no-nonsense teacher.
He quoted Hitler and spewed rhetoric about “leftist cucks”, “Cultural Marxism” and the undoing of society by our “agenda”. I asked him questions and I kindly challenged his claims with science, logic and reason. I scribbled some words on a scrap of paper from my purse for him to Google to find one of my favorite Tedx Talks about sex and gender both being on a spectrum from a scientific/medical perspective to challenge his beliefs that sexual orientation, sex, and gender are binary concepts. He promised to Google it then turned away and started shouting into his megaphone again.
I turned my head to see the quieter friend, the follower, curiously, cautiously sizing me up. Though the only thing I could see of his face were his eyes, they looked scared and anguished. So I walked over to him and offered empathy and respect. After all, how can we ask for respect from people who loathe or fear us if we can’t offer it? And I’ll be honest… my primal fight or flight instinct wanted me to throat punch both of them, but thankfully my emotions don’t have to control my behavior and I knew empathy could override my anger if I allowed it to soften my heart in that moment.
I approached and asked if we could chat, and he cautiously agreed. What I discovered from the conversation was sad and proved my belief that people like him, wearing a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag in addition to his face mask and holding a sign promoting death and violence, are really just scared, hurting and often confused. They are products of their education, experiences and environment, and do not know what they do not know. And how can they know if no one with the information they need ever patiently and respectfully takes the time to talk with them?
We conversed through the following questions, condensed and paraphrased here to capture the essence:
Me: Why are you here?
Him: To discourage this cultural Marxism that is undoing society. There is only man and woman and they are meant to be together.
Me: *two minute summary of the biology addressed in the video that I scrawled on the paper for his friend and of the fact that NOTHING in our bodies, identities or anything else that God created has a binary, so why would sexual orientation, sex and gender?*
Him: *agrees to watch the video* *is probably just agreeing because I seem crazier than him*
Me: So, what are you so afraid of?
Him: That society is being destroyed.
Me: But why are you wearing masks?
Him: Because leftists are evil and will hunt us down and kill us simply for being here and speaking our minds.
Me: Ha! (I couldn’t help it. It slipped. Oh, the irony!)
Him: We’re being smart. We have families and responsibilities and things to lose.
Me: And you don’t think that we have families and responsibilities and things to lose? Look. We are more alike than I think you know.
Him: *blank stare*
Me, staring intensely into his hazel eyes so his soul can HEAR me: We all want the same things. We ALL want to love and be loved, and have a better future for our kids, right?
Him, seemingly a little uncomfortable with the intense eye contact: I guess.
Me: Are you a Christian?
Me: Good. Me too. (Common ground.) Do you believe we are all created in God’s image, that we are of God and therefore all contain His Divine Light?
Him: Yeah, I guess?
Me: Good. Then if you believe that we are all of God, why aren’t you honoring the Divine Light in the people here? Why can’t you see their humanity and that they are part of God as well?
Him: …… Because Satan perverts people and turns them away.
Me: Many of the people here are likely some of the most kind and loving people you’ll ever meet. We are here sharing messages of love and hope and supporting each other. You can’t believe that THAT is of Satan, can you?
Him: *long pause* Satan can be deceiving and appear kind and non-threatening…like you.
(HA! Sorry, you’re a little late to the party, son. I’ve already been told I’m the Devil in disguise by quite a few Christians. Your comment doesn’t sting like it once did, but I’m not sure having to contain a chuckle helps me look less demonic in your eyes, so…)
Me: Let’s look at this for a moment…All of these people are here courageously, without masks, vulnerably, with EVERYTHING to lose, to share love, affirmation and support with each other. And you are here with messages of hate and violence. Who do you think Satan is manipulating again?
Him: … We don’t have messages of hate and violence.
Me: Read your sign. Listen to your friend.
Him: *looks down at sign, shrugs*
Me: So, are you here sharing God’s Love and giving affirmation?
Him: No, but that doesn’t mean we’re being hateful.
Me: There is no neutrality in situations like this, and think about the words on your sign and the words your friend is shouting through the megaphone. They are of death, violence, intolerance, hate. You’re not only NOT sharing God’s Love, you’re hurting people on purpose. How do you think God feels about that?
Me: Tell me, have you ever sat down and had a conversation with a gay or transgender person, or a leftist, without a mask on?
Me: Then how can you be certain of any of the things you believe? We surely don’t seem that threatening. I invite you to have a conversation. Listen and learn, and you will find none of us here are anything to fear.
Me: You know what? I’m going to pray for you this weekend.
Me: No, I’m serious. I don’t mean that in a condescending “Bless your heart” way. I mean it. You have so much fear and anger.
Him: *eyes filled with surprise mixed with the fear and pain*
Me: I imagine your world must seem scary and dark. It has to feel awful to feel so angry, frustrated and afraid all of the time. Doesn’t it get exhausting? It can’t feel good.
Me: I’m sorry that your beliefs and understanding of people are keeping you from the light and love that exist in the world. There is SUCH an abundance of light and love. I’m sorry that it’s hard for you to see the humanity in others through your fear and anger. I’m going to pray that God softens your heart and opens your mind and allows you to understand that the world doesn’t have to be a scary place.
I don’t know that I actually got through to him. It all happened so fast, and we were interrupted at the end, but I hope I planted some seeds. I know I was not what he expected. He expected to be attacked, screamed at, possibly even physically assaulted, and I showed him compassion and respect. I believe he left more confused than he came.
I left with the understanding that he knows my face and my name and I only know his eyes and that his hands do manual labor. I have never felt more vulnerable than after that conversation, but I know I would do it again even as I hope my kids and I will never be hurt for my “standing down hate with courage and resolve”.
We cannot shout at each other from opposite ends of understanding and expect to find common ground. We must find a way to meet in the middle with kindness and respect. We must find a way to listen to and learn about each other. We must find a way to let empathy soften our hearts so that Love can win. I have faith in us.
Will you join me in praying (or doing whatever you do to channel light and love) for these two young men? Let’s start there. Even though they wish me and many, many of my friends and loved ones ill will, we can still have compassion for them and honor THEIR humanity (EEEEVEN if our instincts make us feel like we’d rather scream at or throat punch them).
WE are so damn courageous that we don’t need to hide behind masks. WE know that there is nothing to fear but fear itself and that where Love exists, fear cannot. WE know that the world does not have to be a dark and scary place because LOVE WINS.