On My Tattoo, Part One (Because I have Two).
I am going to take a break from the AIDS and HIV prevention in today’s blog, because I am much more than just an HIV + man. I often find myself frustrated with the gay community’s amazing ability to weaken itself with subdivision, as if being white, gay, and HIV+ were not enough to separate me from the whole of humanity, I am also expected to be identify as a “long-term survivor,” “over-forty,” “hairy,” “bear-ish,” and now, much more than I am comfortable with it, a “Daddy.” And make no mistake I recognize all too well the safety and comforts that are found in the subdividing our “sameness”. The labels that do this work are powerful tools in making a community and creating empowerment for an individual. But there is an inherent dichotomy in that act as well. From a very early age, I remember thinking how often these differences did not make me less like the other “others”— but instead made me more like them. As Maya Angelo said, "We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike."
I said in Leaving The Rest that I have always longed to be a citizen of the world. To turn on old racism joke on its head, “I have plenty of straight friends,” and I don’t wish to be separated from their world by a long list of labels. Instead, I wish to participate beside them in world that is recognized as “ours,” not “theirs.” But, as hopeful as I am for this future of oneness, the constant pressure to further subdivide myself from the whole with label upon label exhausts me.
Growing up in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, I was painfully aware of the racism that surrounded me, even in my own home. My father was, and is, an open racist, as is much of my extended family. My mother was a racist, but felt guilt about it. She took the time to teach my sister and I that we should not believe what she felt, that she knew it was wrong. Still she insisted racisim was ingrained make-up in her in a way that she could not change and sometimes could not control. Though my family’s racism was not limited to any one race, because we lived in the south, it was most heavily focused on blacks. I remember, at a young age, like eight or nine, feeling that if my family knew what I was inside, that they would hate me the way they hated black people. At about age twelve, I remember thinking that I was luckier than black people, because I could hide what I was from the world. The hardest part of growing up was learning to own the label of gay, not just openly, but proudly, without fear of the hate it might bring in others. That choice has come at great cost. Much of extended family would rather I not be associated with them.
As a result, on my left shoulder, I got a tattoo that is based on the Belasco drawing seen below. Most people who see it immediately reduce this tattoo to an expression of my sexual attraction to black men. But, from the moment I saw this image, it summed up so much for me — not about just my understanding of what it was to be different, but also, what the world could be if all those that were different could find a uniting commonality in that “otherness”. To me, the drawing also brought forth the image of the staff of Hypocrites, a symbol of healing to the whole world
I got this tattoo the day I decided I was going to have to face the choice I often make, a choice to hide who I was or not, everyday for the rest of my life. I had saved the image on my desktop for years, and debated about the possibility of having it inked into my skin for at least that long. I knew that realistically, that the ideal this tattoo might not play out, that requirements of employers, family and other pressures would occasionally require the ink to be covered. So I placed the intertwined feet in a way that it peaks out from a short sleeve shirt — so the door to the conversation would always be open, even when the reality of my intent is mostly obscured.
The dream of this tattoo is much larger than that of my personal desire to be seen for what I am. I want us all to remember that no matter what we are, in difference, we share struggle to live openly. In otherness, we can find sameness. And this movement is begging to be started, but it requires a remarkable braveness and openness, one being modeled well by President Obama’s leadership in the movement for LGBT equality beyond that of marriage. It has rich historical roots, something you can learn more about in this great Ted Talk by Yoruba Richen.
Forces will always rally against that impulse. They will insist that real equality will be costly to the powerful, and that fear will always fight back. We can trace this beyond Yorba Richen’s talk to the work of Caesar Chavez, Che Guevara, the existence of Hitler, and in the collective history of slavery in thousands of historical and modern cultures. We can see the parallels of early successes beginning to form in the struggles of the Transgendered. Living on those front lines of these battles can be exhausting and that is why I gave myself permission to place this tattoo in a place that can be easily covered. Despite my best of intentions, some days, I still chose to hide my difference.
In large part, I know that each and every time I chose to cover my tattoo, I make it okay for the world to be "theirs" and not "mine". And that choice hurts. But I am too old to fight that fight every minute of every day, even if, these days, a lot of that battle exists only within myself. As often as I can, I let my ink show, and wear it with pride. Not because I am out to sleep with a bunch of black men (though in complete honesty I’m the opposite opposed to that idea), but because in order for us to make the world “ours” and not “theirs” it will take all of us who share “difference” to unite in claiming that reality.