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The Other: Being Gay in America

April 25, 1993|Tony Kushner | Tony Kushner just won the Pulitzer Prize for his newest play "Angels in America," which is opening May 4, on Broadway

NEW YORK — The first time I had sex with a man, I was 21 years old and afterward I had a nightmare. I was lying with my lover in a strange bed, and he was asleep. I was visited by the ghost of the African-American man who for decades had worked as the foreman at my family's lumber company in Louisiana. His name was Rufus, and I'd adored him when I was a child; he had died when I was still very young. In my nightmare he was looking at me lying on rumpled sheets beside the man with whom I'd just spent a wonderful carnal evening. Rufus was staring not unkindly but with unsettling intensity, refusing to speak and weeping silently.

Then my paternal grandfather arrived. He looked ill (which at that time he was) and angry (which he seldom was), a cancer-ridden Jeremiah. He had come to pronounce anathema. "You're going to die," he said with immense loathing and satisfaction, this man who had always been loving, "there's something wrong in your bones." Having handed down my death sentence, he walked away, back into the Cave of the Psyche.

Rufus, continuing to cry, watched my grandfather go. Before vanishing into deep-indigo shadows, my grandfather turned back to me. As if in answer to a question I'd asked about Rufus's silent, mournful presence, my grandfather said "He's the Black Other," and disappeared. Rufus smiled at me, and I woke up.

I've forgotten certain details about the first man I slept with, but the dire vision our happy sex conjured up remains with me, as vivid as any recollected actual experience. When AIDS first became an inescapable feature on the landscape, the dream came back to me often in broad daylight: learning that a friend was sick or seropositive, waiting for my own test results, my dream-grandfather's words would frighten me with what seemed an awful premonitory power.

But in this nocturnal drama of guilt and patriarchal damnation my unconscious also saw fit to write a character bearing not only compassion but kinship, and a way out of death into life and life's political, social concomitant: liberation.

I grew up in a small Southern city in the '60s, in the culture of "genteel" post-integration bayou-country racism. The African-American population of Lake Charles, La., was ghettoized and impoverished. Black women, referred to by their employers as "girls" even though many were middle-aged or older, entered the homes of white people through lifetimes of domestic servitude, and black men performed the poorly remunerated labor white men wouldn't do. There were countless incidents of discrimination and occasionally bias crimes, but southern Louisiana wasn't at that time Klan Country--David Duke is a recent blight, the ugly spawn of Reagan and Bush and Lee Atwater. I remember a certain white civic pride that in Lake Charles racism was (theoretically) tempered by a spirit of cooperation and mutual avoidance, and brutality wasn't something decent people engaged in.

And yet anyone black in my hometown was like anyone black anywhere in the United States--dehumanized, feared, subject to indignity and abuse, "Other" as Americans have historically responded to the "Other"--as a negation of good, as Death, as ripe for extermination.

Part of me understood the phantasm of a grieving black man who visited me that night as a figure of my own demise. But his presence had a doubleness important to consider. Toni Morrison, in "Playing in the Dark," writes: "images of blackness can be evil and protective, rebellious and forgiving, fearful and desirable--all the self-contradictory features of the self."

One of my the sharpest memories from my childhood is the day of Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral. I watched it on TV with Maudi, the woman who worked as my family's maid. Maudi cried throughout, and I was both frightened and impressed--I felt her powerful grief connected us, her and me and my quiet home town, with the struggle I knew was being waged in the world, in history. It was an instant in which you feel you're being changed as the world is changed, and I believe I was.

I don't know what power it is in human beings that keeps them going against indescribable forces of destruction. I don't know how any African-American and person of color in this country stays sane, given that the whole machinery of American racism seems designed to drive them crazy or kill them. I don't know why it is every woman isn't completely consumed all the time by debilitating rage. I don't know why lesbians and gay men aren't all as twisted inside as Roy Cohn was. By means of what magic do people transform bitter centuries of enslavement and murder into Beauty and Grace?

One mustn't take these miracles of perseverance for granted, nor rejoice in them too much, forgetting the oceans of spilled blood of all the millions who didn't make it. But something, some joy in us refuses death, makes us stand against the overt and insidious violence practiced upon us by death's minions.

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