Ask What You Will

by Louie Crew

© 1983 by Manifest; © 2004 by Louie Crew

First appeared in Manifest April 1983: 2-5. Preached at St. Luke's in the Fields, Manhattan, 19 August 1980

"Hard-pressed on every side...bewildered...hunted...struck down... wherever we go we carry death with us in our body, the death that Jesus died, that in this body also life may reveal itself the life that Jesus lives. For continually, while still alive, we are being surrendered into the hands of death." 2 Corinthians 4: 8

By a fierce irony, the majority of oppressed persons do not realize the extent of their own oppression. Moses discovered the short memories of the Israelites who no sooner had escaped Pharaoh's chariots into the new wilderness than they began to complain and long for he flesh pots of Egypt.

In the 1960s John Howard Griffin a white Catholic journalist undertook skin treatments to pass in his native South as a lack man in order to document what it was like to be Black; his book and the movie based on it, Black Like Me, documented Griffin's rage at the capricious and rigorous hatred he had to learn to face sometimes from white folks who had acted much nicer when they ad known him as a white man. I remember telling John once, in a spirited day together at the Wurlitzer Foundation in New Mexico, where he had written the book: "John, this book is hitting your target. I have personally gotten over 40 adult white Southerners to read it, and the seeds are well planted. But you are wrong on one important if minor point: you have not yet discovered what it is like to be a black person; ox have discovered what it s like to be a white person suddenly denied all of the privileges you'd never fully associated as rewards for being white." In the early 1950s, few black people assumed that it was even worth the time to think about claiming equal privileges, and even in 1980, persons seeking equal privileges for blacks still have to educate ourselves to the more subtle machinery by which privilege operates.

Can you imagine the shock of any average heterosexual if by some magic she or he could be transported into a culture where suddenly the simple show of public affection, as in holding hands or giving a good-bye kiss at the bus, would be taken as an act of revolution? Can you imagine a heterosexual rector's reaction if he or she were allowed to live with a spouse only if they moved to a private apartment in a large city and never acknowledged their relationship as such, except possibly to other heterosexuals isolated on Fire Island or at the Club Baths? Can you imagine a married heterosexual couple sharing the same domiciles, but telling all their professional acquaintances that they were just good friends or maybe distant relations, even maintaining separate bedrooms, especially to avoid shocking their families should they show up of a surprise visit? Can you imagine heterosexuals coming to Mass almost fearful to let even God know their deepest and innermost passions for other human beings out of fear that God might be shocked by the plumbing which God had so carefully, joyously made? Can you imagine that once the heterosexuals had experienced this violent reversal, had gotten a glimpse of the restrictions for themselves which we have faced every day of our lives, that the heterosexuals would for one moment go back to fund the schools, the governments, the churches, or any other groups which threaten to perpetuate their restriction?

I suspect that the heterosexuals thus educated would do precisely what John Howard Griffin did, write a book exposing how vicious the system is to lesbians and gays, Lesbian Like Me, Gay Like Me (Random House, 1985 -- don't you love it!). But they would still have missed a major point, namely that while they would be reacting to a loss of privilege, we as lesbians and gay males have not only never had those privileges, he have not yet learned even to ask for many of them. It is still far easier to go to the back of the bus.

Easier, surely, but ultimately degrading, literally experiencing a lower grade on oneself than one is entitled to.

Isaiah offers quite ecstatically another alternative: "Come, all who are thirsty, come fetch water; come, you who have no food, buy corn and eat; come and buy, not for money, not for a price" (55:1). Note well that Isaiah did not say or imply in any way, "Come only heterosexuals who are thirsty...only heterosexuals who have no money." In fact, God characteristically gives first priority to those with the greatest need

I can't speak for anyone else here, but I must admit for myself that God has offered us a blank check which is very frightening. Even after fifteen years of trying to learn to speak up, I am still afraid at each new gesture and afterwards rehearse again and again to decide whether I might have gone too far, have claimed too much, whether I might have been too uppity. And on those rare occasions when I forget to be duly fearful, there are scores of others around me to say, "Honey, you've done it"'

For example, last month, while swimming, I got the crazy notion that it was time to complain to my employer that Ernest, my male spouse, is not covered by any of the attractive perquisites, most especially the medical insurance, that the University of Wisconsin supplies to spouses of its employees registered n heterosexual unions, even if the heterosexuals are living separately or even f they are living together with a prodigal abandonment of any sane controls of family size. Mind you, Ernest had had to give up a job with its own protections to make the family move with me, with a brief period of extreme vulnerability should he have required elaborate medical attention before he secured a new job. And my hiring committee had known full well that I would not have taken the job without their full understanding of us as a family unit, since we had worked so hard to achieve that kind of space for ourselves at our previous jobs in Georgia....

It was easy enough to write the letter, but after I posted it, I was scared quite violently. After all here I was new to a faculty that had generously risked hiring me as a controversial person, new to a department where many colleagues had hosted the two of us as a couple at dinner parties and other faculty social gatherings, and suddenly I was rocking the boat, threatening to be even more scandalous, especially so for the few but encouraging gay colleagues on campus who had already taken great risks of being identified as also gay by their bold and public friendship with us. Why, the gall' What could have possessed me even to contemplate so rash and ungrateful a request.

When at last someone in the vice-chancellor's office called, I was not at home. When I did get the message, I waited yet another day to return the call. Imagine my surprise when the official explained that the association of payroll officers in the entire University of Wisconsin System had already speculated that someone would surely bring up this matter and that they had agreed that on the face the current policy seems inequitable. They are currently raising the issue with the State's insurer. An obvious problem may be outside their jurisdiction, namely the State's refusal to legalize marriages of persons of the same gender; but they have already encouraged me to challenge any negative decision that the insurance companies might make. In brief, while they are not willing to fight my battle for me, they clearly respect the legitimacy of my raising the issue. They responded to the situation not on cold, institutional terms, but took my case personally, not as an affront to themselves, but as a communication of a real need of a whole class of persons as yet too intimidated to speak up. Furthermore, the official noted that the major costs to the System of the benefits now offered to spouses are the costs of maternity; thus lesbian/gay unions will be decidedly more cost-effective.

Friends, it is 1980. I find it mind boggling that of the scores of lesbian/gay unions among my colleagues around our very liberal state, no couple has previously raised this simple issue. How many more of the privileges which thousands are systematically denied would be granted if just one or two people would speak up? Notice, Isaiah did not say, "Come only if you are not afraid." God urges us to ask for bounty even if we are terrified.

Have you ever made an inventory of your own restrictions in this hetero- sexual culture? Can you sort out those things which you personally might work to change in some kind of sensible order?

I get the disturbing feeling that many folks are relatively content now that our ghetto has been rather lavishly refurbished. In some American cities the addition of a decent bar or even of flush toilets at a highway cruising station is quite enough to deactivate most interest in more substantial change. I understand that in New York the process is a bit more complicated that your waysides are decidedly more palatial. But the pattern seems to be the same: we human beings learn to accommodate our oppression typically by denying that it exists. We say that we actually like riding in the back of the bus, that we do so for the view, that instead of the bother of publicly affirmed relation- ships we actually prefer to isolate sex, with strangers each for one time only, to keep alive a romantic illusion with little risk that the stranger might say "Hi there'" by the light of day, or much more threateningly, come to us with a casual human need.

Dr. King said again and again, '"Those who continue to go to the back of the bus perhaps deserve the back of the bus."

One of my most painful memories is that of Mrs. Eula Jackson, my family's maid, but far more importantly, the surrogate black mother of my youth who to this day, long after her death, still has a most profound and loving influence on literally hundreds of unconscious choices that she taught me to make. Eula could not read or write. She wouldn't have gone near a preacher who even seemed to talk against white folks, certainly not near Dr. King. Once some seven or eight years after there was no longer a back of the bus, she had to take her retired husband to Birmingham to the doctor. When the two boarded, they moved routinely to the rear of the Greyhound, but found no seats. They looked about n consternation. The driver at the front was annoyed that they were holding up the departure, and he motioned them impatiently to come to the double seat just behind his own which they had passed. There were no other empties. She looked about frantically, but all the white folks seemed not to notice her. Surely, they must be plotting to murder us, she thought. After all, she had grown up in a county where Klan violence had been especially terrible... She and Mr. Jackson did not take that bus, but paid 50 out of his small pension check to get a friend to drive them the 120 miles to Birmingham and back.

I wonder how many of our own people are so scarred by a lifetime of abuse that they will continue to oppress themselves long after the heterosexuals have gone out of that kind of business?

Of course, for right now, the back of the bus is very real in our own struggle. If being Rosa Parks is not quite your style, can you Identify others who are and arrange to encourage the before, during, and after initial challenges on the buses where you ride? Jesus said, "If you dwell in me, and my words dwell in you, ask what you will, and you shall have it. This is my Father's glory, that you may bear fruit in plenty and so be my disciples" (John 15:71

Admittedly there is an important catch to all of this. All of the rewards which we are to seek are not to be ours in any narrowly individualistic way. It's helpful to be very clear that we are offering ourselves, from the outset, to be a part of a continuing process much, much bigger than we are individually, much bigger than any one group of people. This same gospel is literally for everybody. Our own enjoyment of God's bounty is bounded by our real need: spiritual or physical manna is in an ample supply, but only for one day at a time: it will rot if hoarded, and its availability is to the glory of the creator, not to our glory. "It is not ourselves that we proclaim; we proclaim Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For the same God who said, 'out of darkness let light shine,' has caused his light to shine within us, to give the light of revelation -- the revelation of the glory of God is the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Corinthians 4: 5-6).

God's grace is amazing still. God wants to take a tacky quean like me or a person like you and shine through us to other human beings.


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