I was born into a city as it started to die.
That takes a long time, and it may still recover, but it by the late 70s, Fitchburg was fading in all the ways that more famous cities in the center of the country would. Fitchburg was a place that worked with its hands, turning out machine tools, paper, wood and the like. It was a busy booming city in the late 1800s. The city carved the Hoosac tunnel out of a western mountain to build a train to Albany and beyond. The New York Times was printed on its paper, along with others up and down the coast.
And like many other places that worked with their hands, a haze of decay began to set in during the 70s and 80s, as factories closed and were not replaced. Poverty is now around 20%. Grand old buildings sit quietly, unpeopled, crumbling for want of a few coats of paint. If either end of Main Street were blocked entirely, no traffic would pile up. It hasn’t been hard to park for decades. The population as a whole shrank by a tenth, which yet understates the change. Almost everyone I went to school with then would leave. About three to five generations of my ancestors in any direction were born there, but my classmates’ children were mostly not.
My age cohort was also one of the last where schools were mostly full of white kids. A large stock of empty cheap housing was a draw, even in a poor and wage-sparse area. As the white folks left for fancier places, we were gradually replaced by others. By the grace of a local quirk, most of these newcomers were not in fact immigrants. The vast majority were Latinx, and despite many coming from other places, they were broadly labeled for their majority: The Puerto Ricans.
My parents and their siblings didn’t go to school with any kids who spoke Spanish. I went to school with a few, though that was an era of separate bilingual education, so we didn’t know any of them. Those kids weren’t in our classes, and we were separated by language. And beyond that, I was in no way encouraged to get to know them. They didn’t have names, or individual identities to us, and the adults around us were careful to keep it that way.
These white adults were anxious for their jobs and their homes, and saw both declining at the same time as this new population moved in. So they associated the decline with the people. And the lessons passed down to us were as clear as they were horrible: these different strangers were Ruining. The. City. They weren’t even working; they were instead sitting around at home sponging off the system, absorbing welfare benefits that were put in place for Us, not for Them. They were dirty, immoral, incomprehensible thieves, and their very presence an affront to all that was good and just in the world.
And so, it was The Puerto Ricans that were used to teach me racism. This message was never laid out all at once, of course. It was collected in brief asides, comments that were clear only in context, snide remarks half concealed around the kids. But it was made clear to us all that the Puerto Ricans were the lowest of the Different. The Laotians and the Vietnamese were war refugees, and were here because they sided with America. We had more black kids around school than most New England towns, but that’s not saying much, and they weren’t visibly worse off than anyone else. I only later learned the hidden ways the world deals harshness to black kids. Overall, in Fitchburg in the 1980s, it was all about the Puerto Ricans, who ruined all they touched.
“Puerto Rican” is not a pejorative term. It simply denotes someone from Puerto Rico, after all. It’s the actual name, of the actual island. But I cringe to write it and automatically search for an alternative phrase, because as I grew up, it was voiced as a slur. It was spoken in that tone, with that heat, and with that intent. It was sometimes used as insult. I could almost wish the adults around me had used actual slurs instead, so the real term wouldn’t carry this fearful weight for me.
Of course, this picture of a people left out an awful lot. I didn’t know they were US citizens by birthright until we hit the Spanish American War in 8th grade history. The history of the US’s treatment of Puerto Rico also undermines any view that they weren’t owed the benefits of American citizenship. Hurricane Maria and its aftermath are only the latest testimony. Also, welfare benefits were never generous enough to provide that lavish lifestyle — after all, if welfare was so good, why didn’t we sign up? A good lifestyle on welfare was only possible if you cheated the system a bit, which we knew because white people in the family had done so before. But somehow, this sin was far worse when done in Spanish.
The Puerto Ricans tended to live in the worst housing on any street, with a few too many people per apartment — not a sign of excess wealth. The jobless rate among them was higher than white people, but not so high that the claim “none of them ever work” could be defended. As actual knowledge replaced the lazy folk wisdom, the collective sins of the Puerto Ricans of Fitchburg were reduced to “their music was loud sometimes.” But then, so was ours. And man, can they throw a killer barbecue.
I tried to say as much, and got nowhere. My family has not known Puerto Ricans personally, except a few people they worked with who were clearly The Good Ones, evidenced by their having a job. But “seeing people lying around all the time” was good enough evidence to support the narrative. Those people were moochers and thieves, and that was that. After all, if you want to believe something, any proof will do. And if the Puerto Ricans weren’t to blame, that would present some uncomfortable questions. So, anytime we’d pass some Puerto Rican people out on the porch or something, the line was “Look at them, just sitting there without a care in the world, while we work to support them.” I’d hear that often enough. On Sundays.
But as humans grow up, we don’t just understand things in isolation. Part of growing up is putting the things you learn into a broader context. The mind relies on categories, grouping things together to understand them more quickly. That’s part of why racism is so lazy and yet so hard to overcome. But these judgments go beyond race: the picture being painted with snide remarks and half-concealed hatreds was a clear to any 10 year old. It was a lesson being taught to tens of millions of other kids in the 1980s by parents fearing the change falling upon them: to be different is to be less. A generic white person is the pinnacle. Everything else is a faded and flawed copy. The more flaws among your neighbors, the worse off you’d be. It was a lesson I held onto for far too long.
I adopted my mother’s newfound judgmental strand of Christianity, and the conservative politics that resulted from it. By then, I’d gotten scholarships, and headed off to increasingly prestigious private schools. The academics were great, but I didn’t fit in well. I remember individuals would often be kind and open to me, but groups usually were not. And I was set apart politically as well as socially. Mom’s flirtation with evangelism didn’t go very far, but the politics were more stable. And I loved to be contrary, seeing absolutes and truths everywhere in the rigid way of the intelligent teenager. The timid liberalism of those private schools, with its placid faith in the system to do right, had no answers for me. Private school kids, and most of the teachers, didn’t understand places like Cleghorn or the Patch, and so they couldn’t address the real source of my fears and prejudices. Their talk of race and economic relations was rooted in the black/white divide of Boston and most of the rest of the country, and that seemed bizarre and irrelevant to what I believed. I knew something of their world, but they knew nothing of mine, and so they were unable to move me.
But then, I would end up moving myself.
There was a hairdresser named Keith who rented an apartment from my grandmother and came over a couple times to give us all haircuts. My uncle would mention his name and AIDS an awful lot. I didn’t know much about AIDS then, other than it was deadly, and had something to do with gay people. So, I was afraid of Keith. I didn’t know much about gay people either, beyond the bare facts of who they “liked”, but I definitely knew Keith was Different. Maybe different like the Puerto Ricans were different. Bad different. And a very few years after Keith moved on from my grandmother’s building, I came to know that I was Different too.
What followed was a story too typical of my generation, of sleepless nights learning to fear to love anyone, of trying to explain it away in a million ways, of stealing glances when I thought nobody was looking while everyone else got to leer openly. Of pretend conversations about pretend girls with pretend boobs. Of remembering my young childhood insistence that girls were icky and I’d never marry one with a twist of irony. Of seeing relationships and love as for other people, not for me, as the hand of the God would definitely punish me in some awful way, probably involving hairdressers with AIDS. If I ever gave into it. Which I tried very hard not to do.
And of knowing, most of all, that now I was Different.
And the adults around me, they hated Different. They were unfair to it, harsh to it — mocked it, avoided it, and penalized it. I was already different in enough smaller ways to understand that. I caught enough grief for reading books a lot, and being awkward physically, and having ideas nobody else around had, even though they also acknowledged these qualities were likely to help me out in life. They knew these were signs of a smart kid who might go places, but wouldn’t engage with them. I’d get blanket expressions of approval for Being Smart, but these were belied by criticism and poking at the particulars. So, I learned to keep these differences to myself, since I’d at best only be laughed at for expressing them. And if I could be mocked for small differences, what would a huge difference do to me, if it came out? “Reading too often” had nothing on being gay.
I did the only thing I could think of. I boxed it all in. I learned to keep the greater part of what I was going through from them, and everyone else. And even from myself. It pulled us apart, of course. One of the first lies a gay kid tells himself is that being gay doesn’t affect your personality, it’s just who you like for sex. But of course, that’s only possible to believe if you’re a teenager who has no personal idea what love is yet. Love goes far deeper and affects far more than just sex. So as I hid the parts of myself related to being gay, I hid the parts related to love. And therefore came to hide nearly all of what I truly am.
But my internal life changed. I gave my heart to someone. It was given back. He didn’t have a choice; my gaydar wasn’t so hot back then. So I was deprived of a villain in my first failed love story, and was never able to properly hate him as might have been better for me. Instead I spent an unreasonable amount of time being morose and weird about it. However, it made me realize how deep being gay ran. The bullshit line a conservative gay kid clings to is “I’m not a gay person, I’m a person who happens to be gay.” But it was clear to me now, love’s not that simple. I couldn’t pretend that to myself any longer, and giving that game up turned my world around.
I didn’t abandon my politics immediately, but they were much less central. My college friends would have been surprised by my high school polemics. I was reconsidering everything, starting with my heart, but eventually I worked outwards. I ended up in the wrong major as a result, but so it goes. There’s no good time to go through a huge, personality redefining crisis. I rejected the prejudices I’d been handed about being gay, came out in college, voted for Al Gore. And I started to question a lot of the other attitudes I grew up with. Now that I was okay with my Different, I started to reconsider the other Different people. I started to learn the lies behind the racism I was taught, and how similar they were to the lies I was taught about gay people. I can’t claim to be racism free — no white American does so without generous self-delusion. But, I’ve learned at least to recognize a lot of it and fight my impulses towards it.
But I still lead a dual life. I grew far more cosmopolitan, far more accepting, and far better able to embrace differences instead of rejecting them by reflex. But I never shared this outlook with the family whose prejudices I had to overcome to gain it. I tried a few times, halfheartedly, but settled into a truce where they didn’t get their ideas challenged, at the price of not knowing the vast parts of me that didn’t fit with those ideas. They know only a shell, not the full me.
The election of 2016 did not surprise me; I knew America was capable of it. Trump is what poor people think rich people are like, a self promoting liar and charlatan who proves every day he knows nothing and does not care, and his fans still love him for it. I knew this country was capable of deeming him the best of us and giving him power. So no, the election did not surprise me. But it did disappoint me. It scared me, and scares me still. We have a racist in power, who doesn’t even understand the law much less respect it, and who lets his aggressive hostility rule him. The same type of quick false judgment that made my family look down on people for not working on a Sunday is now setting White House policy. And, a good chunk of my own family had voted for him, both proudly and reluctantly, out of those same old impulses that scared me of AIDS and loud Spanish music and difference.
It was a step too far. I snapped. I haven’t spoken to most of them since.
Trump has been a remarkably hostile president to the LGBT. But he’s been so much more horrible to others within the LGBT community, and worse still to other groups of people, I almost don’t dare bring it up in reference to myself. I wish I could claim the worst of it, and spare those more vulnerable still. There are concentration camps full of children in this country. There are now laws in place saying others’ religion can be used to deny me just about anything. There’s a judge sitting on a stolen seat on the highest bench who’ll freely and gladly vote to downgrade my particular citizenship. We have a vice president who probably thinks in his deepest heart that I should be killed. And I still don’t have the worst of it.
The thing about building a big wall between yourself and other people is you don’t get too choose which side everyone is going to stand on. Where you place the wall doesn’t matter. Building the barrier is itself the sin. I’ve been outside enough walls to take no comfort from being inside theirs. The walls of the closet I was stuck in for too long, and the closet I walk mostly back into when I’m around them, are made of the same hatreds they taught me for Puerto Ricans.
The “freeloaders” and “welfare mamas” and various far ruder words they flung around built the walls of my closet, and fired the fears that kept me there far too long. So now, when you say those words and express those beliefs, you mean me. You can’t drop the n-bomb or the s-word or any other epithet without me automatically translating it to faggot. I can’t hear it otherwise. Nearly all gay people understand it so. Trump claimed strong LGBT support, but it was just another lie: McCain got 27% of the LGBT vote, Romney 22%, while Trump got 14%. He doesn’t attack the LGBT first, but most of us understand that when targets are being lined up we’ll make the list eventually. Any world made of walls is a threat to all of us, and we have to stick together in the face of opposition, of hatreds — and of family, be they ignorant, hostile, or both.
This message is partly an answer to an aunt who doesn’t understand boundaries — at all — and so has been drafting other family members as messengers to undermine my wish to have nothing to do with her. But that will fail. I no longer will crawl back into the box they created and continue to create — and vote for! Ignorance is no defense. It’s how we got here, after all. And I’ve tried to inform, and to teach. They can’t handle me outside of my box, and I won’t go back inside anymore. That would make of me “a person who happens to be gay.” Which is to say, a lie.
What’s more, I wouldn’t do it even without the personal angle. Trump’s language has an edge and venom unlike any Republican presidential nominee before him. I wouldn’t have liked President McCain or Romney, but I wouldn’t have been unable to accept them. But Trump is plainly different. And an election like this must have consequences for the winners. If you voted for an openly racist President, you can’t get pissed at me for treating you like the type of person who would vote for an openly racist President.
I can’t countenance that when there are children separated from their families no matter what their parents’ crimes were. I can’t be at peace with that when your hatchet man in chief destroys the last vestiges of welfare, health care for millions, social security, and more, while profiteering personally and inflaming racism. He calls people animals on a regular basis. He destroys relationships with our allies and embraces terrible dictators. His followers would make a dictator out of him. And you are marching along with those people, people waving the Confederate battle flag and even the swastika, people who’d have my friends deported, and many of whom would have me shot. Look at your fellow travelers, and wonder no longer why I won’t be there to quietly pass the turkey in November. To stand beside you is to stand beside them. I will not do it.
I had no choice over being different, and neither do the Black people in your state, or trans people in your bathroom, or Puerto Ricans down the street. The Trump faction label us together to blame us, to attack us, and in some cases to kill us. And in the face of that threat, solidarity matters. The only way the Different can last this thing through is if we don’t abandon each other. And in voting for Trump you helped build that wall you’ve been working on my entire life, the wall between the Different and you. Thanks to your wall, I can’t live on both sides at once. So, misguided Trumpist family, you’ve given me a choice. On one side of your wall are the people who share my burdens and struggles, the people who don’t dismiss facts with prejudice, who understand how privilege and power work, and who know what it feels like to be an outsider. On the other side sit you, the builders of that wall, the makers of the box I shoved myself into for decades too long.
The choice was not hard. And I do not regret it.