Many years ago when I was speaking to an undergraduate class on spirituality and sexuality, a student asked me the following question: what does it take to become an ally with a gay person? My answer, which surprises me even to this day, was: you need to have your heart broken.
It was one of those responses that seemed to come from someplace deep, and I find that it’s a wisdom that informs how I view social justice efforts. More importantly, I’ve come to understand that true change only happens when hearts are broken open, because we risk being vulnerable—being known, warts and all.
Fast forward to Sue O’Connell’s essay last week about Black men and gay white men. My initial, cursory read was fairly predictable—I’ve gone to graduate school and learned how to deconstruct and critique with frightening speed. I’ve prided myself and been rewarded amply for my smarts, specifically my abilities to craft arguments and counter arguments. It’s been a skill that has served me well, except when it hasn’t.
Something occurred to me, what if I remained curious and open to understanding better the genesis of the essay? What happened if I reached out to Sue to hear about the process? In other words, what if I took contrary action?
The result, an opportunity to listen...and to learn.
I decided to reach out to Sue via facebook email, and she gracious replied within minutes of my email. We arranged to speak by phone later that day. When we spoke, I listened to her intently and with curiosity. When I spoke I told her about intersectionality—the idea that we often occupy multiple identities and that it’s important to understand this when talking about race and sexuality. I learned a little about Sue’s background, that she grew up in the working class community of Revere; she talked about sexism and male privilege. In the end, any of the embers of righteous indignation I might have felt initially cooled, because we were two human beings listening and learning.
The lesson (and hope) in all of this is that by understanding each other better, we are a lot less defended and defensive, that we are vulnerable with each other and can share with each other examples of when we get it wrong (e.g., my sexism), and that by learning we are transformed far beyond politically correct discourses to a place where our hearts truly can break at oppression, because we really know each other and can see the horrible toll it exacts on us all.
But that can only happen when we risk saying something perceived to be politically incorrect. Thanks, Sue, for taking that risk, and for the opportunity to get to know you better. I hope this is the beginning of a transformative experience, because even from where I stand, I can all too often get it wrong.