Tag Archives: Racism

Why I had to un-friend my favorite aunt on Facebook today

“I don’t understand it, but I accept it.”

Those words would have to rank near the top of my list of the most annoying things straight people say about gay people. What they’re really saying: “You’re sinners, but you’re here and you’re queer, so what choice do we have but to put up with you?”

Despite serious misgivings, I decided to let it go when my Aunt Juliet did the whole song and dance at my brother Jeff’s wedding 11 years ago. I had just introduced her to my then-boyfriend Khleber, and I was so determined not to ruin Jeff’s big day that I let it pass when she started talking about how sad she was that I would miss out on a spouse and kids, all the things that heterosexuality would have supposedly granted me that she herself was living without.

Come to think of it, Jeff’s wedding day wasn’t the best moment to be gay. The stench of homophobia was in the air, and my Uncle Achille, who was performing the ceremony, made an even bigger stink than Juliet.

I was best man, and I was so nervous about getting it right that I totally missed the thing Achille said about two men in the Garden of Eden. Being the fire-and-brimstone Bible thumper I’d always known him to be, he couldn’t just leave a tender moment alone. He had to drop in some judgment, which, in hindsight, I realize was totally for my benefit and for that of my brother Alexi, who is also gay.

He made some crack about how God created Adam and Eve, not “Hemp and Shemp” …or something to that effect. The names are not as relevant as the intended message: God hates you, faggots. Fortunately, both the words and the message went over my head because my head was elsewhere.

Wait, where’s the ring?…Oh, there it is.

When my mother repeated her former brother-in-law’s comment later at the reception, her voice dripping with disgust, she was furious. It was actually my first time hearing it, and I wasn’t sure if her reaction was about what Achille had said or the forum in which he’d chosen to say it. I decided she was angry for me and for Alexi, and I loved her for it.

As for my uncle, I had only one personal encounter with him at the wedding. It was when he walked into the men’s room and caught Khleber and me in a warm embrace. He glared at us but didn’t say a word, not even when I directly addressed him and asked how he was doing. I bit my tongue and let his silent treatment go. He’d always been my least favorite uncle, and I knew I’d probably never see or speak to him again after Jeff’s wedding day.

Now I can say the same thing about Juliet, who today became the first family member ever to be un-friended by me on Facebook. The deal breaker arrived on the morning shortly after I learned that the U.S. Supreme Court had declared gay marriage legal. It was wrapped in big box of hate and re-posted on Facebook:

The post itself isn’t even worth debating. It’s passive-aggressive drivel, hate dressed up in Sunday church clothes. If you think I’m a sinner who is going to hell, if you don’t support me or marriage between my kind, I have absolutely no use for your “love” or “friendship.” As for the alleged name-calling and stereotyping, if you’re going to walk the homophobic walk and talk the talk, be prepared to be taken down for it.

But on a more personal level, why would a woman who has at least three gay nephews spread this message in a place where she knows they’ll likely read it? Was she trying to douse a celebratory occasion with some good old-fashioned negativity, just as my uncle did on my brother’s wedding day?

Here’s the thing about homophobia. Like racism, it doesn’t always carry a pitchfork and twirl its moustache. My Aunt Juliet would probably never openly criticize me or my life. The last time I spoke to her, we had a perfectly pleasant conversation. But at the end of the day, she thinks I’m defective. She can hide behind “love” and the Bible all she wants, but she’s homophobic. I have as much use for homophobes as I do for racists. As the kids say (or at least used to), deuces.

Alexi, who tends to take this sort of thing better than I do, may or may not agree with my reaction to the latest incident of homophobia within our family ranks. But I’m pretty sure he understands and accepts it. That’s a lot more than I ever got from others who have called me family.

I can do better…and I already have.

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Why I Think I’d Rather Climb Ev’ry Mountain Than Date in Cape Town

So this is what I’ve been missing?

That was my thought exactly when I read the digital display on the iPhone that my new acquaintance was holding up in front of my face. I wasn’t sure what to think, but he clearly had an agenda. He wanted to elicit a specific response from me — not shock, not outrage, but the ah ha! of enlightenment. He was waiting for me to finally get it.
We’d met two days earlier through a mutual friend, and we’d immediately found common ground. We were both gay black men from the United States who had spent a significant amount of time living and traveling abroad. A self-described “academic” (translation: professional student) whose specialty was African studies, he told me that he’s been based in Cape Town for one year, but he’s been coming to South Africa for 10. He seemed to have a love-hate relationship with Cape Town that was similar to the one I used to have with Buenos Aires (before the hate took over). We had a lot to talk about.
I told him about my experiences at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, and how my background played into my reaction to everything I saw there. He nodded. He understood. I told him about Sophiatown Bar Lounge, and how on my final night in Joburg (or Jozi, as Cape Town locals also call it), the jazz scene there had reminded me of something out of the Harlem Renaissance. He knew exactly what I was talking about and described it as “1990s A Different World-style new African awareness crossed with 1920s jazz.” Bingo!
I told him about the book that I’m working on, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World, which documents my experiences as a gay, black man living abroad, with a focus on my various romantic entanglements over the last seven years. He got everything I was saying in a way that most of the (white) people I told about it never fully grasped because it hadn’t happened to them. Nothing I said surprised him. He’d lived it, too.
When I saw him last night, he asked me about my experiences dating in South Africa so far. I was ashamed to say that I had nothing. I haven’t been out on a date since my second week in Tel Aviv nearly two months ago, nor have I enjoyed (or not, which is typically the case these days, hence my inactivity) any romantic encounters in nearly just as long.
I go through these celibate, hermetic stages with increasing regularity as I get older. I suppose that years of romantic disappointment have taken a toll. That and the fact that I simply haven’t come across anyone who has captured both my eye and my mind. I’ve seen plenty of attractive men, and I’ve even been pursued by a few of them, but I’d rather spend my nights in my own company than that of a relative stranger who is too busy wondering what I look like naked (or fiddling with his smart phone) to be listening to anything I’m saying. Been there, done that. I’m better off alone.
But I’ve occasionally wondered if I’m missing out while staying in. Not on any potential Mr. Rights — I gave up on his existence ages ago — but on new, fascinating stories to add to my gallery of exploits. I’m in South Africa, after all, a country in which I’m no longer the racial minority, the exotic forbidden fruit. There shouldn’t be the same mystique about me here that there was in Argentina, or Australia, or Bangkok, or any of the places I’ve visited these last few years.
I had imagined that if I were to dip into the Cape Town dating pool, my experiences might be a lot like they had been in the United States, where there were enough black guys to go around that nobody ever wanted me simply because they’d never had anything like me before. And South Africa’s history of racism and segregation (both of which continue to be blemishes on the gay scene, judging from what I saw at Crew and Zer021 last Friday night) would see to it that I’m just as invisible among the white gay population here as I had been in the U.S.
I left the U.S. before the rise in social media, the acceptance of online dating, and the emergence of Grindr as the principal meet market for gay men, so I have no idea how the new technology would influence how guys back home would respond to me now. Grindr in South Africa, though, has offered more of the same old, same old in the proposals I’ve been receiving. (I’ve pretty much retired from making the first move because I deal with enough rejection in other areas of my life.) I easily could be in Melbourne or Bangkok or Berlin or Rome or Tel Aviv, the only difference being that for the first time, a few black men are thrown into the mix of guys who approach me.
For the most part, the guys on Grindr in South Africa are, surprisingly, white. I’m not sure if the reason for this is social (homosexuality being less accepted among African blacks) or economic (African blacks being less likely to have smart phones with which to use the Grindr app), but the lack of a black presence on Grindr in South Africa has brought out the same response to me online as the lack of a black presence in everyday society brought out in every predominantly white or Asian city I’ve spent time in since 2010, whether I was online or off, surrounded by gays, straights or a mix of both.
I’m bombarded by the same indelicate messages from horny guys who are only looking for one thing. For many, my skin color continues to make me the fresh catch of the day. “So want a black cock!!” one guy, a tourist from Greece, indelicately announced, as if there weren’t plenty of those to go around in Cape Town. (Tourists and expats, incidentally, appear to comprise a larger portion of the Grindr population in Cape Town than in Joburg, which might explain the resurgent awareness of “black” here.) Others, some South African, have resorted to the question that has been the bane of my bachelorhood for more than seven years: “Is it true what they say about black men?”
They make it so easy to lapse into dateless celibacy, which might be as much of a reason as the places I’ve been in for the peaceful easy feeling I’ve enjoyed these past two months. But sitting across from my new acquaintance who was inquiring about my impression of gay dating in South Africa, I felt uneasy because I had nothing to contribute. Then there was the Grindr conversation I was looking at. It was one in which he had approached a shirtless white piece of beefcake who appeared to be in the shower. My acquaintance began the exchange with a simple “Howsit?” followed by his own shirtless pose.
The second sentence of the guy’s three-sentence response sent a chill down my spine:
“I’m sorry, but I don’t cross racial lines in dating.”
I was as disarmed by his perfect punctuation as I was by the declaration it had been wasted on. He simply could have ignored the message, or he could have offered some vague reason why he wasn’t interested. Despite the formal tone, there was a certain level of hostility in his message. He came across like a well-educated bigot. I’d encountered plenty of those, though I’d never been rejected by a guy who specifically offered my color as the reason.
“I guess that’s the kind of reaction I’d get if I were online dating in the U.S.,” I concluded. While allowing gay guys to hide behind fakery, Grindr has also had the effect of making them more brutally honest, often to a fault. Maybe the modern American gay guy who doesn’t do black wouldn’t have any qualms about bluntly saying so either. Could “I don’t cross racial lines” be a delicate way of doing it without getting too specific and bogged down in “black” and “white,” sort of like subbing “fun” for “sex”?
My new acquaintance begged to differ regarding the U.S. comparison. Clearly I didn’t get it. This response, he pointed out, was uniquely South African, because it had the lingering thumbprint of Apartheid all over it. It wasn’t just a personal choice, nor was it personal, not exactly. It was a cold, clinical reflection of the institutionalized racism and segregation that had defined South African society for decades. He hadn’t said, “I’m not attracted to black guys,” or “I don’t date black guys.” His specific wording (without being specific at all) seemed to imply that it wasn’t just about preference or attraction but rather adherence to a long-standing principle. In his dating world, the events of the early 1990s in South Africa hadn’t changed a thing. It might as well have still been 1984.
Wow. I hadn’t even thought of that angle. I am, after all, new in South Africa, and he is someone who has had an entire year of dating experience in this country, plus his African studies, to influence how he contextualizes Grindr messages. He’d seen and read it all before. I thought I had, too, but this was a first for me. I was glad I had ventured out for a beer after a day spent climbing Lion’s Head and scaling Signal Hill, if only to experience vicariously something I had no desire to live firsthand.
I was even more grateful for my current dateless, sexless existence. I don’t need ugliness like that ruining all of Cape Town’s breathtaking views.

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Coming to Terms with the Skin I’m In: How South Africa Is Already Changing My Life

It’s now been four and a half days since my arrival in South Africa, and already, I can feel the stirring of a profound evolution deep inside my soul. It’s percolating, bubbling under, almost certain to eventually erupt in a big bang of mental and emotional transformation.

It began with the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg on Friday afternoon, around the time that I was fully engrossed in the exhibit dedicated to Ernest Cole’s House of Bondage, transfixed by images I’d never seen before but looked strangely familiar. As I stood there with tears welling up in my eyes, I felt this unsettling sense of deja vu. I’d seen those images before, not the exact same pictures, but ones just like them. (Not all of them black-themed either, for I couldn’t stop thinking of the white Dust Bowl family in Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” when I saw Cole’s depiction of a black Apartheid mother and child in House of Bondage.)

I’ve been bombarded with them all my life — in stories I’ve been told, in chapters of history books I’ve read, on pages that I’ve pored over in encyclopedias, in movies that I’ve sat through uncomfortably (most recently, The Butler), all of which revolved around Civil Rights in the United States. Interestingly, the travesties of the Civil Rights era on one side of the world were being committed concurrently with the travesties of Apartheid on the other side of the world, as depicted in Cole’s photos.

I suddenly felt connected to South Africa, to Africa, in a way I was always told I was supposed to, because I’m black, because this is where my ancestors came from. Well, if history is to be believed, this is where all of our ancestors originated, whether we’re white or black. From what I’ve been hearing from various local sources, including Solly, the driver who took me to the Apartheid Museum, the cradle of mankind is within driving distance of Johannesburg, roughly one hour away.

As I stood looking at the black-and-white photo of the little boy, melting in the sweltering heat of the classroom, struggling to concentrate, I saw myself. I never had to study under those conditions, but I felt as if I knew exactly how he felt — awkward, uncomfortable, stifled, eager to learn. I wondered where he is now. If he is now. An old but new thought crept into my mind: We are the world. We are one world. For the first time in my life, Africa truly felt like the mother land. It had nothing to do with black pride and everything to do with what I saw in the eyes of that little boy: myself.

If nothing else, I expect my time in South Africa (which will be at least one more month, but likely longer) to be a time of intense healing and self-acceptance. The latter because I’m already beginning to feel more comfortable in my own skin. It’s partly because for the first time in years, when a non-black person looks at me for too long, I actually will have to wonder why. It won’t be because they so seldom see people with my coloring. It won’t be out of curiosity (Is it true what they say about black men?). It will likely be for something that’s uniquely me and belongs to me only.

That’s the self-acceptance part, which is already beginning to be be overshadowed by the healing. That part actually has nothing to do with white people and everything to do with black people, with whom I’ve had a life-long complicated relationship. It began when I was 4 years old, and my family moved from the U.S. Virgin Islands to the U.S. mainland, in Kissimmee, Florida. We eventually settled in an all-black neighborhood, and despite the physical similarities I shared with our neighbors, I probably wouldn’t have felt more like an outsider had we ended up in the whitest community in town.

The racism I felt coming from a certain segment of Kissimmee’s white population while I was growing up couldn’t compare to the racism and xenophobia I often encountered from portions of the American black community that resented me and my entire family because we were black and foreign — “noisy Jamaicans,” they called us, pejoratively (more for the second word than the first), apparently because to them, the Caribbean equaled the land of reggae and Rastafarianism. (Some day I’ll have to explore the relationship between American blacks and Jamaica, which has always struck me as being somewhat uneasy, considering that in the U.S., reggae has always seemed to be more embraced by whites than by blacks.)

We spoke with strange accents, and we kept to ourselves. Who did we think we were? What did we think we were: better than them?

When I was in first grade and people asked me where I was from because of the funny way I spoke (coming from me, the number three sounded like “tree,” and at the hardly ripe young age of 6, I still couldn’t tell the difference), I sometimes lied and said the Virginia Islands, hoping they wouldn’t realize that no such thing exists. I was too ashamed to say the Virgin Islands. I wanted to fit in, and if the way I talked was going to lead to my being singled out in a negative way by some of my black classmates (interestingly, I can’t recall a single white kid ever ridiculing me for that), at least I could come from a place that wasn’t so exotic, one that was associated with a U.S. state.

The white racism directed toward me while I was growing up was contained to strictly verbal cut-downs. It never touched me physically. “I smell nigger” coming from rednecks on the playground messed with my 11-year-old psyche in dangerous ways, but the black-on-black racism left physical as well as emotional scars. It scared me so much more. When they weren’t sure that their words were getting to me, the black kids who picked on me started picking up sticks and stones.

The physical bruises healed, but the emotional ones never did completely. It wasn’t until I went to college at the University of Florida in Gainesville that I finally escaped the emotional and physical cruelty. For the first time in my life, the majority of black Americans I met accepted me and didn’t make fun of me. If I eventually overcame the fear and resentment of black people that was borne from the way some of them treated me in my youth, I never forgot it completely. It continued to haunt me, contributing to the racism that I harbored toward my my fellow (black) man. (Yes, I choose to own it because, as James Baldwin suggested in in Notes on a Native Son, it’s immoral not to.)

But in South Africa, being around such a large and diverse black population, I sense something shifting inside my soul. I feel a certain camaraderie with my fellow blacks here, a comfort around them that I’ve never felt around blacks anywhere else. I don’t know if they are able to look at me and tell that I’m from somewhere else, but when I open my mouth to speak, I can’t imagine they would ever ridicule the accent that I never quite lost. They speak English with an exotic accent, too!

That’s not to say that they don’t acknowledge our cultural differences — when Solly was explaining to me the housing situation in Johannesburg and he used the word “ghetto,” he started to explain what a “ghetto” is and seemed surprised that I already knew — but so far, it’s been done with the utmost respect and acceptance. I don’t know how far that respect and acceptance will extend into other aspects of who I am, but the fact that I’ve seen several gay couples walking down 7th Street, holding hands, without onlookers so much as flinching, is encouraging.

Of course, being that I’m a creature of contradiction (beginning with the dueling introvert and extrovert sides of my personality), no profound evolution would be complete without a little bit of contradiction sprinkled on top. With my burgeoning newfound appreciation and acceptance of my skin color has come a different kind of awareness of it. It creeps up on me every time I sit down in a restaurant here. Most of the waiters who have served me in Johannesburg have been black, and on 7th Street in Melville when I go from restaurant to restaurant and I see the mostly black staff, it’s hard for me not to feel pangs of guilt.

Are the owners, like the ones at Lucky Bean beside Saffron Guest House, white? Do the black employees commute to and from the townships to earn minimal wages? Who are the invisible occupants of all the beautiful homes in Melville? In my new black fantasy (the first one I’ve enjoyed since Django Unchained), the black employees work for black bosses who go home at night to the houses here.

I hate that I’m even thinking along these lines, which is something I never did in the United States because the division of labor in the restaurants I went to there didn’t appear to be determined along white-black color lines. Most of the people who served me were white, and I never wondered where they lived.

It doesn’t matter that the clientele in most of the places in Melville is largely black as well, though it matters more when the clientele is mostly white. Sadly, I’ll leave Johannesburg tomorrow, before I can understand why the white people in Melville flock to certain places on 7th Street and not to others, which is one more reason to hate this looming color awareness. Why does it even matter to me?

I’m still trying to process this aspect of my current evolutionary process and what I can only describe as my personal version of white liberal guilt, the seeds of which may have been planted on the way back from the Apartheid Museum when Solly explained the difficulties that blacks continue to face when applying for white-collar work. I never thought liberal guilt looked particularly good on white people, and it’s not doing me any favors.

I’m owning it, though, which might the first step in conquering it. I hope that my ongoing evolution in South Africa will lead not only to complete comfort in my own skin but perhaps, at last, it won’t matter to me what color anyone else’s is either.

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The Five Best Nelson Mandela Quotes at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg

I can’t believe it took me so long. I was near the end of my four and a half hours at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg — featuring a special exhibit on Nelson Mandela and a permanent one on the history of South Africa, which, sadly, is synonymous with the history of Apartheid there — when I finally made the connection I should have been making all of my life.

Nelson Mandela is South Africa’s Martin Luther King Jr. and a still-living-and-breathing example of how much further the slain Civil Rights leader could have gone. I’d always thought of King as the greatest political leader of the last century, but when the museum kept making that case for Mandela, I couldn’t argue. It made me wonder what King, who was assassinated in 1968 at age 39, might have become he had lived to be the ripe old age of 96 (Mandela’s current age) and counting.

Would he, and not Barack Obama, have one day — one much earlier day — become the first black U.S. president? In what other ways might the course of relatively recent U.S. history have been altered? How would the course of relatively recent South African history have been altered had Mandela, who was already in his mid 70s when he became the country’s first President elected by a democratic majority in 1994, met the same tragic fate as an African leader like Stephen Biko?

For all of the injustices he survived and his accomplishments in spite of them, Mandela was not the reason why I had to take a time-out to sit down and weep around the halfway point. That honor would go to the section of the permanent collection dedicated to House of Bondage, Ernest Cole’s book of photo essays, published in 1967, when he was but a mere 27 years old. Among the excerpts hanging on the wall was a stunning sentence, one simple declaration that I had to read over and over to let it sink into my soul until my heart broke under the weight of my soul’s sorrow:

“It’s an extraordinary experience to live as though life were a punishment for being black.”

Such an indisputable truth, so devastating in its stark resignation, as was pretty much every word in House of Bondage that I read yesterday. This was the greatest beauty of Cole’s literary and visual masterpiece. It was not a call to arms but a call to enlightenment. Its stunning journalistic observation documented the life and times of the African individual as well as of the entire African nation during Apartheid.

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In my extolling of the many virtues of Cole, of whom I’d never even heard before yesterday, I don’t mean to overlook or diminish those of Mandela. His heroism, though, is more common knowledge. I expected to be moved by him. What I didn’t expect, though, was to be as moved by his words as I was by his deeds. Here are Mandela’s five statements that resonated with me most during my time at the Apartheid Museum.

5. “None of us can be described as having virtues or qualities that raise him or her above others.”

4. “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that enhances and and respects the freedom of others.”

3. “I detest racialism because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black man or a white man.”

2. “The cell is an ideal place to know yourself. People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishment, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones, such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity and an absence of variety. You learn to look into yourself.”

1. “I learnt that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

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Thank God There’s More to “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” Than Watching the Title Character at Work!

Calling a movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler and then not showing said butler at work would be a lot like calling a movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler when it was directed by Quentin Tarantino. That’s the other director whose name kept popping into my head while I was watching Lee Daniels’ The Butler (thusly titled for legal reasons, not primarily for reasons related to directorial ego, though I have a feeling the latter is as big as Oprah Winfrey’s hair in the movie) because Lee Daniels’ The Butler is the sort of inspirational, feel-bad-and-then-feel-good movie that Tarantino would never make.

In fact, early in the film when one black character objects to another black character calling himself a “house nigger” by slapping him and admonishing him for his self-description (“Don’t you ever use that word, son. It’s white man’s word, filled with hate. Didn’t your father ever teach you any better?”), it almost feels like a smack from one screenwriter (Danny Strong) to another (Tarantino) over Tarantino’s alleged overuse of the N word in last year’s Django Unchained. I say “alleged” because hard as it may have been to hear the N word so frequently in Django, I have no doubt that it was probably uttered even more frequently on slave plantations in the Deep South in the late 1850s than Tarantino would have us believe.

In black history according to director Lee Daniels (Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, for which the filmmaker with a penchant for awkward movie titles became only the second black Best Director Oscar nominee), Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th U.S. President and a strong supporter of black civil rights during his term of office, gets to utter it more frequently than any other characterTherein lies my biggest problem with The Butler — not Johnson and the N word, mind you, but Johnson’s presence (via Liev Schreiber, who totally looks the part) in the move to begin with.

Ironically, for a movie called Lee Daniels’ The Butler about a butler, I found the on-the-job sequences to be the film’s weakest links. There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s an excellent movie based on the behind-the-scenes White House shenanigans in Eugene Allen’s account of his decades as a Presidential servant (the subject of the Washington Post article on which The Butler is based), but I’m not so sure that a movie that seems to be more interested in the simultaneous Civil Rights Movement is the best place to tell that story.

The five Presidents depicted in the film are too sketchily drawn — and, ironically, it’s the Democratic ones, especially that “nigger”-spewing Johnson, who come out looking the worst — and their presence feels more like a marketing ploy (“And here’s Jane Fonda as First Lady Nancy Reagan!”) than crucial to the story, especially since the famous actors portraying the former U.S. Commanders-in-Chief aren’t given much to do. I think the movie would have been better served had it taken the Veep approach and left the Presidents unseen, except in archival footage, as Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama are shown. (Fun fact: Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, as the mother of a vicious plantation owner, are in the same film for the first time since 1977’s Julia, though at opposite ends of it.)

Speaking of famous actors, I’m glad Daniels cast Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines, the wife of the titular character Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), instead of someone like Viola Davis, who would have sucked all the fun out of the role. Winfrey makes Gloria more than just the devoted wife. It’s a fully realized character (in some ways, more so than Cecil himself), and Winfrey handles her delicately, never smashing us over the head with Gloria’s ticks. It wasn’t until well into the film that it dawned on me that she was an alcoholic! Winfrey’s second Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination is as guaranteed as Mo’Nique’s win in the same category for Precious was four years ago.

Thanks, in part, to Winfrey’s commanding presence in it, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is most successful as a family drama (sort of like Precious) with the Civil Rights Movement as its backdrop. I wish it had focused on the butler’s off-the-clock life without shoehorning in the Presidential elements like a history lesson presented by Cliff Notes. The lecture on the Civil Rights Movement from the black point of view is far more thorough and engaging than the overly simplified presentation of how the various U.S. Presidents reacted to it.

Yes, Daniels teaches with a sledgehammer instead of a ruler, but the white-on-black atrocities of the 1960s are not begging for a light, subtle touch. My main gripe here is that the film’s suggestion that the Civil Rights Movement evolved from a non-violent one into a militant one mainly because of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. is too easy. That said, the scene of the Freedom Riders’ sit-in inside a Tennessee diner is fantastically filmed and nicely juxtaposed with the White House dinner scene, and the terror of the passengers on the bus in Alabama as it’s torched by the KKK is palpable, making it one of the film’s most effective and maddening moments.

My outrage while watching it felt like an organic response to a recreation that’s presented with the journalistic authority and matter-of-fact (and public record) realism of a documentarian, unlike the manipulative opening flashback, which seems to exist solely to immediately rile up viewers, just in case they don’t realize that the horrors of black life in the post-Reconstruction South weren’t so much different from the horrors of black life before the Civil War. (Apparently, none of what transpires onscreen actually happened to Eugene Allen or his father and mother, who is briefly portrayed by an almost unrecognizable Mariah Carey, looking even better with no make-up than she did inPrecious.) The 1926-set scene, which wouldn’t have seemed out of place on one of Django Unchained‘s 1850s plantations, is hardly crucial to the story of a boy who didn’t grow up to hate white people.

Had that opening flashback actually happened to Eugene Allen, I would have expected him to end up more like Cecil’s older son Louis, a Freedom Riding Black Panther, or like Django, than the servile “house negro” that Cecil turns out to be, one who has a front-row seat to racist attitudes and agendas, but lower pay than white servants aside, doesn’t really seem to suffer too greatly from the injustices of racism after the opening incident. He’s got a steady job, a nice home, and most importantly, immaculate duds.

I understand that the purpose of making Cecil such a passive character was to contrast his docile approach to black-white relations with his son’s far more incendiary point of view, and I like that the movie challenges him on it, while resisting the urge to portray butlerhood as some noble calling. It’s just a job. Instead The Butler holds the work ethicdisplayed by these domestic servants in particularly high regard and suggests that this strong work ethic itself was a form of Civil Rights activism.

It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not really buying into it, especially since there are other ways for hard-working folks to express their work ethic that don’t involve pampering over-privileged people and counting the number of shoes in Jackie Kennedy’s closet. Ultimately, neither does Cecil, since his actions late in the film undermine that idea that he has done anything for which he should be proud. Clearly Cecil wishes he had fought harder on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement.

Near the end, when Cecil, in voice over, decries the American way of condemning human-rights abuse around the world, from the Holocaust to Vietnam to Apartheid, while ignoring the 200-year legacy of it at home, I nodded my head in agreement. So true. But did Cecil really have to spend so much time at work onscreen to figure that out?

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Planet(Romeo) of the Apes: Love and War Online in Europe

When it comes to soul mates, it’s not how they meet (regardless of what cutesy Hollywood romantic comedies condition us to wish for) but that they meet at all. And these days, the Internet is as valid a means to that end as any other. I have a number of friends, gay and straight, who found the current loves of their lives while surfing the Web. I don’t see it ever going down that way for me, but I remain open to the distinct possibility.

So if there are any gay men left who still object to online-dating websites and hook-up apps like Grindr, Hornet, PlanetRomeo and Manhunt (the ones I’ve used in the past few years, though there are a million more), they should reconsider. For guys who are still in the closet, it’s the perfect way to reap the sexual benefits of gay life without participating in it full on. For those who’ve come out but couldn’t be bothered to get ready to go out, you can find your match while lounging around unwashed and unclothed. If you’re looking for fastlove (like George Michael in his hit from 1996, back when sex clubs and public parks and loos were still the best options), it’s the perfect place to find it with minimal effort.

And finally, for those who think they’ll meet higher-quality people in real life, judging from the number of guys who have messaged me after spotting me in a bar, a club, in the supermarket, running in the park, or walking down the street, the men you encounter online are the same ones you’ll find off. The big difference: They’re less inhibited online, free to express their true intentions from the safety of in front of the computer screen (“I want your body, not your heart,” as Christina Aguilera sang on “Get Mine, Get Yours”), so if you don’t fall for fake photos, artificial sweet talk and other assorted lies, you’ll end up wasting less time with great pretenders. You no longer have to sleep with a guy to know that he won’t call you the next day, and you will probably be spared the unwelcome discovery that you’re dating a racist. People are far more likely to boldly and blindly spew their racism online.

On the downside, if you’re looking for more than fastlove, or a conversation that doesn’t include questions like “Top or bottom?”, “What are you looking for?”, “What are you into?” or “Horny?”, you’ll have to weed through a significant number of undesirables. I thought it couldn’t get any worse than it was in Bangkok. After all, one would expect a city so dominated by the sex trade to be full of guys who are looking for only one thing online. Hence “fun” is usually the fresh catch of the day. What’s love got to do with it?

I heard it through the grapevine while I was in Bangkok that European guys aren’t the same online in Europe as they are in Bangkok, and for a while, that’s all I had to go on. Before my arrival in Berlin in mid-July, I’d never experienced the online-dating scene in Europe first hand. I’d been told that guys would be more polite and less forward, and I figured out on my own that since I wouldn’t be as much of an ethnic rarity as I was in South America, Australia and Asia, there probably would be fewer allusions to my skin color and that annoying myth (“Is it true what they say about black men?”), the bane of my existence for most of the past seven years (since I left the U.S. for Argentina on September 15, 2006).

In Germany, my expectations proved to be more or less on the mark. Most of the guys who contacted me were only looking for fastlove, but dominant opening line (“Sexy!”) aside, they went about it in pretty much the same way that they would in person, usually asking my name and origin before “Top or bottom?” Curiously, in my entire month in Germany, I don’t believe a single guy approached me speaking German, only English, which was different from my experience in Thailand and in South America. The guys that I did end up meeting face-to-face impressed me more on a conversational level than most of the locals I encountered when I went out.

So with my guard down, I was unprepared for the onslaught of crudeness that greeted my arrival in Italy a week and a half ago, mostly from Italians but also from horny guys here on holiday. I’ve seen more body parts shot at unimaginable angles in the last week and a half than I did in the two and a half years since I left Buenos Aires. (Who takes those graphic butt shots?!) And the guys had come-ons to match. Most of them were in Italian but by using my Spanish (to which Italian bears obvious similarities) and Google Translator, I caught their drift. (I also learned that Caio, which I always thought meant “Goodbye,” also means “Hello.”)

Why waste time asking my name or where I’m from when you can kick things off with a simple “Sex?”? And of course, as in every country into which I’ve stepped foot in the last two and half years, there’s the dreaded “Top or bottom?” (or “Attivo o passivo?”), though for the first time since I arrived in Bangkok two years ago, no “fun” for “sex,” or “Fun?” “XXX?” or “Hot pics?” some guys ask, suggesting that the shirtless ones in my profiles aren’t hot enough. And while we’re on the subject of my ego, I’m not sure whether to take the alarming number of guys who have asked if I am an escort, or if I would be willing to take money for the pleasure of being serviced, as a compliment or an insult.

I had no trouble, however, telling whether stern_mark, the 27-year-old with a photo-free profile who contacted me on PlanetRomeo yesterday meant to compliment or insult me. Yeah, I was a bit of a snarky jerk from the start but mostly because sometimes the only way to deal with the preponderance of inane introductions and profiles without photos is to have a little bit of fun with them. Why do people expect respect or a response when they aren’t brave enough to show themselves?

All it took was an offhand sarcastic comment aimed at his opening line to set him off. He would have received a better response had his message come with a photo and without immediately identifying himself as “Asian,” which insulted my intelligence and open-mindedness with its suggestion that he was in a hurry to get what he apparently saw as the one potential deal breaker out of the way. Or maybe he was bragging — either way, I was thoroughly unimpressed. My response led to a breakdown of his composure and a complete expression of his true colors, which overshadowed any good points that he did eventually make (in message No. 12 below).

I forgot that sarcasm doesn’t always translate well — or maybe I just didn’t care in that moment. But I don’t think anything I wrote warranted his sweeping negative generalizations about black men — “gorillas,” as he calls us. Just because I was being a bit of an asshole, does that mean Joseph (the super-nice black guy from Washington DC whom I met on Friday night) is one, too?

I’m slightly ashamed of myself for baiting him in the first place, for not taking the higher road and for engaging him as long as I did. But a show of restraint on my part wouldn’t have given me such a great view of stern_mark, a much better one than any photo would have offered. Tellingly, a non-Italian is one of the few guys in Italy who has even referred to my skin color or to race at all. Thanks to PlanetRomeo, another bullet dodged before it had a chance to be fired!

Here’s how the battle (stern_mark vs. I_Travel) went down.

1. stern_mark25. Aug. 2013 – 16:19
Hi Asian here now in rome
2. I_Travel25. Aug. 2013 – 16:40
good for you lol
3. stern_mark25. Aug. 2013 – 16:41
What u mean good for me. In what sense??
4. stern_mark25. Aug. 2013 – 16:48
Why are u lol is there sny reason why u hv to laugh
5. I_Travel25. Aug. 2013 – 16:49
let’s just let this go. i’m not interested.
6. stern_mark25. Aug. 2013 – 16:50
I’m not also I trested on u. I’m not interested on block guys
7. I_Travel25. Aug. 2013 – 16:50
well then, you’re the idiot because YOU messaged ME.
8. stern_mark25. Aug. 2013 – 16:52
Sorry I’m just messaging a monkey like u want to give u a banana.
9. stern_mark25. Aug. 2013 – 16:57
Pls observe respect in this site . U black people wherever u go ur true colours appear., u want to fight. Look back to ur origin famine drought. So be carefull what ur saying.
10. I_Travel25. Aug. 2013 – 17:04
you are being ridiculous. i made a little joke and you got all bent out of shape about it. you are the one who brought color into it, first identifying yourself as asian, then going on and on about my being black. to me you just sound like a stupid racist. game over. you lose.
11. I_Travel25. Aug. 2013 – 17:05
hahaha! thanks for confirming what i thought about you after getting your first message. you are a racist, chasing after a black guy when you actually hate black people. and you don’t even have the guts to show your face. THAT is why i was not interested from the start.
12. stern_mark25. Aug. 2013 – 17:13
U know in this chat . U should be carefull on what u write because it would mid understood., I was asking the reason why u laugh for no reason that’s wh I ask u? N u don’t answer . Lol means u are insulting me!!! For no reason . U don’t hv to joke at me coz were stranger for both of us . U know what I mean. Be polite if I’m asking u just answer. Are u educated person . Did u ask my photos no coz u didn’t., yes we here racist for black guy who act like u. U know I do t want to hv enemies here
13. stern_mark25. Aug. 2013 – 17:15
Just be careful in Asia we do t want our blood to genes like u
14. I_Travel25. Aug. 2013 – 17:18
whatever, dude. i’m done with this. i have more important things to do than engage in petty back and forth with a humorless racist. good luck in your search. i have a feeling you are going to need it.
15. stern_mark25. Aug. 2013 – 17:23
U black people wherever u go ur always a troublemaker it’s in ur blood gorillas!!go back to school. Educate urself .. Next time don’t laugh if there no being funny I’m a nurse ur like my mental patient ill enter u to mental hospital
16. stern_mark25. Aug. 2013 – 17:27
I’m not I tested never on black guys u spread d dideases u know that it’s come from ur continent

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Belated Thoughts on the Death of Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman Verdict

For someone who has a strong opinion on just about everything, I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet when it comes to Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, the altercation in a Sanford, Florida, neighborhood that ended with the former’s death on April 26, 2012, weeks after his 17th birthday, and the month-long murder trial that led to the latter’s acquittal on July 13.

My near-silence has been due, in part, to the fact that, until recently, I hadn’t been following the case closely, so in the days immediately after the verdict was announced, I didn’t have all of the facts. I still don’t — not even after spending nearly one week watching CNN (one of two English-language channels I have access to in Berlin) almost religiously. But I’ve now heard and read enough commentary on the case to secure a fairly tight grasp on it.

The verdict: I’m still not sure where I stand. There are so many variables and blanks that need to be filled in (and likely never will be), questions that remain unanswered, and I’m about to add to them. (Keep reading.)

I’m not convinced that the jury didn’t make the right decision. I’m not convinced that they did. I’m not convinced that this was a case of racial profiling or a racially motivated incident. I’m not convinced that it wasn’t. I am convinced, however, that racism has become a too-easy scapegoat in the U.S. It’s a collective knee-jerk reaction in the U.S. to cite it as the reason for any negative interaction between a white person and a black person, and Florida, one of the more divisive states in the union since the Presidential Election of 2000, is such an easy target.

I grew up in Kissimmee, Florida, in the ’70s and ’80, so I’ve experienced racism in the sunshine state firsthand. I can still remember the two rednecks in middle school whose favorite pastime was, apparently, antagonizing me. Every day, every time they walked by me on campus, they’d say, “I smell nigger.”

Those words are even more horrifying to me now than they were back then. Clearly these guys were racist, but I wasn’t afraid of them. I was more terrified of the black kids who picked on me on a daily basis because they did it with punches, ridiculing and physically assaulting me because I had a funny accent and, in their eyes, I acted too “white.”

One morning, my father came to Denn John Middle School for a meeting with Vice-Principal Mr. Tate (who was black), to complain about a fellow black student who had been terrorizing me. When Mr. Tate called my classmate to his office and asked if the accusations were true, the bully denied everything. Mr. Tate, apparently unburdened by any concern for my welfare, said there was nothing he could do. After threatening Mr. Tate with legal action should any harm come to me in the future, my dad gave the guy who’d been harassing me a stern warning: “If you ever touch my son again, I will take care of you myself!” He never bothered me again (though there were plenty of other black kids who picked up the slack over the next few years).

To this day, I wonder how Mr. Tate would have reacted if my bully had been white, or if I had told him about the “I smell nigger” duo. In this politically correct age, the white-on-black bully might be called racist regardless of whether he actually does or says anything that could be construed as racist because for some, it’s not possible for a white person, even one who wouldn’t dream of walking around saying something like “I smell nigger,” to dislike a perfectly harmless black kid for any reason that doesn’t involve racism.

It might be pretty safe to level a charge like racism at a person who uses the N word (Paula Deen would know about that, and one imagines that she must be somewhat relieved to have the spotlight off of her), but what about a white person who simply doesn’t like a black person, or argues with a black person, or accuses a black person of suspicious behavior?

What if the black person, unlike the middle-school me, is more than willing to defend himself? I don’t like the idea of putting the victim on trial, but in the rush to canonize Trayvon Martin and turn him into a martyr (which he wasn’t — martyrdom is deliberate, and Trayvon was a guy walking home from a convenience store who became the victim of a most unfortunate encounter), we can’t forget that, hoodie or not, he was hardly the perfect kid. Though he didn’t have a criminal record, he had been in trouble in the past. This doesn’t prove anything, but it does give us a more well-rounded view of Martin than the baby-faced innocent-looking image staring at us from under a hoodie. It’s possible that before the shot that ended his life was fired, he gave as good as he got — maybe even better.

All that said, I’m also not convinced that Zimmerman had no other alternative but too shoot. Even if he was getting his ass kicked by Martin, there’s no evidence that his life was endangered to a degree that necessitated the use of deadly force. Martin, after all, was unarmed.

I do believe that the media’s coverage of the case and of the trial blurred some of the facts and swayed public opinion. In the media (both the news media and social media), the case has seemed to be more about a hate crime (revolving around a hoodie), which is incredibly difficult to prove but always inflammatory enough to demand attention (and increased readership/viewership), than manslaughter, which was the prosecution’s actual not-quite-airtight case. The million-dollar question shouldn’t have been “Is George Zimmerman a racist?” but rather “Was it self-defense or murder?” One is not necessarily related to the other.

As for the committee that decided Zimmerman’s fate, I’ve gone through the rigorous process of jury selection, and I’m not sure how a flammable case like this one ended up being decided by six people of the same gender, all women, not one of them black. Did lawyers for the prosecution or the defense really think this would guarantee an outcome that would be seen as fair and unbiased? Had even one of the jurors been black, would the outrage to the verdict be more muted and less focused on the racism angle and more on the fact that a man shot and killed an unarmed teenager?

While we are choosing sides, here are a few other things to consider:

  • Why must racism be a factor in every violent encounter that involves a black person and a white person? Is every white person who shoots an unarmed black person a racist? Is it possible that there are other motivations for white-on-black crimes? Even if Zimmerman had been found guilty as charged (of second-degree murder and manslaughter) and locked away as a killer, was there enough proof to condemn him as a racist, too?
  • Does it matter that Martin allegedly made racial slurs against Zimmerman? If Zimmerman were black and Martin had been Hispanic, how would people respond to Martin, knowing that he may have called Zimmerman a “nigger” while talking to a friend? Actually, Martin did allegedly refer to Zimmerman as a “nigga.” Considering that Zimmerman has black ancestry on his mother’s side, does that make Martin a racist? Martin was not the one on trial, but the rush to label a white person a racist while overlooking the possibly racist actions of a black person does highlight a collective tendency to rush to judgment of “white” people when they have any kind of negative interaction with black people.
  • If Trayvon Martin had been a white male, would Zimmerman’s account of what happened have been in question? Would this story, lacking a compelling, sensationalist hook, even have made the evening news? Did the media latch onto it because it was an inherently divisive case that would guarantee months, years, of interested readership/viewership? Did they fan the flames with sometimes irresponsible reportage that was lacking in objectivity?
  • If Zimmerman were black, would this case have made it to trial, or would it have gone the way of so many black-on-black crimes — like the ones that killed rappers Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. — and gone unresolved, ultimately shoved aside?
  • Should we use this as another opportunity to inspect gun-control laws in the U.S.? Is it really a good idea to allow a non-police officer who works for a neighborhood watch and isn’t trained in law enforcement or the proper professional use of a firearm to walk around with one, free to use it at his discretion and whim?
  • There’s been a lot of criticism of Florida’s “stand your ground” law, but is it the law that people have a problem with — surely most of the folks crying foul wouldn’t have a problem with a rape victim who takes out her assailant and gets off under “stand your ground” — or the application of it in a case in which the victim is black? This morning I watched a CNN news report in which a Tampa Bay Times journalist presented findings that showed that the accused is more likely to get off under Florida’s “stand your ground” defense if the victim is black (73% have) than if the victim is white (59% have), which is disconcerting. (Read about it here.) But those statistic numbers don’t take into account the particulars of each case, which the CNN report, in typically biased TV-news fashion, failed to address.
  • What if Trayvon Martin hadn’t been such a handsome photogenic youth? Did that immediately effect public opinion of him? U.S. President Barack Obama said that if he had a son he would look like Martin. Although he was criticized for the comment, I understand what he was saying. But would he have said it if Martin had been an unattractive youth who looked more “hood”? Would Martin’s face have made it to so many t-shirts? Would people be using it as their Facebook profile photo?

We’ll probably never know what went down for sure on that fateful night. Unlike similar past incidents that became front-page news (Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima), there was no photographic or video evidence and no dependable eyewitnesses. If Zimmerman is, in fact, guilty of everything protesters are accusing him of, we might never know. The only other person with the truth is not around to offer it, and he might not, even if he were. Perhaps Zimmerman got away with murder, but maybe he’s also a victim of the very racist society that has, in large part, condemned him.

I only hope that the people with the power to hire in Sanford, Florida, aren’t foolish enough to ever again give Zimmerman a gun and put him in a position of power where he might get to decide if anyone — black or white — gets to live or die. His actions probably have cost him any semblance of a normal life for the rest of his life. He deserves to have his license to shoot to kill again permanently revoked, too.

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