The 9-year-old boy was riding his new bicycle around the block.
Another kid appeared out of nowhere and pushed the boy off his bike, saying that he didn’t want to see a Jew riding a bike in his neighbourhood.
The boy got up, knowing that if he gave in he would feel like he’d been defeated, so he said to the bully: “I’m not going to fight you. That would be stupid. I am quite sure you could easily beat me up. But I’m going to get on my bicycle and I’m going to ride around this block again, and if you want to stop me you better be prepared to kill me.”
And so he got back on his bike and started riding around the block again and again, until it got dark, and the bully never bothered him again.
I wish I could tell this story in the first person, but it’s not about me. The boy is a young Dean Kamen, who grew up to become a quirky genius, inventor of the Segway and more recently the Slingshot water purification system that he’s developing in his quest to solve the global water crisis.
Not all of us manage to be that brave at such a young age — if ever. Instead we imagine valour through myths and stories or we outsource our greatness to celebrities or politicians, and we get angry when these appointed heroes fail to live up to our expectations.
I never got pushed off my bike, but I did get called a moffie (poof) when I was around that age. I don’t know if the little bully really understood my sexual confusion. His slur was probably aimed at my general failure to measure up to the brutish, racist, alpha-male standard required of all “real men” in 1980s South Africa, but it hit its mark anyway. The hurt wasn’t really caused by the word itself, but rather in the way that it ignited a fear and shame that had been bubbling under the surface for quite some time.
I remember being an emotional sponge as a child, taking cues from adults about what was right and acceptable. I also remember thinking that my peers who were lucky enough to be born in complete physical and emotional alignment with everything that was seen as normal for my age and culture were much less likely to notice any of this.
When something about you doesn’t align with external norms — sexual preference or gender identity or skin colour or ability or just a beautiful quirk of style or character — you become aware of this insidious, omnipresent thing at a very young age: the silent tyranny of conformity and expectations. Perhaps you can’t quite name it at the start (and perhaps some of us never do). But I had no doubt that there was something making it almost impossible for me to take part in life with the unconstrained pleasure that other kids seemed to enjoy.
Not all of us respond to such conscious or subconscious awareness in the same way. Some are brave enough to embrace it and stand out, some become self-destructive and others find ways to assimilate.
I chose the last option at a young age, trying to mould myself as best as I could to meet these expectations. Making sure that if I ever drew attention to myself it would be for the right reasons, on my terms, and without fear of being called out or ridiculed. But despite these efforts there came a day when someone saw through it and called me out and his single, hoarse, venomous utterance of “moffie!” still stings almost as much today when I remember it as it did back then.
My continued pretence was made easier because I never saw him again. And in many ways I’ve been one of the lucky ones because I had access to amazing opportunities that helped me progress and overcome these childhood uncertainties. It also helped that the important people in my life have always been accepting and supportive, both before and after I eventually came out. And along the way I have learned the time-honoured tradition of taking these slurs, owning them and turning them inside out – so no such word has the power to hurt me in the same way today.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan at the opening of the London Pride parade 2017 (c) Stefan Ferreira
I’ve been grateful for the support, grateful to spend my time in countries where LGBTQ people increasingly have equal rights by law and grateful that I have been able to live a pretty calm life in the wake of the justice and equality created by many brave souls who stood up and fought to make this possible. It’s been easy to play it safe and lead my life of being out, but generally assimilated.
That all changed in 2016.
I am still immediately surrounded by these same supportive people, and I still get to spend my time in a city that is diverse and generally tolerant but it is hard to ignore this sense that some of these ghosts of my childhood are slowly encroaching on this safe world I’ve managed to hide in.
What began as a gentle hum of dogwhistle homophobia, xenophobia and misogyny has gradually amplified into a louder voice of hatred. These tropes of my youth have made their way back into the public discourse, even in countries that officially enshrine and protect the rights that I’ve been taking for granted.
— Alison Pod (@Backlands_Alice) June 21, 2018
We thought these phobias had largely been defeated but it turns out they’ve been lying dormant. And their custodians finally feel free once more to express them, unshackled of these burdens imposed on them by political correctness.
At the same time they have found more disingenious ways to justify their prejudice, peddling conspiracy theories or claiming that they themselves have actually been the victims of made-up injustices like “white genocide” or “reverse racism” whilst advocating for “men’s rights” or “straight pride”.
Despite the progress we’ve made when it comes to our rights, one in three LGBTQ people in the UK still report that they have suffered verbal abuse, and over three quarters of us don’t feel comfortable showing affection to our partners in public. And it’s hard to see how this is going to improve at a time when more and more people support xenophobic parties in a misplaced belief that oppressing migrants or other marginalised people will somehow revive their sense of hope which has been destroyed by the very duplicitous politicians who they are now voting for.
How long will it be before there are no migrants left to blame for their frustrations, and who will then be next?
It’s tempting to focus on the passionately prejudiced, but they’re only part of the problem. So many of the human-rights tragedies of our past happened not because the majority of people supported them (at lease initially), but because a passionate minority was allowed to run riot with the silent majority’s apathetic consent. In South Africa, one of the cruelest regimes in history got elected in 1948 with just 37.7% of a severely gerrymandered electorate voting for them (which was at the time 30% of total registered voters and just 3.3% of the total population). Hitler was appointed chancellor through political manoeuvring in 1933 at a time when his party, although the biggest in the Reichstag, didn’t represent an actual majority by any measure.
We are not yet quite experiencing the cruelty exhibited by those two despicable regimes that came to power through exploiting undemocratic flaws in electoral systems, but the growing emergencies in America, the UK and across Europe are clear. And again some of the so-called leaders who seem intent on cementing their place in this hall of infamy have won with minority support.
Too many of us continue to believe that it will all be ok in the end. I too hope that it will be, but if we can learn one lesson from the 1930s and 1940s it is this: it will only be ok if the warning signs spur us into action. And the truth is that we passed the stage of warning signs some time ago, and it’s taking too many of us too long to realise this because it’s easier to lose ourselves in our busy lives instead.
In the meantime people are left to die at sea and we just carry on with our lives as if nothing happened; gay men get brutally attacked in a country that proudly undermines LGBTQ rights but we carry on waving our flags and watching the football because this is no time for “politics”; and kids get separated from their parents by an increasingly brutal US regime that assumes the noise about its inhumane actions will soon be drowned out by the next news cycle.
I’m convinced that most of us fail to respond adequately to these events not because we are callous or indifferent, but because we feel powerless and overwhelmed and scared by the magnitude of it all, quietly hoping that somehow, someone will find a way to fix it.
Of course saying “we” and “them” in this context is a gross generalisation because now, just as in the 1930s there are brave people already standing up and speaking out, and the normal news cycle amnesia trick didn’t work for the US government’s child seperation policy on this occassion.
It also goes without saying that the rise of far right ideology is not the only threat to human rights we face today. There are countries across the Middle East, Asia and Africa that maintain diabolical human rights practices but up until recently the trend across Europe and America was at least to attempt presenting a progressive alternative despite our own tainted histories – but that is exactly what is now under threat unless more of us are willing to offer our attention and disrupt our own sense of comfort and safety.
I am piecing myself back together so that never again will I feel I need a hero … Too few of us – women, refugees … black people, queers – believe in our instincts enough to know that our hearts will be our saviours.”
— Sisonke Msimang, Always Another Country
All is not lost, and the time has come to stop being a bystander, and for me it starts with avoiding gentle and apologetic assimilation.
It is time to be political even when – or especially when – it makes other people feel uncomfortable. This is the only way in which we can create the tension that leads to awareness and eventually momentum to counter these dark political forces that threaten to dismantle the social progress we have made as a human race.
I will up the ante of my queer existence without waiting for permission or fearing retribution. I will be loud when I feel like it, outrageously camp if I want to be, male, female, trans, queer or all of the above at the same time, and – when it’s necessary – intensely political and right up in your face.
I will stand in solidarity with other LGBTQ people and rally with Lesbians And Gays Support the Migrants because, as they rightly say, “queer people know what it’s like to be labelled illegal. We have experience of being targets … and we know what it’s like to be scapegoated and turned into objects of hate based on who we are.”
I will fight for progressive values and for our right to exist in a multi-layered, complex, multicultural, integrated world no matter how hard some people try to reduce everything to crazy binary choices to suit their self-serving agendas.
And if you don’t like that, you better be prepared to kill me.