July 11, 2010
The Teachable Moment
On the hike to Tel Dan, I lose it. “That’s so gay,” my student says, turning around to his friend to make sure he hears. We’ve been on this Birthright trip for maybe four days, and this word is already quite popular. It can apparently refer to anything: food, one’s personality, the entire Israeli Navy. This time, though, there aren’t 38 people around so the word can get lost in the crowd, there’s no closed hotel room door to serve as a buffer. There’s just me, and him, and my stark, raving madness.
“Seriously,” I say, my hands making awkward, twitchy gestures, “We are not using that word anymore on this trip.” He looked surprised. “I’m sorry if it makes you upset,” he says. “I won’t do it around you.” “That’s not the point,” I tell him. In my memory, my voice is particulary shrill. “You shouldn’t use it at all.” “My brother is gay,” he says. “He and his friends call each other faggots all the time.”
In my arsenal of thoughts about this includes commentary on internalized oppression, reclamation, homophobia, etc, but nothing I could translate into anything that didn’t sound like theory gobble-ty gook. So I just said, “It doesn’t make it okay for you to say it. You’re implying that being gay is bad.”
We floated away from each other, and I continued to flaggelate myself for the rest of the day. I remain sure that I could have handled it better. I could have taken a deep breath first, I could have processed it more quietly and productively with him. The only thing I could think of was, this has to stop. I can’t let this go on, this is what’s wrong with the world-people don’t stop bad things when they see them happening. People are too scared to confront each other. People like me.
He apologized to me, by the way, later that week on Shabbat. My co staff and I decided this was a victory-he’d thought about it and realized that something was wrong. I still don’t know what the impact was on the rest of our group, on the people who had come out earlier in the week, who probably heard him and others saying things like that, who sat next to him on the bus and shared a room with him.
I’m not generous enough sometimes. I’m too busy being angry to recognize that people can change. For a moment on that hike, I contemplated doing nothing because I didn’t think I could do the right thing, the perfect, life altering thing. I worry that this fear of screwing up, of confrontation, is going to stand between me and opportunities for change in the future. There’s so much tied up in that package: gender, stigma, the challenge of meeting someone where they’re at while trying to impact them. These are all things we can be taught to deal with in a Jewish context, and that we have to be taught, because in the insane, heteronormative world of Judaism, incidents like what I’ve described will happen again and again.As one of my favorite colleagues likes to say, there is no such thing as a missed opportunity.