With about as much interest in the Olympics as in the Super Bowl — none — I didn’t catch any of the games. There was, nevertheless, no getting around news of Michael Phelps. So, when my mother brought him up in a recent conversation, I was not blindsided. Her talking point, however, was something entirely new to me.
Thanks to some biopic segment on the aquatic Olympian, my mother learned that he, a Bal’mer girl like her, would practice at the same swimming complex that she paddled about in circa 1940. It was a great summer treat, she recalled, despite having to make a two-streetcar journey to get there. Pricking this memory also reminded her of the first time she encountered the word ”gentile,” as in the sign by the pool that advised: ”Gentiles Only.” Despite seeking advisement from her mother and older sister, she didn’t figure out what the word meant till her age reached the double digits.
The story surprised me a little, based on my perception of Baltimore. My mom even took me to her old neighborhood when I was about 5. She introduced me to an elderly couple who gave me my first introduction to Judaism, the husband teaching me how to draw a star of David. I always thought Baltimore enjoyed a Semitic-friendly history, compared to the rest of the country. Or maybe that just illustrates that even bright spots have their tarnish; that deep in our cores, we humans remain newly cast beings, guided primarily by our fears of the ”other.”
Not long after my mother relayed her story, I had the opportunity to revel in my own otherness. On Amelia Island, Fla., a touristy spot, known for its beaches and bike trails more so than for its smoke-stacked paper plant, there is a bit of resort acreage called ”The Plantation.” Already a creepy name for a place to relax, right? ”Sit back and let us do all the work. Master.”
Amid the Plantation’s palms and pines, we six flaming ‘mos found a Cracker Barrel-esque spot for lunch. The expansive porch with rockers was right out of the pages of Southern Living — with less diversity. As the six of us, including a queen-of-color, ate quiche, I could feel that slight electric tingle of social friction. There were about 20 other people on the porch. All white. All, my best judgment told me, straight. The men wore Eddie Bauer. The women wore Talbots. Wait — there’s a black guy! And look, I think there’s another gay guy here, too! True, but they were the two waiters. I hoped our porch neighbors’ digestion was not fouled by fears that we would steal their sons to add to our minions of junior-bootblack sodomites.
Back in D.C. a few days later, I was grateful to run into one gay pal after another on that gay-ghetto strip of P Street by Logan Circle. Free at last.
Certainly an awkward lunch is not the Holocaust, or slavery, or the assassination of Harvey Milk. I am not making any comparison of that sort. I’m just left feeling a bit deflated, following the line from my mom’s no-Jews pool to the suspicious stares of Amelia Island, wondering if this is humankind’s lot: to always be suspicious of what is alien.
Maybe it is an evolved trait. Perhaps those primeval humans who were too trusting found themselves ending up as dinner for an equally curious yet more ferocious animal, or skewered on the spears of some neighboring clan that embodied a ”spear first” mentality. Maybe evolution weeded out the most eager of our bridge-builders, in favor of us fearful jerks who may hide behind transphobia, Confederate flags, marriage amendments, Yankee snobbery, ”sun people” theories, etc. Japanese have sneered at Koreans, Sunnis at Shiites, Swedes at Danes and on and on for ages.
While during the bulk of human existence the various ethnicities of humans have been largely isolated, in the absence of the obvious distinctions of race we’ve chosen to manufacture distinctions. Do any of the rest of us see any difference between the Hatfields and the McCoys? Would an Alaskan Inuit fisherman be able to discern between a Hutu and a Tutsi? These past few hundred years of human existence, however, have thrown the range of humanity together at ever increasing speed. America is one of the best examples of that, a genuine mutt of ethnicity, adding more flavors by the second, blessedly.
With the upcoming election, America may be able to push that envelope further. We have our nature as humans, but things change nevertheless. The earth is no longer flat, no longer the center of the universe, and illness is not caused by demons. Maybe our nature is rather immutable, but our understanding of our place in the universe has changed fundamentally at points on the timeline.
If a majority of Americans choose a president who is ”other” to most of them — and this would hold regardless of party or gender — that will be a big step. From Cleopatra to Angela Merkel, women have ruled ably. For a people to willfully choose someone who is ”other” is real change that would transform not only the American psyche, but the global psyche, for the better.
The battle for the future, after all, is not about Christians versus Muslims or democracy versus totalitarianism or the West versus al-Qaida. Rather, as always, it’s a struggle between progress and regress. Breaking down homogeneity in favor of diversity is progress. If America doesn’t lead with that big step Nov. 4, it may fall to other mutts like Canada or Australia to lead the way. Maybe that’s good for the Plantation porch people, but it’s not good for humankind.
Will O’Bryan, Metro Weekly‘s managing editor, was born as the Stonewall Riots ended, making him a Stonewall Baby, he insists. He can be reached at email@example.com.