Every writer looks back and cringes at some of their past work — what seemed clear at the time is clunky in retrospect, what was once an expression of heartfelt emotion now seems childishly overwrought. But that’s not only part of the job, it’s part of growing as a writer and a person.
The anniversaries of 9/11, especially the imminent marking of 10 years past that day, are annual cases where I look back and find just those things in my own writing. My sentences were clunky, my emotions were unchanneled. I was at a loss for words to publicly express what I felt in the face of a horrific attack that had once been unimaginable. Oddly, it was my private emails to family back home in Kentucky and Indiana — describing life in the city in the days following the attacks, with armed soldiers on downtown street corners and the blanket of politeness that settled over all of us — where I actually found some part of my voice.
The annual remembrances of 9/11 stoke many of those emotional memories — a rare moment where being an American outweighed all of our other identities, when those like Jerry Falwell who attempted to divide by laying blame on LGBT people at home were pushed even further to the fringe, when even the most skeptical among us found themselves believing that everything is different now.
There are many lessons to draw from 9/11 and its aftermath — you’ll find them being debated in your newspapers, websites and television over the next week. For me, though, the biggest lesson is the simplest one: that perfect peace and harmony can never last. Ten years later, as we reflect on a moment that brought us all together, we seem further apart than ever.
That’s part of being human and, really, part of being an American. We’re not going to be a perfectly harmonious people because we have lots of inharmonious ideas. That’s no excuse for the level of vituperation currently on display in our politics, but it is a reminder that conflict is part of the cost of participation in society. Reasoned conflict, we would hope, but still conflict.
As the California Supreme Court was listening to arguments about legal standing in the ongoing Proposition 8 case, one gay blogger tweeted, ”Raise yer paw if UR totally fucking sick of watching your right to exist being debated.” On one, deeply emotional level, I totally fucking agree with that. It’s a depressing and dehumanizing thing to sit and listen as anti-gay bigots like Maggie Gallagher dismiss our lives as irrelevant. Hearing those argument repeated ad nauseum in courts, legislatures and Republican presidential campaigns takes a toll on the psyche.
But it’s a painful and necessary process. There is no magic bullet, no special event or tragedy that will instantly grant us full equality. It takes work, work that goes back decades to pioneers such as Frank Kameny, and will likely stretch another few decades into the future. Yet even in this divided society and culture, we’ve come an incredible distance, further than I ever would have imagined when still a closeted, rural teen.
We may have wrongly wanted to believe that everything would be different after the 9/11 attacks. But while everything may not be, some things are. Change does happen, even though it can be a long, ugly and hurtful process. But it can also be joyful, as we’ve seen in New York’s marriage jubilations and I expect to see on Sept. 20 when ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” finally expires.
We can’t have perfect harmony, but we can still make the world a better place.