Our Prejudices, Ourselves
By HARVEY FIERSTEIN
From The New York Times, April 13, 2007
AMERICA is watching Don Imus’s self-immolation in a state of shock and awe. And I’m watching America with wry amusement.
Since I’m a second-class citizen — a gay man — my seats for the ballgame of American discourse are way back in the bleachers. I don’t have to wait long for a shock jock or stand-up comedian to slip up with hateful epithets aimed at me and mine. Hate speak against homosexuals is as commonplace as spam. It’s daily traffic for those who profess themselves to be regular Joes, men of God, public servants who live off my tax dollars, as well as any number of celebrities.
In fact, I get a good chuckle whenever someone refers to “the media” as an agent of “the gay agenda.” There are entire channels, like Spike TV, that couldn’t fill an hour of programming if required to remove their sexist and homophobic content. We’ve got a president and a large part of Congress willing to change the Constitution so they can deprive of us our rights because they feel we are not “normal.”
So I’m used to catching foul balls up here in the cheap seats. What I am really enjoying is watching the rest of you act as if you had no idea that prejudice was alive and well in your hearts and minds.
For the past two decades political correctness has been derided as a surrender to thin-skinned, humorless, uptight oversensitive sissies. Well, you anti-politically correct people have won the battle, and we’re all now feasting on the spoils of your victory. During the last few months alone we’ve had a few comedians spout racism, a basketball coach put forth anti-Semitism and several high-profile spoutings of anti-gay epithets.
What surprises me, I guess, is how choosy the anti-P.C. crowd is about which hate speech it will not tolerate. Sure, there were voices of protest when the TV actor Isaiah Washington called a gay colleague a “faggot.” But corporate America didn’t pull its advertising from “Grey’s Anatomy,” as it did with Mr. Imus, did it? And when Ann Coulter likewise tagged a presidential candidate last month, she paid no real price.
In fact, when Bill Maher discussed Ms. Coulter’s remarks on his HBO show, he repeated the slur no fewer than four times himself; each mention, I must note, solicited a laugh from his audience. No one called for any sort of apology from him. (Well, actually, I did, so the following week he only used it once.)
Face it, if a Pentagon general, his salary paid with my tax dollars, can label homosexual acts as “immoral” without a call for his dismissal, who are the moral high and mighty kidding?
Our nation, historically bursting with generosity toward strangers, remains remarkably unkind toward its own. Just under our gleaming patina of inclusiveness, we harbor corroding guts. America, I tell you that it doesn’t matter how many times you brush your teeth. If your insides are rotting your breath will stink. So, how do you people choose which hate to embrace, which to forgive with a wink and a week in rehab, and which to protest? Where’s my copy of that rule book?
Let me cite a non-volatile example of how prejudice can cohabit unchecked with good intentions. I am a huge fan of David Letterman’s. I watch the opening of his show a couple of times a week and have done so for decades. Without fail, in his opening monologue or skit Mr. Letterman makes a joke about someone being fat. I kid you not. Will that destroy our nation? Should he be fired or lose his sponsors? Obviously not.
But I think that there is something deeper going on at the Letterman studio than coincidence. And, as I’ve said, I cite this example simply to illustrate that all kinds of prejudice exist in the human heart. Some are harmless. Some not so harmless. But we need to understand who we are if we wish to change. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should confess to not only being a gay American, but also a fat one. Yes, I’m a double winner.)
I urge you to look around, or better yet, listen around and become aware of the prejudice in everyday life. We are so surrounded by expressions of intolerance that I am in shock and awe that anyone noticed all these recent high-profile instances. Still, I’m gladdened because our no longer being deaf to them may signal their eventual eradication.
The real point is that you cannot harbor malice toward others and then cry foul when someone displays intolerance against you. Prejudice tolerated is intolerance encouraged. Rise up in righteousness when you witness the words and deeds of hate, but only if you are willing to rise up against them all, including your own. Otherwise suffer the slings and arrows of disrespect silently.
Harvey Fierstein is an actor and playwright.