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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Waking from Nightmares

Not too long ago, I woke up from a terrible, terrible nightmare.

It was simply awful.  My friends were all suffering from some terrible wasting illness, and there was nothing I could do to help them.  I tried to help, but I could really only watch.

Because it was a dream, it had no shortage of strange imagery, and my afflicted friends had these runners of brown fungus coming out of their ears and nose and mouth and even their eyes.   I think by the end of the dream they looked like shaggy fungal beards that kind of moved and swayed to the sound of music.

(Like I said, dream imagery.)

I helped scrubbed them clean--the ones who would let me near them, that is--but it the fungus would just come back even worse each day.  And I sat and watched the people suffering and felt a certain survivor's guilt that I seemed to be in good health.  Eventually the people would become covered in the fungus completely.

And my heart was breaking for them.

This dream went on for what felt like weeks (in the dream).  I went to bed and woke up many times.  In fact, it was most often after I went to bed and woke up that I discovered a fresh patch of fungus on my loved ones.  I tried every anti-fungal product the store had it but there was nothing I could do.

Eventually I went to bed for what would be, within the dream, the last time.  I woke up.  I shifted in my bed.  My eyes opened to take stock of my room.  I thought of the way things just seemed to suck, and I really just didn't want to get out of bed.  Eventually I got up, feeling strangely visceral compared to the past few weeks.

I walked downstairs to get some breakfast.  Everything seemed at once saturated with color, hyper-detailed and strangely dull.  No one in my house had brown fungus though.  At first I thought the people near me were just having a good day.  But when I went outside the world seemed a little too bright, the sun shone a little too loudly, and no one out there had fungus either.  That's when it started to dawn on me that I had awoken from some terrible nightmare.  That's when I started to do "dream math" and realize that I couldn't remember how I got to several places in my dream and I didn't read a book during the entire time.

Like most powerful dreams, it stuck with me emotionally for hours, even after I realized intellectually that it wasn't real. I kept being relieved every time I saw people looking healthy.  Waking up was a slow process of being reminded that the nightmare was finally over.

I have felt this way all day today.  I kept thinking of that dream without being sure why. However, more than the dream itself, I kept feeling that I was waking up from some terrible, terrible nightmare.  Things just beyond my perception kept triggered that feeling, but I wasn't sure why.

My friend Mike made me realize why.

Mike is a short guy, legally blind, and an awesome masseuse.  He has the benefit (as do I, he added inconspicuously) of looking over a decade younger than he really is, and a crooked smile that is absolutely charming.  When supportive girlfriend introduced him as an old friend from her home town who had happened to end up in the Bay Area as well, she also revealed that her sister had a huge crush on him.  Mike entered my consciousness as "that guy your sister likes."

A few months later, Mike came out to his friends and family as gay.

I don't get to see Mike nearly as much as his awesomeness requires, but one of my defining moments with him that was a few years ago when I had hurt my back right before we were about to go to Burning Man.  I got a massage from him and I commented on how many shoes he had.

"That's a lot of shoes."

"Well, I am gay," he said.

"Yeah, but that's like fifty pairs," I said.

"I'm really gay," he said.  And I we both started laughing in that way that takes several minutes to wind down.

I grew up in a conservative suburb of Los Angeles.  I remember a young man named John.  I don't know if John was gay, but John was different, and John acted gay, and that was enough.  He was bullied....mercilessly.  I watched for five years as he took shit for being effeminate, for dressing differently.

But I think the worst of it was how they teased him.  "You are so.....so.....GAY," they said.  It was crystal clear from the way they spat it out that no further insult was required.  That was, in and of itself, the worst epithet they could ever label him with.

The Muslims of my early twenties were no better.  I remember one experience--shortly before my faith started to crumble against the higher edicts of my own values--when my friend Omar said "We absolutely should let gay people serve in the military--let's put them on the front line, preferably in high casualty situations."  Later he pointed out hadith about burning sodomites alive.

There were exactly two moments, before I finally left Islam, where I felt distinctly, unequivocally like I had taken a wrong turn and not just like my faith was a little lax.  One was reading the Quran Surah Four: An-Nisa (The Women).  If you've read it, I don't need to explain it.  If you haven't, nothing can really prepare you for just how codified misogyny is in Islam more than those 176 verses.  The second was reading the punishment for homosexuality.

After that I moved to the bay area.  "Fled" might be a more accurate term.

The Bay Area is not as wildly liberal as most people think.  The city is, of course, and the general timber is red shifted to the liberal side of things, but it's not like you have to look far to find homophobia.  Travel more than thirty minutes away from San Francisco in any direction (maybe an hour if you're going north) and you're going to find the vast majority of people think it's unusual for me to be a feminist and a guy or who haven't ever heard the concept of privilege.  And of course you can find people who think homosexuality is wrong.  It's not all under this uberprogressive bubble.  So for years after I got here it was sort of something that I didn't notice because it didn't affect me.

But about ten years ago I began to realize that there was a struggle being waged for human rights.  I had coworkers who call into work after equal marriage setbacks, unable to face the day, and they were not okay.  I had friends who would descend into a funk.  It wasn't just something other people were dealing with.

It was hurting people I loved.  In a sense it was killing them.  It was here I became an ally--in as much as I've tried to make that mean something more than wearing a big foam #1 glove

I have to be honest.  I wish I could tell you that I felt it viscerally, but no matter how much of an ally I tried to be, it was always a bit of an abstraction to me.  I always ended up pissing off people I cared deeply about because I was being over intellectual about something that was striking right at their hearts.  It was something I couldn't quite do more than be supportive about.  Except that about six years ago, for reasons I'll not get into here, I met a person I loved but couldn't marry.  We can do hand fasting and make sure there's some legal paperwork in place in the event of one of our deaths, but we can't get married.  Not legally.  Not yet.  Probably not in my lifetime.  I'm a bit ashamed to say that's really what drove it home for me.

Because let me tell you, that just fucking sucks.

Of course for Californians who support marriage equality, it's been a pretty amazing week this week.

I was talking with Supportive Girlfriend today.  I was talking about Mike and how she wanted to schedule a dual massage as one of our "date nights" in the not-to-distant future.  And it just hit me like a flash and I blurted out: "Mike can get married!"  I mean of course if you'd asked me, I would have known that, but it was that moment where I put the two connections together.

And it was like....there wasn't a moment where I started crying.  Nothing welled up.  The tears were just THERE in my eyes.  Instantly.  White hot and so very, very happy.

Mike could get married.  Mike CAN get married.

And that's when I realized why I was feeling what I was feeling all day today.  That's when I realized what it was triggering that feeling from the dream about evil death fungus. I had taken a long walk down to the store and back earlier in the day and the whole time I kept passing same sex couples holding hands. Unafraid. Unashamed. Unstigmatized. Bigotry is dying right in front of me--in the span of just my little life I've gone from "gay" being the worst insult imaginable to living in a place where bigots would be the ones who would have to worry about being attacked by a mob.  And I didn't immediately, consciously realize how that was making me feel to see all those public displays of affection, but when I thought about Mike, it all hit me at once.

How painful progress is to stand in the middle of it, but how inspiring it can be to turn back once in a while and remark on how far we've come.

I know it wasn't "all a dream."  I wish it were, but it wasn't.  I know it isn't over.

But it sort of feels exactly like waking up from a terrible, terrible nightmare.

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