Remember Susan Boyle? The 2009 Britain’s Got Talent contestant who stunned the judges, the audience, and any in the world who happened to be watching? She sang Les Miserables’ “I Dreamed a Dream” with an expansive range, easily floating across registers; she sang with purpose and conviction, with hope and tenderness and longing. But the shock for listeners wasn’t so much a response to her talent—many an accomplished singer has graced that stage—but it was a response to their original perceptions. On stage, before she sang, Susan’s introduction was less than polished. Her deep Scottish accent, quirky humor, and crass hip-rolls created an expectation of failure—of a lower-order fool, out of her league, out of her lot in life. So when, in response to the first phrases of “I Dreamed a Dream,” the audience erupted in applause and the judges in shocked surprise, it was as much a response to their own ill-begotten notions of humanity as to the beauty of Susan’s voice and expression.
My feminist literature professor called it “The Sin of Reduction”; that is, reducing a human being to anything they simply appear to be or to the expectations and stereotypes we assign to any specific community. I don’t remember if we were reading Alice Walker or Toni Morrison or Margaret Atwood; it could have been any of them. But the character in question was at once one thing in the public domain and altogether different in the private. As readers, we empathized once we understood the private landscapes of the character’s soul.
I suppose we’re all guilty of it… this sin of reduction. But having had that academic experience, I thought I’d developed something of a resistance. A gazillion times I’ve heard myself say or think, Don’t reduce her to that, opting instead for the complexities, the inconsistencies, the unobserved workings that represent the fullness of any whole person. Yet, somehow, for all the years I can remember, I managed to flatten my parents into the single dimension of a religious culture that might exclude the love of their daughter.
The conversation I had with my parents back in early July went something like this:
“Mom and Dad, I have to tell you something that I know is going to be hard for you, but I’m tired of hiding from people I love. I’m gay…
And I don’t feel like I denigrate this nation or myself for who I am [referencing the sermon I wrote about in All In]. I’m not asking for approval, I just need you to know because you’re my parents… and I love you.”
Of course, as calm as all that sounds, I wasn’t. My voice was shaking (Zach, your post on FB couldn’t have been more perfect), my eyes darting between the two of them, anticipating their pain or anger.
Dad starts: “First of all, relax…
Secondly, we know… we’ve known for a while.”
At this point, I’m the one starting to feel confused.
“And… we love you, too.” Mom has moved in close, holding my arm, no doubt trying to calm the obvious anxiety as much as show her love and support.
“You’ve known? Since when?”
“Oh, I think we started suspecting sometime around the divorce.”
Which was interesting because sometime around the divorce, I didn’t even know. I mean, I knew that I was attracted to women, but I thought I would get a divorce and that would be the end of it.
“Then you knew about Christy?”
Both smile and nod their heads… then Dad says something about some work he needs to do outside and we’re done. About four years of fear and anxiety snuffed in a three-minute conversation.
The sin of reduction.
I’m not particularly fond of that word… sin. The religion of my childhood did such an incredible job with its lists of bad behaviors and their horrifying consequences that I lay hidden to myself for years. But I suppose if I were going to define that word now, I would say it’s anything that interferes with any honest relationship I have to myself or to the rest of humanity. To live without assumption of anyone’s thoughts or motivations is to inhabit spaces of humility and openness; spaces of the deepest breaths of soul. And I am reminded again of that line from Mary Oliver’s poem Luna:
I live in the open mindedness of not knowing enough about anything.
It’s a land of enchantment–that open mindedness… a magical place that can change the trajectory of a moment, a day… or a lifetime of selfhood and relationships.
And it’s well worth your time to read all of Luna here.