I live in an area of West Hollywood that is on the hill well above the three blocks of back-to-back gay bars known as the ‘Fruit Loop’, a block below the super-straight Sunset Strip — infamous rocker lounge The Viper Room abuts my corner store. The residents make an eclectic demographic. On the corner of my street and Palm Avenue is an ugly mid-century apartment building, elderly housing for Russians. The cheap fabrics and sad bric-a-brac in the windows give it the appearance of those dwellings beloved by photojournalists who snap willfully dreary reportages of the faces of Chernobyl twenty years after the nuclear meltdown. Across from that indifferent edifice is a wee compound made up of two charming craftsman houses that is apparently low-income housing provided by the local government.
I was walking by this craftsman-house complex on Saturday on my way home from the gym. There was some sort of cacophony coming from a public area — it was music, certainly, but repellent in its stridency and volume. Was it a party? Or was that… gospel? The French doors to the common area were open. There were maybe five people in there milling around. This was too much volume for so few people. It was one of those curious live tableaus that spring up in large cities now and then, a gathering of weirdoes, clearly.
The screeching, desperate music formed an invisible electric barrier along my path. I crossed the street to avoid it, looking over my shoulder at the house to try to identify what the assault was, exactly. “It’s church!” said a rough, tall, elderly woman coming across the street from the top of the hill. Our paths intersected twenty yards from each other, but she was loud, louder than the music. I kept walking, no doubt a disgusted look on my face now that I knew the why of all that noise; mentioning church to an orthodox atheist is like menacing a vampire with a wooden stake.
“What is wrong with you people, anyway?” she screamed, thrusting herself from zero to full-throttle rage in two seconds flat. She became the embodiment of hatred, of that piercing homophobia we know so well but tend to forget about when we’re cocooned in gay ghettos like this one. She had never laid eyes on me before those few seconds while passing each other at a distance in the street, but she already hated me.
Perhaps by “you people” she meant me as atheist? Schizophrenics have an uncanny ability to see qualities in people that non-schizos can’t. From the rest of her tirade, however, atheist was evidently not what she meant: “Why can’t you people let straight people get together and pray and…” She bleated on and on. I ignored her and continued down my street.
Now, I am not at first glance obviously gay, I know that. I certainly don’t wear my atheism emblazoned on my chest. This woman was insane, period. She spends her days barking at people, at the TV, maybe the internet, and writes vitriolic letters to the White House. I’ll bet she thinks Obama is Satan, or at the very least the second coming of Napoleon, who was considered the antichrist in his day.
As the old bat’s barrage chased me down the street, her hatred infected me. I now hated her. She had insulted the twin minorities that form part of my identity — gay and atheist — and was unabashedly vocal and offensive about it. I flipped her the finger. “YEAH, FUCK YOU, TOO!” She yelled back. I’m sure there was a ‘faggot’ implied in there, likely muttered under her good-Christian breath. The whole exchange took maybe ten seconds.
In the moment I was flipping her the finger I knew it was silly, futile. In a childish way, I wanted to piss her off to the point she would yell, “Fuck you, too!” so loudly that it would interrupt her group’s religious cacophony, which had invaded the entire block as if it had a God-given right to be there — as we are reminded every day in the news, God is quite the real-estate mogul.
Her hatred and anger for me and my kind only elicited a momentary flare of bemused irritation in me that then melted to compassion: This was a lonely woman so filled with bitterness that she had no problem engaging random strangers who were merely looking at a source of music quizzically as they crossed the street. (While she had been wrong that my disgust was related to my sexual orientation, my expression had little to do with my disdain for religion, either. It was entirely because the music was loud, intrusive, bad, and above all disrespectful to us, the neighbors.) The only people kind enough to show her forbearance are Christians and social workers at a low-income housing center.
RuPaul has always been a force to reckon with, one of the gutsiest men in entertainment, anywhere. Now he is middle aged he is killing it with the wisdom — if you haven’t seen his web series RuPaul Drives, I recommend it. In an interview on Arsenio Hall’s new show in February, RuPaul was asked what was worse, racism or homophobia. His answer was diplomatic: that they are both equal, but that it’s a pity they aren’t equated as the same. The unspoken truth is it’s the black community that refuses to equate racism with homophobia, putting its plight as separate and somehow more serious than homophobia. Even racism is above the Gheys; everything is above us. RuPaul refers to this obliquely when he talks about what a shame it is that people who are victims of oppression take on the characteristics of their oppressors. Make no mistake about it: RuPaul is calling Arsenio and members of the black community who think like him oppressors.
RuPaul then makes the correct philosophical and psychological assessment that any sort of discrimination — and we aren’t talking about institutionalized discrimination like DOMA and DODT, but personal discrimination characterized by fear, hatred and oppression — is due to the fragile ego needing to “strengthen” itself by putting someone else down.
It takes a lot for people to climb above what they’ve been taught… You would think that natural allies would be black folks [and] gay folks because the plight is really the same…
I’ll tell you why it’s the same. It’s because it’s the ego needing to strengthen itself by putting someone else down… It’s not about homosexuality or any of that. It’s about the ego needing to prop itself up, and strengthen itself and its identity.”
Indeed, hatred is a drug that soothes an ego that is frightened by the outsider, by the other, by the ‘you people’, by the one who because of his nature or nurture — whether it is the color of his skin, his sexuality, his own conformity to a particular religion’s practices — might be a threat: he upsets the status quo, those frail constructs society must necessarily erect to keep itself together. Or the ego is so frail — again, either by nature or nurture —that it attempts to boost itself on the backs of frailer beings. And what could be frailer than the effete man? What could be more worthy of contempt than someone whose sexual practices repulse you? (As if Gheys don’t understand that; most are revolted by straight sex.)
Like all drug highs, the fix from hatred is temporary. For some, that is relief enough to get them through the hardships of life; repeated often enough, hating gives the illusion of being a permanent fix, when it is really just another addiction. The next thing you know, you’re bellowing at strangers on the street, either silently or out loud. Hatred becomes a part of you, a force you draw on for twisted sustenance and comfort.
Germany tried to pull itself out of frailty and self-loathing with a prolonged bender, spending eleven years fucked out of its head on hatred, hitting rock bottom with World War II. Like all serious addictions, it couldn’t be sustained. The Germany of today is another country entirely; as long as it knows it is strong, it isn’t threatened by internal weaknesses, its ego bolstered with pride, it will remain contrite about the past but will never repeat it.
Gheys are no strangers to inflicting hatred — the bitchy queen is ubiquitous, almost a birthright. Much of gay humor is based on putting each other down in catty, often scathing ways. RuPaul is no stranger to scathing humor at the expense of someone else; any given episode of Drag Race has him slicing egos like a sushi chef.
I have been active in gay chat rooms for fifteen years now. It’s an easy diversion for a writer — you open another window and there you have a bunch of people yammering away in a virtual coffee klatch. As much as there is support for each other, there is at least as malicious trolling just for the sake of it — some people enjoy mining any sort of social interaction for the cheap fix that hating gives them. In a world at the bottom of the social ladder, with no other group left at whose expense they can bolster themselves, the frail cannibalize the frail.
One of the regular chatters recently underwent sex-reassignment surgery, male to female, in Thailand. This monumental, life-changing event has been her main concern for the past year or so leading up to this intense milestone, so she talks about it often. She’s allowed: a chat room is an open forum and she is in a rural area with no other transgendered people within easy driving distance; it’s reasonable for her to expect compassion and a few sympathetic ears in a room full of gay men.
Quite the contrary. Not only has she not been unilaterally supported, she has often been savagely attacked, always by Gheys with a weak sense of self, who could never match her bravery and self-awareness. Two of the worst offenders have been a pair of MTF women, who repeatedly flamed their fellow transgendered person simply for not being as attractive as they see themselves. I’ve never witnessed such cruelty in real life; the hatred fix is undiluted when it’s protected by online anonymity. To wit, couple of days ago, one anonymous troll referred to the MTF’s new vagina as a ‘frankenpussy’. I seriously doubt he would say that to her face if he met her in real life.
There is one notorious young troll in this chat room who deploys the old adage that the best defense is a good offense. And offensive he is, certainly, to a pathological degree; almost every line he writes is an attack, a negative judgment, or an *eyeroll*. Physically, he’s exceedingly ugly. I give him credit for posting pictures of himself in his profile; most guys who are trolling in order to compensate for their lack of attractiveness don’t post pictures, or if they do they are fake.
The young troll’s attacks on me are unwarranted, as they are on most others in the room; he deflects potential rejection by rejecting preemptively. He’s tried to portray me as an ugly old man desperate to pick up younger guys. He calls me and others my age and older ‘gramps’, and believes we have no business being alive, basically.
After being assaulted by the young troll for no reason when I first met him in the chat room, I looked at his profile, his pictures and made the honest assessment in the main room that “being ugly inside and out is overkill. You should be one or the other, not both. Sadly, one of them isn’t something you can change.” My comment wasn’t intended to be hateful; I was hoping it would shock him into realizing why he behaved like this — a crime of nature has been committed against him by making him so unattractive, while at the same time making him member of a world that so prizes physical attractiveness; he has every reason to be fearful and bitter. (I later gleaned that he has never had sex.) Since my comment didn’t work and he continues to barrage me with baseless insults just to boost his fragile ego, I ignore him, or rather my eyes skim what he writes when I see his name next to the text. I can’t get angry; I have only compassion for him. I fervently hope that one day he finds love. Everyone deserves to know love, and in his case it will be transformative.
Indeed, that is how RuPaul sums it up with Arsenio about the hatred and discrimination he has faced his whole life as a black gay drag queen, “It’s not rocket science: Love in the answer.”
I know he is right from experience. I was born with a couple of major challenges: not being heterosexual and being hypersensitive. My conservative father was on my case from the moment it became apparent that I was no all-American boy, and that I was likely going to develop a taste for other boys. To make things worse, the fact we lived in Rome, that I attended a British international school, that he traveled too much to be present for my upbringing on a daily basis made it impossible for him to inculcate the performativity of American masculinity in me and make it stick.
When Dad was home, he made my life hell — oh, how I loved Sunday nights or Monday mornings when he left, how I dreaded his return on Friday. He was an alcoholic, a rageoholic, and paranoid with many schizotypal symptoms, particularly delusions. He beat me often. The conservative mind is more fearful and therefore more hate filled than the centrist or left-leaning mind, and my father is a professional Republican. His treatment of me was so awful that eventually I moved from fearing him to outright hating him; I feel the black power of that emotion rise up from the middle of my chest to enflame my head as I write these words. I hated him for most of my life.
Like most people raised with even minimal amounts of dysfunction — and I was served massive amounts — I developed a hearty sense of humor. Mine was particularly caustic; the Brits got it, but the Americans lived in terror of what I might say next.
I became truly addicted to rage and hatred when I worked for my father in my early twenties in New York City, the angriest place in the world, where being an asshole is an art form. He taught me how to bellow louder than my opponent, how to deploy my imposing physicality by stepping toward my victim and bellowing, how to pepper my bellowing with a highly articulate barrage of extemporized abuse. As a consequence, I’ve never had to hit anyone outside a boxing ring. I could castrate or eviscerate with words alone, crush an ego in an instant and leave it wounded for life, my words reverberating in my victim’s mind long after I myself had forgotten what I’d said.
The addiction to rage and hatred fed on itself to the point that by my early thirties, despite a promising beginning, my career was in ruins. Nobody wanted to work with me, and it’s not like filmmaking is an easy industry to get ahead in even when you’re not an irritable fuckhead screamer. I still had good friends; I didn’t abuse people I respected. But professionally I was stuck in quicksand and sinking.
I was introduced to Sufism when I was commissioned to write my first film in India — the hero of the film was a Sufi. I couldn’t understand what this esoteric branch of Islam was about, and the director, himself a Sufi, was at a loss to explain it properly to me — he could barely articulate what he wanted for dinner without going off on a dreamy tangent.
Knowing that if I couldn’t understand Sufism the audience in the West sure as hell wouldn’t, I all but eradicated it from the script I was writing. Over the course of the production, I also developed a disdain for the director. I bellowed regular doses of hatred and rage at him, particularly when his mismanagement of funds and just about everything else caused the production to crash midway through. I’d lost two and a half years of my life, and had nothing but crap footage to show for it. So I ended up associating Sufism with the ethereal idiot who was this director.
Still, curiosity beckoned. If I believed in these things, I would say that my spiritual teacher was calling for me.
A couple of years after the collapse of the Sufi project, I was flown to L.A. for a particularly arduous rewrite of a script for another producer, with whom I was having tense relations, of course. It didn’t help that he was a notoriously difficult person himself, a screamer that even the notoriously difficult Elliott Kastner, under whom he had apprenticed, was terrified of.
I was staying in the producer’s house in Los Feliz. One day, I’d had enough of his relentless goading, of his nastiness. I strafed him with one of my more acidic bellowings, packed my bag and moved to the sumptuous digs of a movie star’s ex-wife. She was a real character, a devoted crackhead who habitually passed out in various bathrooms around the modernist masterpiece that was her house; luckily, she had four people on staff to help her through life. I knew her through India connections — she was deeply spiritual, even if soundly pickled with cocaine products. One night we talked about Sufism. The next day one of her staff handed me a copy of Idries Shah’s The Sufis. “If this speaks to you at all, you should embark on the Sufi path,” she told me.
The book didn’t just speak to me. The first thirty pages reached up, yanked my soul, turned it around and made it their bitch. Six months later, I was initiated into an ancient Persian Sufi order and began to revolutionize my life, to change the DNA of the person I hadn’t been born to be, but had been made to be, by my parents and circumstance. “Become who you were before you came to be,” is the Sufi saying.
Slowly, gently, I weaned myself off the addiction to rage and hatred. It takes a major onslaught of adversity to get a rise out of me now. Sure, I still dip in to my stash of hatred now and then, but it’s not the same rage, not the same hatred. For one, it’s no longer toxic; it’s strategic: it emerges when I’m calling out wrong, and then rage is deployed vocally and emphatically.
It’s probably no coincidence that Sufism is known as the ‘path of love’ and that I was drawn to it because of that. I knew that the only way to recover from the addition to hatred was to douse it with its true antidote. I have the Persian word for ‘divine love,’ eshq, tattooed in the middle of my shoulders; I can’t see it, but I’m always vaguely aware of its presence hovering over me, a part of me.
RuPaul is correct: it is so very difficult to overcome those prejudices and hatreds we were raised with, that were instilled in us as reactions to injustices inflicted on us, whether by nature or nurture or both. And she’s right that the way to overcome hatred isn’t rocket science. As cheesy as it sounds, all it takes is some good ol’ fashioned lovin’ to nurture the weakness of hate away.
Watch RuPaul’s interview: