Please, God, don’t let the stewardess see me lose it. I turn towards the window and switch off the overhead light. Fortunately the nice woman next to me is asleep, drooling into her lap. I’ve just finished reading Isherwood’s A Single Man and the novel has taken me back to 1965, the year it was published, four years before the Stonewall riots. I was a seven-year-old sissy boy then, just beginning to understand that something wasn’t right with me. In those days, I was forgiven my soft, pre-pubescent voice. But the way I walked, the way I sat, how I rested my head on my hands—these, I learned, would betray me in what was a man’s world through and through.
These tell-tale traits were dutifully corrected by my well-meaning mother who, I learned many years later, had always wished she had been born a boy. I remember how once she went so far as to criticize the way I slept. Even as a child I had to laugh out loud at this conceit. “How can I control the way I sleep?” I protested. But she mimicked the disposition of my arms and legs while I dozed and I had to agree that I looked damningly efeminado. Maybe I could carry this comic image of myself into my dreams and let it shame me while I lay prone, straightening my limbs and clenching my fists. Perhaps the next morning I could do my mother one better, stirring in a manly way and, to her great delight, roaring awake like a true hombre.
It had been a long day with many flight delays and I was weeping from exhaustion for George Falconer, the gay protagonist of Isherwood’s novel. His death didn’t disturb me: it was quite beautiful the way the author described it, how the “long day ends at last; yields to the nighttime of the flood.” George had a lovely passing. I was devastated instead by the misery of his life: his painful self-awareness, his continuous self-editing, his inability to share freely what he felt most deeply. His mother, or perhaps his father, had made the appropriate adjustments to him when he was a child. And I realized with a stab of pain that there were seven-year-old sissy boys alive today who were just beginning their journey of self-hatred; that there were seven-year-old black children being bidden by their parents to be strong so they could survive in what was a white man’s world; that all over the planet, the journey was beginning again and again, and that what power I had to keep these truths from flooding over me was already spent.
I had been in Chicago with many thoughtful colleagues to discuss how we might fix philanthropy. Not generosity—that needed no repair—but so-called “organized philanthropy.” In the course of our deliberations the happy news arrived that DOMA had been struck down and we shared some moments of joy. There was a long road ahead, as well as behind us, but time, we felt, was on our side. To add to the feeling of celebration, here I was in a room strangely devoid of ego and self-promotion, in the middle of a conversation that had somehow taken a sharp turn towards the subject of humility in grantmaking. Humility! In the work of foundations! In a field where so many once level-headed people had had their souls sucked from their bodies, leaving shells of self-important goo to strut about opining and intoning.
I speak with authority about these creatures because I’m one of their tribe, seeing all the less flattering aspects of my own character reflected in theirs. We’re so unremarkable—we, the philanthropic undead; our great sin, the sin of pride, so petty in its expression. An unattractive lack of empathy; periodic bouts of arrogance; prophetic curses cast upon the more flamboyant evil-doers. We’re easy to spot because we often match the meanness of our wrongdoing with the meager good that we produce.
I’m reminded of this last point because there’s something in the air these days, a voice speaking to me from the past, lifted above the shouts of “Gay power!” and the choruses of We Shall Overcome still emanating from the streets in front of the Stonewall Inn. According to one account of that time:
A scuffle broke out when a woman in handcuffs was escorted from the door of the bar to the waiting police wagon several times. She escaped repeatedly and fought with four of the police, swearing and shouting, for about ten minutes. Described as “a typical New York butch” and “a dyke—stone butch,” she had been hit on the head by an officer with a billy club for, as one witness claimed, complaining that her handcuffs were too tight. Bystanders recalled that the woman, whose identity remains unknown, sparked the crowd to fight when she looked at them and shouted, “Why don’t you guys do something?” After an officer picked her up and heaved her into the back of the wagon, the crowd became a mob and went “berserk.”
We, the philanthropic undead, have never gone berserk over anything. In this country, we are an informed tribe. We know about drone strikes, racism, elections bought and sold, environmental depravity. These barely quicken our pulse. Going berserk is the response of a person sorely in need of a logic model.
It was many years ago and I was sitting at a long table lined with academics. One of these described the research he had just conducted on the role of philanthropy in the civil rights movement. Turns out that foundations were circumspect and very slow on the draw. They came round eventually, as they did with many progressive movements, when all the difficult work had already been done. Even then they played a minor role.
I, the self-appointed spokesman for the philanthropic undead, was indignant. I knew personally of many instances in which foundations had taken great risks to advance the cause of social justice. Here I had in front of me yet another uninformed foundation-basher. But still his thesis gnawed at me for years, and the more I tried to negate it, the more clearly I saw how the exceptions proved the rule.
The Movement for Gender Equality, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring—we will let them spend their rage and bury their dead. After that, we will convene them and fund those who know how to speak to their betters. This is what’s called “being pragmatic,” taking care not to bite the hand that feeds you. This is photo opp philanthropy, the kind that smiles for the camera as it places one foot on a trophy that others had the courage to bag.
So, my love, I’m coming home to you exhausted. I’m coming home to celebrate with you the striking down of a law that should not have been passed in the first place, in a state that doesn’t recognize our union. And poor George—do you remember him? George is dead. I hold Isherwood’s account of his passing in my hands. Over him
and the others in sleep come the waters of that other ocean—that consciousness which is no one in particular but which contains everyone and everything, past, present and future, and extends unbroken beyond the uttermost stars.
That consciousness that is Mother and Father Stonewall.
That consciousness that is the one struggle for justice—for the young girls murdered because they wanted to learn; for the bull dykes, the genderqueers, the sissy boys we failed.
The one consciousness that floats like a jet in the great black void of heaven.