Saturday, February 08, 2014

What silence equals

I don’t get it. Certainly, running the US broadcast on a multi-hour tape delay gave NBC’s editors ample opportunity to decide which parts of the Sochi Opening Ceremonies to cut—seemingly, too much of the wackadoo good stuff, like Get Lucky. And yes, speeches, welcome, thank you, swifter higher blahblah boring…but to patch together Thomas Bach’s remarks while neatly trimming his emphasis on dignity, tolerance, respect…? That can’t be sheer clumsiness. It’s got to be deliberate. Sure, Putin is a creepy dude, but is the fourth-place American television network so intimidated that they can’t bring themselves even to let someone else politely criticize his brutal, discriminatory policies?

Or are we a lot closer to them than we think?

I was a competitive figure skater as a teen. Oh, I wasn’t any good—I started too late for that. But I spent my adolescence in several mildewy local rinks, twirling and daydreaming and landing on my ass more often than not. Most of the kids I skated with were girls. Most of the coaches I knew were women. But I worked with three male coaches over the years, in summer clinics and training camps…and all three of them were gay.

Plenty has been written elsewhere, about the USFSA, the various Olympic committees, and whether they’re constantly searching for The Great Straight Hope, in men’s figure skating. I don’t have the tools or the inclination to analyze this, now, to explore why and whether gay men might be disproportionately drawn to the sport. I mean, sequins and Stravinsky don’t have some inherent magical gay-making power. And I have no idea whether the men I knew were out at the time: to their other friends, their families, out in their public lives away from the rink. Looking back, I don’t remember it being a topic of discussion, either…more of an open secret. They were gay. We all just knew, and didn’t care.

Tony taught me my first rudimentary spins, the coiled etchings of my blade on the ice like a plate of spaghetti. (Tony also lost his shit and screamed at me when, during rehearsals for the annual ice show/recital, I botched his vision, tripped, and collapsed in mortified, giggling paralysis.) Ryan was a brilliant choreographer, a prankster, a wiseass. Ryan swapped books with my mom, danced with me at somebody’s wedding. Alexi spoke English as a second language. “More slow, please,” he’d beg me, when my breakneck teen-girl blithering proved impenetrable. They were my teachers, friends, fixtures in my world. They were just people.
This was the mid-to-late 1980s. A history lesson in another disproportionate percentage: two of these stories end badly. Tony died of AIDS-related complications while I was away at college; first he vanished, then he died. I heard at roughly the same time that Ryan was sick. That’s how I was told, in that circle: a half-whisper, low tones, already too late. Someone was Sick. Ryan is…Sick. “Oh, Ryan, be careful,” my mother had blurted, once, the lone time AIDS had somehow come up in conversation. I remember that he promised that he would. Whether he was or wasn’t, I couldn’t know. Maybe it already didn’t matter. Ryan hung on, fought like hell in fact, for 17 years…but died a decade ago at 42. Younger than I am now.

I associate the “SILENCE = DEATH” message with the ACT UP movement in the same late 80s-early 90s period. I’d remembered it as both a demand for more research into HIV and AIDS, better medicine, a cure…and an exhortation not to remain silent—to protect each other by practicing safe sex, keeping everyone informed, being aware of one’s HIV status. But it turns out that, all along, it also meant being open about one’s true self, gay, straight, bi, trans…so that by calling attention to prejudice, oppression, danger, we can fight against it and root it out. From the Silence = Death Project’s manifesto: “’silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival.’ The slogan thus protested both taboos around discussion of safer sex and the unwillingness of some to resist societal injustice and governmental indifference.”

This is why I’m watching the Sochi Olympics, why I couldn’t bring myself to support a boycott. Russia’s discriminatory policies and human rights violations are an offense, and they deserve—NEED—to be called out on the world stage. I’m proud and protective of the brave athletes from around the world who are willing to defy these wrongs, in whatever large or small way they can: Ashley Wagner rainbowing it up. Alexey Sobolev making Bob Costas invoke the name “Pussy Riot” on national television. Brian Boitano, realizing that saying nothing is just another form of silence.
And this is why NBC’s decision to excise those portions of the IOC President’s speech so grates upon me. Matt and Meredith spent a lot of last night’s narrative talkin’ ‘bout Putin: how these were his Games, his message, his stage…almost as if he were single-handedly pulling every cable on the floating schoolgirl, twirling inflatable onion domes, and light-up hockey players swinging from the stadium roof. Putin, Putin, Putin! But if we don’t talk about why we’re talking about Putin—or why he is intimidating, sinister, sitting up there in his box like a reptilian cyborg—then we’re silencing ourselves. We’re silencing the good people fighting for change: those who are gay, those who aren’t, all of us just people like the coaches I knew. And silence = acceptance. Silence = the continuing wait for a cure. Silence = discrimination, imprisonment, getting beaten to death on the street or trapped inside a burning nightclub. So don’t give in, don’t give up. Be loud. Shout and cheer, for your team, your athletes…and for their humanity. For everyone you and they know and love.

Monday, February 03, 2014

How to end a dry spell

Such a goofy, giddy atmosphere in Seattle yesterday, like a particularly localized bizarro Christmas. Seahawks banners were taped up in every window of the ballet studio, and to the Campfire Girls’ card table outside the market (though by the time I made it out with my nacho fixins, they’d packed up their mints and raced home with their moms to make the kickoff). Someone had draped 12th-man flags on the pedestrian bridge over Holman Road and strung the handrails with blue and white twinkle lights plugged into an outlet on the city’s dime. People in Hawks jerseys thronged Chuck’s Hop Shop and the Sunday-morning biscuit truck outside. Driving through the anticipatory mayhem I had a weird momentary thought: that I wished I was a child, just a bit, to be experiencing this unique civic holiday from that perspective.

I was nine years old when the SuperSonics won their lone NBA championship. Seattle was still effectively a small town, known for boom-and-bust cycles of lumber and airplanes and little else. 1979 was closer, then, to Elvis at the World’s Fair and Here Come the Brides than I am to nine, now. Bill Gates and, yes, that Paul Allen had just moved their fledgling company up from Albuquerque. There was one Starbucks. Just the one! Think about that for a second.

So the Sonics were still somewhat accessible, to normal people. They made appearances at my elementary school assemblies, gentle giants signing autographs. Some crafty local made sock dolls in team likenesses; my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Eskenazi, had one of her favorite player, Dennis “DJ” Johnson, complete with frizzled-yarn Afro and his trademark freckles—somebody’s grandma had painstakingly embroidered a dusting of French-knot specks across his knitted cheeks. Based on a (shockingly accurate) self-portrait of the period, I had a Sonics t-shirt:


And so we were invested, at least somewhat.
We were with our dad, Sis and I, the night of Game 5. I don’t think we actually watched it, on the green-tinged 19-inch tube TV in the living room (though I’d love now to have the brass-and-veneer midcentury-mod Media Cart it sat on). But someone had hired a skywriter: I remember running around the yard in the long light of early-summer evening, and the little plane spelling out SONIC BOOM in puffy cloud trails in the air. And I remember afterwards, the shouts and horn-honking and people whanging pots together, house to house. Dad piled us into the pickup—just the three of us sliding around on the bench seat in the cab, never a thought of belting in because safety hadn’t been invented yet either—and drove us to Mercer Island, where Kathy still lived with her parents. He’d marry her, that fall. I cross Lake Washington every day now, but it seemed an epic journey, a vast distance, at the time. There were carloads of other celebrants on the highway, snapshots zooming past: a shirtless man hanging out of a VW Beetle whooping for joy, his own Sonics tee whipping and snapping in his hands like a flag.
“Wait,” Dad told me, “wait…” until we reached the I-90 tunnel…and then he let me lean over and pound on the horn. Honking in the tunnel! A delirium of echoing, illegal racket! Other cars took it up and we shot out the far end in a cacophony of blaring joyful noise that I’d instigated, thrilling and dangerous, champeens of the world.