Uncomfortable conversations: How W. Kamau Bell, the Fag Bug, and Malcom X taught me how to balance my rage with Gandhi moves

It’s time to have uncomfortable conversations.

It’s taken me a long time to come to this. I’ve been living in the rage for so long that when it finally started to chafe, I didn’t recognize myself. And it’s not just my own rage, either. I have reveled in the fiery rants of John Stewart and the righteous wrath of voices dismissed.

There is power in that fire. No doubt, my rage kept me alive during unspeakable personal terrorism. That’s what is in when you lock a child in a closet with angry bees and laugh on the other side of the door. Terrorism. Sometimes I think we should change the word rape to terrorism, too. After all, rape is not about sex. It’s about power over another human being. It’s about forcing someone to submit to you. Ejaculation is just gravy.

For 10 years on The Sin City Siren, I have often delivered cathartic rage. I have used this blog as a pulpit to speak of injustice, to give voice for those who are silenced, and to share the mic with people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and survivors. And I’ve been rewarded with syndication and fans, as well as online harassment ranging from being called every version of bitch and whore possible to photos of dead fetuses to death threats. My rage has given catharsis to others who were not yet ready to share their story. My rage has provoked the demons of the internet. But all of it is rooted in anger, mine and yours.

10 years is a long time to rage against the night. Those windmills keep turning.

On Nov. 9, like so many I felt betrayed and angry. But also numb. People were messaging me in every way possible with rage in their hearts and the indignant question – where are you? When are you going to post something? Surely, now is the exact time we need your fire.

But I was empty. I could blame it on denial or the deep sense of loss so many of us were feeling. But it was something more.

Part of it is that one of my parents is an actual narcissist – not merely a selfish person, but a diagnosable DSM-V Narcissistic Personality Disorder narcissist. When Trump speaks, it is with the same motivations and manipulations I have heard all my life. That’s why I have spent so much time talking about actual narcissism and how to fight that unique form of antipathy – total lack of empathy – that is so hard for most people to truly understand. It’s the only thing I can think to do. I know from brutal, first-hand experience that the louder you yell at a narcissist, the more they love it. The more you make a huge public spectacle, they more they see it in their own minds as a kind of applause. I am dead serious when I say, you need a different rule book to fight narcissists. Because they literally do not give a fuck. Ever.

And now I’m here. It’s almost a year into Trump’s presidency and exactly everything I knew would happen has happened. He has masterfully distracted us from an epic disaster in Puerto Rico, to forget about Putin and Russia hacking our election, to forget that he “grabbed them by the pussy,” and to make his base feel warm and fuzzy in their actual racism. These are just facts. He does not denounce Neo Nazi violence, even when it kills someone. He calls his trip to Puerto Rico a success, because everyone was saying his name and the press took his picture as he threw paper towels to people in such dire need of drinking water that they are taking water from superfund sites in desperation. All he hears is the applause.

This brings us to the roaring scandals of Joss Whedon, both Afflecks, and Harvey Weinstein (and Bill Cosby, I haven’t forgotten about you, mother fucker). I’m proud of the bravery of those who have told their stories, including Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd. I’m proud of Terry Crews for telling his story about being groped at a Hollywood function last year. These stories are going to change hearts and minds. These stories are going to empower people who feel like victims to stand up into their warrior selves – to be survivors.

Now no one can say they’ve never known of a victim of sexual harassment or sexual assault. That’s the power of anger. And I’m here for it.

I’ve taken a kind of comfort in my anger, using it to propel myself into the sanctioned rage of advocacy for my fellow survivors of sexual harassment and rape. Still, even though I’m proud of those who tell their stories, of those who kneel, of the people who make public the faces of the KKK, I keep thinking about a conversation I had last year when I talked to comedian and truth-teller W. Kamau Bell. He was every bit gracious with me and gave me more time than allotted to discuss his CNN show, his Denzel Washington fandom and podcast, and his thoughts about the election. He told me that the central idea of his (now Emmy-winning) show, United Shades of America, is that we all need to have uncomfortable conversations.

“I talked to a guy who was a full-on prepper/survivalist in the off-the-grid episode. On the surface you’d be like “this guy is nuts.” We didn’t agree with each other on a lot, but he was able to let his guard down and have an awkward conversation with me. That’s what the show’s about. It’s about modeling how to have productive, awkward conversations.”

Bell also went to a KKK compound and a prison to model awkward conversations. His show and his twitter feed are all about awkward conversations. We actually spent a good deal of time talking about that, more than I could fit into the space I was allowed. This was July 2016, so the Orlando Pulse shooting was still fresh in everyone’s minds:

“There’s a lot of distraction politics happening right now that clearly America has a crisis of, at the very least assault weapons. We always want to try to pivot to other issues in the mainstream media when those conversations are being had. And I think that really the question is like, why is it so easy to get access to heavy machinery in this country? To me that’s the question. Because if you look at the same guy [who] hated gay people, but didn’t have access to the machinery, he would have to just stand across the street and hate them, which to me, I’m like, I’m okay with that. … It just seems like there should be a flag that goes off somewhere [about mass shooters like Omar Mateen]. Meanwhile, as a black man in this country, I walk into a store, a flag goes off. What’s a black guy doing in a store? I better follow him.”

(I should point out, when Bell said he would be okay with a guy standing across the street, he meant that would be preferable to a guy hating people so much he shoots them. I do not want anyone to mis-understand that quote as Bell saying he is okay with anti-LGBTQ sentiments.)

It’s that first quote and our discussion about awkward conversations that still rings in my ears over a year later. As I watch Trump, Weinstein, et al – I keep thinking about awkward conversations.

This reminds me of my decade-long friendship with Erin Davies, of Fag Bug fame. For those who don’t remember, Erin’s VW bug was vandalized with anti-gay hate speech. Instead of painting over it and trying to forget it, Erin took the act of hate and flipped the script. She drove her car – wrapped in a rainbow flag and the words “Fag Bug” – to all 50 states and talked to people about hate crimes, anti-LGBTQ feelings, and more. She made two documentaries about it. And I’m proud to say I hosted her at events I organized in Las Vegas – twice. (Read more about all of that, here.)

Meeting Erin and gaining her friendship was the catalyst for my launching The Sin City Siren in 2007. There is no doubt that my friendship with Erin has changed me as a person. We are almost exactly the same age and have similar views on a lot of things. As much as we are alike, I have always been in awe of Erin’s Gandhi moves. 

When faced with rage and hate, people who use “Gandhi moves” somehow don’t let it stoke their own anger. Obviously, Gandhi had these moves. He stood up to oppression and injustice – sometimes by sitting. Still, his clear-eyed calm was a strength and made a powerful statement. Malala is a good example of Gandhi moves, too. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a master at Gandhi moves. This isn’t to say that any of those people never showed anger. It’s just that in the face of abject hate, these are the people I think of as inspirations for how to have a dialogue instead of a shouting match. They remind me to breathe and focus my energy to do the tough work of changing people’s hearts and minds.

Erin once told me a story about filling up her gas while somewhere in the Midwest. She was alone, driving her rainbow Fag Bug. She’s a small, thin woman with a pretty mellow demeanor. Well, a big overweight guy walked up to her at the gas station and started talking about hating “fags” and other such hateful rhetoric. Erin didn’t jump back in her car and speed away, like I probably would’ve. She started talking to him. “I asked him, ‘Why do you feel that way?’” And he answered. And she kept asking him more questions and listening. Eventually, he agreed to go on camera and be filmed for one of her documentaries. Did he change his mind? We’ll never know. What I’m struck by is her total bravery. That man wanted to make her feel small and less than human. He hated everything she is, everything she represents. Her response to that hate was an uncomfortable conversation. I’ve seen her do the same thing many times. While she doesn’t raise her voice, her message speaks loudly.

This brings me to another person who you might not associate with Gandhi moves, Malcom X. To be fair, Malcolm X spent most of his career working as a media firebrand. If 24-hour news networks had existed in the 1950s and 60s, he would no doubt have been a frequent fixture. He had righteous rage and knew how to turn that into a media soundbite. I have read The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley many times. It is something I’ve returned to in my 20s, 30s, and now 40s and I’m always left changed, having learned a new lesson. I think it should be required reading, along with Sister Outsider by Audre Lourde and Women, Race & Class by Angela Davis.

When I first read the book in my 20s, I instantly connected with his righteous rage. Like Audre Lourde’s writing, I understood Malcolm X’s anger. I’m not saying I understand what it’s like to be black. I do not and I never will. It will take more than one lifetime for me to dismantle my own white privilege. So let’s be clear on that. What I’m saying is I recognized the similarities in their righteous anger and my own. Mine is the anger of a sexual assault survivor. Theirs is racism. No, it’s not the same subject or the same reason, but rage understands rage. In my 20s I rooted for Malcom X’s powerful rebuke of systemic racism and injustice.

MLK made me think, Malcom validated my rage – and that’s just how I liked it. For that reason, I never much cared for the final two chapters of the book, not only because Malcom X dies, but because I felt like he gave up after his trip to Mecca. It took me 20 years to finally understand how wrong I was.

When I re-read the autobiography this week, I was struck by the powerful epiphany Malcom has at the end of his life. He had a deep spiritual experience while at Mecca. He laid on his bed and the images of his life – as a boy, as a man in jail – floated through his mind. He saw how interconnected the hate and anger and violence of his life was — that was done to him and that he did to others. He saw that his quest to expose the injustice of racism was, in its own way, using tools that contributed to hate and anger and violence. (Like Audre says, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.) 

When he got off the plane in America, the media was there and wanted quotes from him that matched their idea of who he was. When he didn’t give the media what they wanted, they left. This is when he started having his Sunday workshops in Harlem, where he talked to people about seeing the shared humanity in everyone, regardless of skin color, and how that would lead to the end of oppression and racism. He was still a devout Muslim, in fact his faith was crucial to his epiphany, but he no longer proselytized for any one religion. He wanted people to be open to a dialogue, regardless of religion.

“My thinking had been opened up wide in Mecca. In the long letters I wrote to friends, I tried to convey my new insights into the American black man’s struggle and his problems, as well as the depths of my search for truth and justice. ‘I’ve had enough of someone else’s propaganda,’ I had written to these friends. “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”

To be clear, Malcolm was not a pacifist and his spiritual awakening in Mecca did not turn him into one. A few paragraphs later he says:

“I believe in anger. The Bible says there is a time for anger. … I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man’s problems – just to avoid violence. I don’t go for non-violence if it also means a delayed solution. To me a delayed solution is a non-solution.”

(Itallics in both Malcolm X quotes his own.)

I understand this sentiment, this feeling. For decades I’ve been writing and speaking about violence against women. I’ve testified at the legislature and in courtrooms. I’ve shared my story – as painful as it is to do that – because then you cannot say you don’t know someone who has been raped. I’ve been interviewed on TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, national outlets (ESPN, USA Today, Huffington Post, etc.), each time being labeled a victim. I did it because I had to make sense of the violence that I experienced. I did it because in our media system, when no one speaks for a group, it is silenced. I did it for all the people who have sent me messages about their trauma for the past 10 years, for those who have stopped me in the grocery store with tears in their eyes, for those who commit suicide rather than face their perpetrator in the classroom, for those who are told by judges that they were asking for it, for the Jane Does whose perpetrators get light sentences for “five minutes of action.” 

I like to think some good has come from my work here over the past 10 years. I like to think my cause has been just and that my rage has been justified. Our society doesn’t like women to be angry. We’re chastised as hysterical harpies and bitches when we get mad. We are told to smile more, even to those who grope us, proposition us, and even rape us. 

When I see Rose McGowan’s angry posts on twitter, I recognize and understand her rage. Sometimes rage is the only rational response to a system stacked against you and designed to silence you. Every time I see a story about her, inevitably, there’s some bro commenting about “angry bitches on their periods” or that McGowan used to be hot before she shaved her head. She’s talking about being raped and standing up for others who’ve had similar experiences, she doesn’t give a fuck if you think she’s nice or pretty. 

McGowan and Ashley Judd and Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie and all the other women telling their stories now, are engaged in uncomfortable conversations. There is no time or place that you will ever want to hear a rape story. There’s no convenient time. There’s no perfect victim. To paraphrase Malcolm X for my own purposes, there’s no time male privilege wants to hear about women taking their power back. I believe in anger.

What I hope can come from all this is productive change. That takes time and a lot of uncomfortable conversations. More than 140-characters allows. We have to engage in real life in real ways. It’s time to talk to your racist aunt, to challenge the memes that uphold rape culture, to be an ally as a verb, not a noun. I’m not advocating shouting matches or online flame-wars. I’m advocating real conversation. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. 

We’ll need to practice some Gandhi moves, to assuage our righteous rage.

And people are doing it already. The other day I was in a waiting room and caught an E news show called Daily Pop. I’ve never seen this show before in my life. They were discussing the Weinstein scandal and without missing a beat a woman named Melanie Bromley said the people casting doubt on the victim’s stories were perpetuating rape culture. And she went on to accurately define rape culture and pushback on her colleague who denied it. This was on the same network that made the Kardashians a household name! I was happily amazed. Feminism is working!

The trick about these uncomfortable conversations is to not lose yourself to your anger. Be passionate. Be prepared. Feel your anger, but don’t let it blind you from actually talking and listening. The epiphany Malcolm X had did not magically dissolve his rage. But it made him malleable enough to see that Gandhi moves can be useful, too.

It’s a fine line and one I admit I still have trouble with. (So you can save your screen-capture receipts.) I may recognize and respect Gandhi moves, but I’m still learning how to practice them. Still, in 10 years I have grown and changed as a person, I’ve had my own epiphany, but I’m not completely done being angry. Thankfully, there are people like W. Kamau Bell, Erin Davies, Malala, and yes Gandhi, to show me a blueprint toward finding that balance.

We’re not going to survive the Trump years without learning a balance between rage and Gandhi moves. Or uncomfortable conversations.

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2 thoughts on “Uncomfortable conversations: How W. Kamau Bell, the Fag Bug, and Malcom X taught me how to balance my rage with Gandhi moves

  1. Thank you for this! I’m 80 and somewhat disabled but my brain still functions and I am terrified by POTUS. I’m printing this to share with other old-lady friends who don’t use email. You earn sainthood each time you share with us!!

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