Our country is suffering a crisis of distrust. How we move forward will require us to ask ourselves what our motivations are every step of the way. Is it a lack of representation? Is it to forge a new political system? Or is it just fear? Now, after witnessing the startlingly successful campaign of a man whose goal seems to be to divide and conquer the whole of these United States along our most sensitive fault lines, President Donald Trump is enjoying his first night in the highest office in the United States of America. As he preens in the Oval Office and leans back into the well worn leather of his new chair, I can’t help but ask to ask myself: what is his motivation? After spending 9 years researching peace for my documentary film “A Chance for Peace,” I’ve learned to catch myself before I go down the rabbit hole of trying to find reason in irrational people.
So I turn the question on myself. In this new President Trump era, in this moment of disillusionment and disappointment, what is it that motivates me to act? I pause and take a look at my news feed and see that, just minutes after Trump was sworn in, The White House website had been scrubbed of all language relating the LGBT rights. Immediately, I think of “Moonlight.” Director Barry Jenkins so thoroughly and poignantly weaves a story out of the American fabric that it reminds us just how far we’ve yet to go to truly be United. It shows us that we have no choice but to act and rise above the oppressive forces in our lives as members of the LGBTQI community. And then the answer came to me. What motivates me is a) to record our personal histories, b) sadness, and c) peace. And not a single one of these things can exist without the other.
a) Recording personal histories
Right now as I type this I just so happen to be looking at a thumbnail of a picture of me at age 11. At age 11, not only was I suffering the shame of being in the closet, but my Dad had just died. My Mom, like most moms, didn’t want to see her children suffer. So in our grief, she took us on a trip to Universal Studios. In this picture, my eyes are not the eyes I have today. They’re almond-shaped and more heavily lidded than the ones I see in the mirror. The iris of my eye catches the light in such a way to seem as though I had been crying. The truth is I had been. Often to myself. When it got to be too much, I’d let my close family members see me cry. When it was too much still, all faculties would fail me in attempting to hide my true feelings and I’d cry in public, unabashedly.
Hiding is not something I do anymore. And by the end of “Moonlight,” we see those walls begin to crumble in Chiron. Like all endings, it’s also a beginning. A quiet close up on his eyes, struggling to decide whether to flea from change or stay and embrace his truth, shows us a crystalline state we all find ourselves in now: how do we begin again?
As gay people, we know what it’s like to begin again. We know what it’s like to emerge stronger than we were before. That 11-year-old’s eyes are the record of my beginning. They recorded the times when I would quietly walk home crying to myself. They recorded the time I saw my Dad’s dead body carried out of our house at 2 o’clock in the morning. When I would get into my destructive fits, they recorded scans of whatever room I was in, looking for whatever I could throw and break, unable to articulate the tumult of emotions catalyzed by my not-so-secret secret of being a gay teen in America. But on a date recently I was told, “You have kind eyes.” It humbled me to speechlessness. Why? Because I knew what I had to work through to embrace kindness. The journey from shame to destructiveness, to anger and to violence lead me to “kind.” And although our community and our allies are similarly confronted with a new beginning of violence in the streets, and the shame of living in a place that does not represent or value who we are, I know that it is kindness that will win the day.
We members of the LGBTQI community, we make ourselves. We very consciously decide how we want to be, knowing full well how society tells us we should be. As a member of a minority and/or oppressed community, the onus is often on us to be “the bigger person,” to guide people away from hate and fear and towards love and acceptance. It’s not so much an argument of who’s right and who’s wrong, or who’s “weird” and who’s “normal”; it’s the difference between kind and unkind. And we’ve survived unkindness and prejudice all our lives. Eventually, we are faced with a choice: do we give in to hate or do we turn the tides of our histories for the better?
At the anti-Trump protests I’ve attended I’ve seen thousands of eyes – and I recognize them. They know the difference between kind and unkind. They’ve seen and felt the pain that hate can cause, but they show up because they know it can be overcome. They’ve shouted at the top of their lungs with thousands of strangers about how “love wins” and they’ve seen policies change and federal laws be created from those two words – words that we embedded in a culture that loves to win, but perhaps hasn’t felt enough love. That is our personal history. It’s a personal history founded on the core truth of love and in love there is beauty. In love, there is possibility. In our truth as gays, lesbians, bi men and women, transgendered men and women, and queers, we are free and we will do what we were meant to do as human beings and that’s not just survive, it’s to thrive. But in order to thrive we must do so collectively. We must reach out and intersect with those who claim to be against us. It won’t be easy, but we’ve learned the ropes, we know the pain, and we know that what we create must be continually upheld and supported.
Look around. We are ambassadors of a more loving and more accepting future. We are creative, inspired, bold, strong, and organized! And our message is simple: love wins.
The last time I cried in a movie theater like I did when I saw “Moonlight,” I was 10-years-old. We all went out as a family to see “Ghost” starring Patrick Swayze. My Dad, who was struggling to stay alive at that point and spending a lot of time thinking about his own afterlife, noticed I was crying. He leaned in and whispered, “It’s okay to cry” and I just let it all out. That was one of the most valuable lessons of my life to date.
One of the things we are told as men – directly and indirectly by society – is that we don’t get to express our emotions, so we cut them off at our core and work instead on not feeling them at all. A dear friend of mine shed some light on the outcome of this sad societal construct. She said, “When we stop feeling our emotions, our emotions can only confuse us.” But we are supported in our community. We own our sexuality and our power in a way that most men don’t: we honor the masculine, we honor the feminine, and we say ‘who cares!’ to both, because there is no difference – its all part of the fabric of being human.
Before “gay” meant homosexual, it meant “happy”. Society perverted the “happy” out of the word. But perhaps when people see a gay person living his or her truth publicly it isn’t so much that they see an abomination, maybe what they see is what they fear the most: happiness. Who could they be if they let go of fear? Who could they be if they let go of anger and hate? They project it onto us, but follow the stream of those slurs and curses and the source is within them, not us. Never forget that. They’re not hateful, they’re confused. Hate is the symptom. But our rainbow represents life (red), healing (orange), sunlight (yellow), nature (green), harmony (blue), and spirit (purple/violet). Live every color, everyday and let them see you cry, let them see you heal, and shine, and live in harmony. They need to see what love and acceptance looks like.
After 9 years of hard work and exploration, a couple months ago I finished my documentary film “A Chance for Peace.” Throughout the 2-and-a-half years of actively editing with my editor Yassin Koptan, I questioned my intentions for every frame. Why do I want to include this shot? Why share this much of my story? Why did I even set out to tell a story about peace in the first place? What makes me think I qualify to even try? The truth eventually emerged, and it was watching “Moonlight” that revealed another layer to my story. I realized that I have a responsibility as a gay storyteller to demonstrate that, though I may not be accepted by everyone, I can uphold a value that is universally accepted if often misunderstood: peace.
Since I was a kid, I’ve been told countless time that I was a pussy. A faggot. Weak. That I don’t stand up for myself. That I’m too sensitive. Too morose. Too effeminate. But never once did those people take the time and reflect on their motivations for calling me those names. That was my job. And I took it seriously. This practice of questioning my intentions, of plundering dutifully for reason, helped me lean gracefully into “A Chance for Peace.” Throughout this process, I’ve worked with an NRA-supporter, a conservation Muslim, I’ve met people who’ve never met a gay person before, and I’ve emerged with new friends every time. Because in working toward a collective goal such as peace, we all must unify. It’s bigger than us. It’s bigger than our fears. It’s a means of survival, and it doesn’t matter how we distinguish ourselves, what matters is that we unite on common ground.
In the film there is a line that I wrote into the voiceover: “I’ve learned that to truly know something, we must also know it’s opposite. And we’ve known hate long enough.” And it’s true. We all have known hate. As a gay man, I know the internalized hate and shame that practically every other gay man has gone through or is going through still. I used that. That’s why I called the film “A Chance for Peace,” because in pain, I see a chance – today more than ever! So Trump better enjoy that chair while he can, because he’s about to see what peace looks like. Because after 9 years of researching, practicing, and bearing witness to peace in Kenya, Egypt, Thailand, Turkey, India, Mexico, and the US, I know one things for a fact: a community engendered with love and support and openness is a community that will not be held down.