I’d like to preface this post by saying there will be some raw language and descriptions which may make some people uncomfortable. I hope that you will continue to read through the entire post and pull some positive things from it. I hope that you will see that every word chosen is meant to promote understanding, to connect with people, and to lend a voice to some who may want to speak… but can’t.
I’m going to tell you 2 stories: one is fiction, and one is true (though there are nuggets of truth even in fiction, am I right?)-
One of my favorite scenes is from a movie called Kill Bill: Vol. 1. For those who are not familiar, this was a series in the early 2000’s which, in some ways, served as a “love letter” from Quentin Tarantino to older classic movie genres: westerns, foreign martial arts films, etc. I could put a link to the scene here, but I would love to write it out and have you picture it in your minds.
The scene takes place in a high-end club in Japan. VERY POSH. The lighting is low, and the room is full of black, dark colors, wood and stone, punctuated by spotlights illuminating different artistic furnishings. A beautiful, colorful painting of a winged bird covers nearly the entire wall behind the head of the table. The painting is flanked by back-lit orange flames which contrast the icy-blue of the windows. In the middle is a long black table, and at this table sit 8 men and 1 woman (the incredibly talented Lucy Liu). This is the meeting of the “Bosses of the Yakuza,” and this is a celebration of O-Ren Ishii’s (Liu’s) ascension as the Boss of Bosses. Whether genuine or not, there’s merriment- laughter, drinking, eating, smoking, etc., but this pleasant scene is halted by a shatter. Boss Tanaka, slams his fist into his plate of food, his expression, fairly calm. Then, he grabs a napkin and begins cleaning the glass, and blood, from his hand.
“BOSS TANAKA!” Shouts one of the other bosses, “What is the meaning of this outburst? This is a time for celebration!”
“And what exactly are we celebrating?” Boss Tanaka asks, “The perversion of our illustrious council?”
Boss Tanaka begins to berate the other bosses for this ‘perversion,’ and the escalating war of words is broken by O-Ren.
“Gentlemen.” Her words are measured, quiet, and composed. “Tanaka obviously has something on his mind. By all means, allow him to express it.”
Boss Tanaka turns to look her in the eye. “I speak, of the perversion done to this council, … which I love… more than my own children, … BY MAKING A CHINESE JAP-AMERICAN HALF-BREED BITCH ITS LEADER!!”
In a flash, O-Ren, looking straight ahead, quickly steps across the entire length of the table; her steps- so light, it’s as if her feet barely touch the surface (an homage to the dance-like choreography in old martial arts films). And upon reaching Boss Tanaka, in a swift motion, she unsheathes her katana and beheads him in one stroke. The other bosses are horrified, audibly gasping as Tanaka’s …head… rolls towards them. In gratuitous fashion (like a Mortal Kombat fatality), blood spews up from Tanaka’s neck like a shaken up bottle of champagne. There is a long pause, to let the reality of this action sink in to every one in the room (and every movie watcher), before O-Ren speaks again-
“So that you understand how serious I am… I’m going to say this in English.” She stands, whips her sword so that blood splatters on a boss nearby, and sheathes it, slowly and carefully, finishing with an authoritative snap. Her face is devoid of emotion.
“As your leader, I encourage you from time to time, always in a respectful manner, to question my logic.” She places her hand on her chest, her voice doesn’t have a hint of malice. “If you’re unconvinced a particular plan of action is the wisest, tell me so! But allow me to convince you and I promise you, right here and now, no subject will ever be taboo…” She smiles, “except, of course, the subject that was just under discussion.”
“The price you pay, for bringing up either my Chinese or American heritage as a negative is, I collect your fucking head.” She grabs Tanaka’s head by the hair and holds him out for all to see. “Just like this fucker here.”
“Now, if any of you sons-of-bitches, GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO SAY, NOW’S THE FUCKING TIME!!” The room is completely silent and O-Ren almost whispers, “I didn’t think so.”
(If I didn’t do the scene justice, watch it here.)
As violent as it is, this story has really offered some solace, and drive, after what happened to me last night… TRUE STORY TIME!!-
I had just finished my workout, feeling pretty accomplished in the midst of what’s been a particularly rough season in my life (more specifically on that later, promise). I’d begun adding positive activities to my daily routine again. Yesterday, I biked from my office about 9 miles straight to LA Fitness, then pushed myself, while having fun at the same time, through a regiment and, after about 2 hours, headed out.
Usually, after a workout, I would stop in a local Subway restaurant for a quick meal. It’s your usual, compact, Subway restaurant- a corner store at the end of a shopping center; inside, one long aisle with a bar and high chairs along the window (this place could, at most, sit about 7 people). But this Subway was special. Why? The staff.
The late-night crew was awesome: professional, jovial, funny; they really seemed just to enjoy what they were doing and who they were serving. I tend to be pretty jovial myself, and the more I came in, the more I started having conversations with the staff there. One employee in particular I really enjoyed talking with, because he was hilarious. He said the craziest stuff and we had some pretty unique conversations. One night, he shared with me his encounter with a transgender person. He mistakenly identified this person with the wrong gender pronoun, and the response was a little curt. “Don’t misgender me,” the person said to him. On the one hand, he seemed to take it in stride, but on the other, he seemed bothered by it, and started expressing his frustration about “men becoming women, women becoming men” and so on. I offered a different perspective.
I said, “I can understand that people make mistakes like this, but I understand ‘the other side’ too. If that’s how someone identifies, then they just want to be respected. It would be like, if your name was John, and someone called you Tom. You say, ‘my name is John,’ and their response is, ‘NO. IT’S TOM. I’M CALLING YOU TOM.’ That would be out of line, right?” We talked a little more and, as he was about to make another point, he asked me “You’re not gay or anything like that, are you?” I said, “Yeah, I’m gay, but speak your piece.” “Nah, it’s cool man. Not trying to disrespect anyone.” He stayed jovial and friendly, and when I left, I still felt pretty great about him and that Subway. I also felt proud that, for once, I didn’t keep silent when I heard something I felt was wrong. I spoke up, even though it wasn’t specifically about me, and tried to engage him; to share what little I knew; to see if we could both grow from the conversation, and that’s what I thought happened.
Fast forward about a month (maybe a little longer), and I see him serving patrons. His mood is noticeably different towards me. It’s like he shut down, and focused on his work when he came near me. He was still striking up conversations with people though- joking, laughing, and so on. But when he came to me, he was all business. I was actually put off. Literally every other time I would come into that store, he would light up, and I knew I was in for a fun ride verbally. This time though, he didn’t even greet me, so I gave him my order. He made the sandwich, placed it in the oven, and then went to serve someone else.
That night, he was working with another staff member, who I met previously. When I met this other worker, he was alone in the restaurant, serving at least 15 people, plus completing online orders. People were getting upset and impatient, but he kept calm, kept respectful, and made sure to get every order done. When I came to him, I stopped and said, “Hey man, I think you’re doing a great job right now.” “I’m trying man,” he said. As I paid, I asked him for his name, then went online to Subway’s customer satisfaction survey and mentioned him specifically. I also gave a shout-out on Twitter (I don’t have much of a handle, but I thought maybe this will lead to him getting some credit for making through what easily looked like the night from hell).
So, when he saw me again, he greeted me. “How’s it going man?” “Hey,” I responded, “How are you?” Just then, the usually jovial employee motioned him over, and started whispering something in his ear, a long ‘something.’ I was looking a little confused, so he turned his head away from me just a little bit. Afterwards, the younger employee chuckled a little, then seemed, to me, to change his attitude as well. Not disrespectful, just transactional. I paid for my meal and went to eat at the bar facing away from them. As I was eating, I noticed that the ‘jovial’ employee hadn’t changed at all. He was still just as silly and funny as all of the other times I saw him. Just not with me. With literally EVERY other customer in the store that he served, but not me.
Something clearly changed. But what was it? It wasn’t my skin color- he’s black also. It wasn’t my behavior- I do my best to be pleasant to people who are serving me (while adding a little videogame humming to the mix). It wasn’t my outfit- he’s seen me in that coat and bike helmet MANY-A-TIME. So what was it? The only thing that seemed to change was, now, he knew I was gay. That was the only reasoning that came to mind.
I fought with myself for a second. “Marlin, you don’t know that. Who knows what he has going on in his own life?” “Fair enough, but why is WHATEVER is going on… only showing itself in how he treats me?” “Is he mistreating you?” “NO, but he is treating me different. I DON’T LIKE IT.”
That was it. He hadn’t disrespected me; he hadn’t insulted me; he hadn’t mistreated me; he just treated me differently. And, compared to how he used to communicate with me in the past, it was decidedly worse. Honestly, I hadn’t experienced that before.
There are injustices (in my opinion) that I have come to expect. I was raised in a traditional Christian environment, so I expected attitudes towards my identity to be a certain way. I expected that at the college where I worked, because I know the doctrinal position the Christian Reformed Church takes. I expected it in the churches I attended… Moreover, as a black man, I am pretty familiar with weird looks, comments, police encounters, even treatment in stores and restaurants that would definitely fit the definition of injustice. But I hadn’t experienced ever being treated differently outside of these circles and circumstances. I wasn’t prepared.
And it hurt.
In a future post, I am going to share a bit more about why it hurt so much, but I’ll include this here: May I tell you a ‘behind the scenes’ secret about me? Every morning, as I try to get a start to my day, I chant to myself “I AM ENOUGH.” Then, when I’m getting dressed, I look into the mirror, and I repeat these words from an amazing woman, Susan Robichaud:
“I am enough. I have always been enough and I will always be enough.
I love and accept myself completely.
I accept who I am right now, and I accept where I am right now.
My best is always good enough and I always do my best.
I only commit to those things I am truly willing to do.
I release all shame or guilt around putting myself first, when it comes to my mental, physical, and emotional well-being.
I love to take care of myself.
When I take care of myself, this is when I’m at my best.
I am enough, I have enough, and I do enough.
I love who I am and all that I can achieve being me.
I love the way that it feels when I allow my truest self to be seen.
I never make myself small so that others can feel better about themselves.
Instead, I allow my best self to shine, so that I can inspire those around me to do the same.
I love who I am.
I am enough, I have enough, and I do enough.
I am smart enough, strong enough, beautiful enough, and I belong.
I have the courage and the motivation within to be the very best version of myself that I can be
And I do this for myself.
The more I believe in myself, the better I feel.
The better I feel, the more I love who I am.
I am enough. I have always been enough and I will always be enough.
I love and accept myself completely.
I love who I am and where I am right now.”
I have been combating these thoughts: that I’m not enough, that there’s something wrong with me, that I’m defective… and my mind is sensitive to any encounter that supports these thoughts. That’s what happened last night…
But I’m also fairly combative…
And I am grateful this happened, because I came to a realization.
I’ve been working SO HARD to give people TIME- time to move away from the perception of who I am in their minds, towards the more honest version of me. I’ve worked really hard to be understanding of all those people I come across, who just “don’t agree with my lifestyle,” those believers who “hate the sin, and love the sinner,” and those “bros” who think that ANY semblance of homosexuality will manifest in an uncontrollable urge to have sex with them.
How many times have I said, “I completely understand and respect your viewpoint (even though you are saying there is something fundamentally wrong with who I am)? How often have I apologized for embracing even small parts of me that find other men attractive?
How often have I felt bad… being me?
I am sick of it.
Just a few short months ago, I lost a friend.
And the last words he said to me were: “Goodbye, Marlin. This is not fair to me nor is it healthy for me.” Our interactions were causing him stress and he made the choice to love himself; to separate from people who were causing him that stress. Though I may have my own views about how it happened, I am starting to understand more why people make that decision. And, after yesterday evening, I think that young O-Ren Ishii was onto something.
I am a believer that relationships have conditions, or, perhaps a better word is, needs. And the most basic HUMAN need is to be affirmed, especially for those parts of us that we do not choose. I am Marlin Exton. I am a black man. I am a gay man. Those are equally integral parts of my life and I will not be divorced from them. Have issues with the choice of music I may listen to, or how much peanut butter I eat, or how sometimes I speak without the concept of an “indoor voice.” Comment on my political stance, or ask why in the world would I ever watch Jersey Shore, or judge how healthy it is that I have a weakness for milk… with sugar in it. Critique my work decisions, my performances, my writings, my ideas, my reactions, or my responses- I can take it. I value it. I learn and grow from it.
But, as O-Ren put it, some things are not up for discussion. If we are to be a part of each other’s lives, MY HERITAGE, MY RACE, MY SEXUALITY are no longer open to critique. This is the condition I set.
What does this mean? It means something that scares me, because I dread the idea of someone exiting my life. But it’s clear to me now, that loving someone is not worth hating yourself. If that means having more of those uncomfortable exits, then that’s what I’ll do this 2019.
What you see in front of you is a man, full of flaws. But I am strong, and I can FIGHT. Not just with punching and kicking, pushing and shoving, but the type of fighting that matters- the type of fighting that breaks shackles; the type of fighting where the only way forward is victory. I am learning that I don’t need to fight to force people to believe what I want. I need to fight the fear of exiting those people from my life who don’t love me for who I am.
To those who read this, know me, and love me: Know that I love you too. I want to talk with you, I want to share more with you, I want to answer your questions, and even field some of those questions you might not feel comfortable asking anyone else. I want to grow from you and help you grow. I want to have some small role in your joy and I “have your back” for life… REALLY. But, I need to stop allowing myself to be hurt. And one of the ways is to no longer accept the words of those who assert that there is something wrong with who I am as a human being.
Lastly, I speak with complete conviction to my Christian brothers and sisters: I know what the Bible says. The Bible is wrong. I know who I am and who God made me to be. He is calling on me to accept who He made. And I will…
I hope you accept me too.
But if you don’t,
We should say “Goodbye.”