by Jer Bryant
“Why do you want to wear those bracelets? They’re hearts. They’re not for boys.” Ms. Davis, a teacher at my elementary school, extends her hand toward my small five-year-old body. I slip off the plastic bangles, gifts from my friend Christie, and drop them on the wrinkled hand before me. Her cheeks, parts of her face that remind me of the squirrels in my yard, of their chubby faces full of acorns, puff out and turn red. I once saw her pour salt on half an apple and shove it into that huge maw. I wonder if she, like the monsters in the movies on TV, could eat me. I have sinned, but I don’t know how.
I think of Ms. Davis in the days after Trump wins the presidential election, days full of darkness and fear. “If Ms. Davis is still alive, I’m sure she voted for Trump.” I say this to myself while driving to work, but I don’t know why a teacher whom I haven’t seen in thirty years comes to mind. At work, one of my Jewish students says, “This isn’t a good time to be a Jew.” His bright eyes dulled by the dark circles beneath. A young African-American woman draws a sad African face on the whiteboard of the writing center where I work. She labels it LGBTQ voter and beside it writes “Does my vote count?” While I want to hide in my home, take off the rainbow ring I wear on my middle finger, pack away my menorah and Hanukah candles in the attic, and wait out this impending administration, I cannot. I have to make up for Ms. Davis. I have to be the teacher that she wasn’t, somehow set good things in motion. My students, whom I often call my kids, need me, and I must extend my hand in help.
The LGBTQ community, in which I am included, grieves. We fear. While so many friends on social media shame us, tell us that we are overreacting, we know differently. Pence believes in conversion therapy—an ignorant idea that a counselor can change a young person’s sexuality though various “therapeutic” practices. These “practices” sometime include shock therapy. I just got comfortable in my own skin, just got over fear of being beaten, killed, fired. The safety fades.
And the swastikas, they are popping up everywhere—a college in New Mexico, a college in Texas, a bridge in Kentucky, a car in Detroit, on a sign in the memorial park for late Jewish/Buddhist rapper Adam Yauch (of the Beastie Boys). WHITE POWER painted here and there. I find myself barely sleeping, staring at one corner wall of my bedroom. There, ten or so lady bugs have gathered, bundled tightly against the winter-like November nights. Images of concentration camps flood my mind; I cannot shake them. I think of Gerda Weissman Klein’s memoir, All but My Life, of how she and her friends froze in the German winter. She wrote about how one woman snapped off her own frostbitten toes. I think of how so many of Hitler’s victims bundled together during artic nights, the kind of darkness that made them wonder if God had left us all.
The violence of history comes down on me. It is the same old hatred expressed by those who claim to fight for the working class—hate directed towards “The Other,” as if innocents can be driven out or slaughtered to fix the world’s problems. I ask a history professor, “We really didn’t learn from the past, did we?” He shakes his head no and pulls at his bowtie as if it’s a noose.
When night falls, I slowly sip chai as if to warm something dead inside and stare at a photo of Julius Schafer, a twenty-eight-year-old gay man once held at Sachsenhausen in Oranienburg, Germany. His image is one of approximately fifty thousand gays who were put into concentration camps under Hitler’s rule. Sixty percent died. Many of those who survived The Holocaust were imprisoned again for violating Germany’s anti-gay statue. I cannot imagine surviving hell only to be locked up again. Schafer’s face is tender—large light colored eyes and full lips. His button nose reminds me of my own. I want to pull him from the black and white prison, hold him close, feed him chai and hope, but I am running low on the positivity for which I am known. I mope around my house reading Psalms as if I am preparing for the end.
There is no record of what happened to Schafer.
A friend shames me for comparing Trump to Hitler, but how can I not? He wants to register Muslims. Shouldn’t that make us think of Hitler? Isn’t it dangerous to put innocent people on lists, to watch them, and by watching imply that they are threats? Reports of violence against Muslims and the LGBTQ community fill up my social media. One reporter says there are as many hate crimes being committed as there were directly after 9/11. On my way home from work, I go out of my way, drive by the synagogue in my city. My heart warms at the thought of the older men and women who worship there, kind souls who have welcomed me on different occasions. I hold my breath. I pray for it to be intact, for it to be unscathed. I slowly pass it. The building is clean, no evidence of hatred painted on its body. Only a sign that announces the Jewish Food Fair stands in yard. Thank you, God.
Students come up to me with tears in their eyes. What do we do now? And I stumble to form words. I tell them that we stick together and that we love the weak, the poor, the vulnerable. I talk about the Jewish idea of Tikkum Olam, a concept found in the Mishna, a body of rabbinic teachings, a belief that the world is in need of repair. We have to fix it no matter what setbacks we face. All the while, I wonder if Shafer, that gentle angel taunted by Nazis, believed in Tikkum Olam, if he thought the concentration camps were signs of disrepair.
Shafer’s face is with me all day. Flashes of him interrupt my thoughts when I’m talking to English Composition students about reliable resources or the appropriate way to integrate quotes. My throat tightens. My palms sweat. I am stuck between two worlds—the past and the present. As a gay man, I am holding Shafer in my heart. I am standing beside him while that black and white photo is being taken. I am just out of sight, just to the side of the camera, telling him to be brave. I take a few steps to the right and find myself in the present, in my office, a rainbow flag hanging from the wall. Seated beside me, a female science professor is crying, and I tell her we’ll get through. I tell her to keep practicing Yoga and walking the labyrinth she created. We will overcome this hatred, this outpouring of white power from small-minded men who defame the progress of humanity. All the while, I accept that for the next four years, God willing not eight, I will be between then and now. No doubt, the upcoming policies will remind me of those from the past. Register the Muslims will echo Register the Jews. Take away the protections of gays and lesbians will sound like Take away their possessions. They are not human. A current news photo of a young gay man bleeding from his head reminds me of men from long ago—the homosexual who was killed by dogs while Nazis held a bucket over his head or the one who was gassed or the one who was shot and left in a mass grave. Where are you Shafer? Are these stories your own?
I first learned about judgment when I was five. Ms. Davis’ disgust will probably always haunt me. Later, when I was fifteen, the word faggot was shouted at me for the first time. A teenage boy—complete with a mullet and teeth stained from chewing tobacco—yelled it at me from across the gym. It hurt worse than the ball he threw at me. The last few years of my life, glorious times that have celebrated the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the affirmation of marriage equality, have given me so much hope. They have healed some of my wounds. But seeing my country elect a man who is not much different from the bullies who live in my memory, the ones who pointed at me and laughed, has brought me grief, a pain that feels deep and layered. And I cannot help but feel fear and anger, no matter what those who shame my emotions say. I cannot stop thinking of Shafer, of how his life may have ended. I pray it was quick and painless. I cannot help but see Ms. Davis’ face on the man holding a sign reading WHITE POWER, though I have no proof she was racist, just a homophobe. Hatred is hatred.
Each night before bed, I light a candle. I ask for healing, for the strength to be a good teacher, a good friend, a good son. I ask for light to eradicate the darkness, to change hearts, to end ignorance. Perhaps foolishly, I pray for a coming kingdom of kindness.
Jer Bryant is a graduate of the low residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College. He currently lives in the woods of Virginia where he writes poetry, watches birds, drinks hot tea, and thinks about the divine. His words can be found in Prism, The Pikeville Review, The James Dickey Review, and New Verse News. Jer works at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Virginia.
by Jer Bryant