I was born in the very small town of Pikeville, Kentucky. At the age of 4 my mother took us north and we settled in the slightly less of a small town known as Niles, Michigan. I started school in the mid-70’s, closed out high school in the late 80s.
Neither place was sensitive to diversity. Color, gender, and particularly, sexuality. Compared to those around me, I’d like to say I stood a bit above my average classmates on that score. I wasn’t a racist, I never abused a woman, and when it came to homophobia, I was less afflicted than most.
I was afflicted though.
I can make all the excuses I want. Sure, I was a product of my environment. Both in the home and among my peers, using homophobic pejoratives was typical. I’m ashamed to say on far too many occasions I was guilty of using those terms. More often than not, we used those words to belittle fellow heterosexuals. It was the 80s and the closet was still very much a thing. So, you rarely knew if someone was gay or not. Straight guys would throw the word “fag” at each other because what could be worse than attacking each other’s manhood?
There was one guy in my grade who didn’t hide his disposition. While effeminate, he was tough as hell. Our ignorant slings and arrows bounced off of him with a wave of a hand. I can’t imagine he didn’t go home from school some days and struggle thinking of what he went through, but he never gave anyone who spared him no grief the satisfaction. Looking back on him now, I am staggered by his strength.
I seldom partook of giving him a hard time. I was a sensitive kid. Far from a bully. I wasn’t popular. I was only a decent athlete. I fit in in nowhere in particular. I was more understanding than most.
But I did do all the dumb things. Maybe not as regularly, but I did them. I have to live with that.
As the 80s gave over to the next decade and I was fully ensconced in college, I grew to be more open-minded. I think due to my nature, I was always destined to be of liberal mind. I was still very much a work in progress though.
In 1992, I took a train up to Ann Arbor. A friend of mine’s wife was getting her degree in social work at the University of Michigan and I came for a visit. We both loved movies and there was an old theatre in town that would have an organist play before the feature. It was a great venue, my friend told me. We decided to go.
They were showing The Crying Game.
Now, you have to think of a time when a movie in release could actually keep a secret. A day gone by when internet spoilers were not at your fingertips, and people kept quiet.
The Crying Game worked their entire marketing campaign around its reveal. Critics tantalized, but kept a lid on it too.
That night I walked into the theatre knowing nothing, and when the organist stepped away from his bench I became immersed in the tale of Fergus, Stephen Rea’s guilt-ridden Irish Republican Army terrorist attempting to keep a promise to the British soldier whom he kidnapped, and whose death he helped cause.
Forest Whitaker’s Jody asks Fergus to look up his girl, Dil, and get a kind-hearted message to her. When the British army discovers Fergus and his crew, he escapes to London, takes on the name Jimmy and finds her.
Dil performs in a club. She is beautiful and exotic. Her skin tone is a mixture of caramel and mocha. Her hair is thick and curly. Her bone structure flawless. In short, she is a knockout.
Jimmy becomes taken with her. And so did I. As the two become closer, they edge into romance. Cautiously at first, but as their mutual attraction grows, they start to become intimate. Dil heads off to the bathroom to freshen up. She comes out looking resplendent in a thin, short robe. They come together and Dil drops the robe, revealing a penis.
Fergus reacts poorly. Clues that in hindsight seemed obvious were missed. Not only by Fergus, but by me as well. The club Dil performed in was a gay bar. Dil’s hands and fingers were thicker than the average woman’s. While her Adam’s Apple certainly wasn’t pronounced, it was there.
Movies are magic. When in the deft hands of a master like Neil Jordan, they can fool you with the slightest slight of hand. Fergus and I were fooled.
At first, he is disgusted. He knocks Dil away, vomits, and runs off. A day later, working at his construction site, Dil shows up in a tight mini-dress to whistles from his fellow hard hats. She looks amazing. Fergus is going to have some things to think about. And so would I.
As I mentioned before, my college experience had begun to open my mind. The exposure to different types of people outside of my own history was good for me. I was making significant progress. Still, I had never met anyone like Dil. She was an alien to me. I could still consider someone like her weird, or “other”.
After seeing The Crying Game, I could no longer do that. That great film taught me the most elemental of lessons. No matter how one identifies, we all want the same things. To be safe. Respected. To love and give love in return. For years I had been complicating something that had been so simple. That we are all just people. We are all deserving. I have tried to remember and employ that in everything I do since. The greatest gift anyone can be given is that of empathy. Not only for others, but also for yourself. I still had a lot of work to do after that night over 25 years ago now. I suppose if you are doing this life thing right, that work never ends.
I still don’t know all there is to know about the crying game. I suspect I never will. What I do know is the effort to learn is worth it. To continue to see those who are unlike yourself as worthy. To the point where it is no longer a question. It is simply ingrained.
A movie taught me that. I’ll never forget it. How could I? On that cold night in Ann Arbor over a quarter of a century ago, I encountered magic. When that happens, you mark the time.