Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The limits of solidarity

I had an odd experience the other night that has left me thinking about both the possibility and the fragility of connection.

A friend came to visit from (the past year’s) University City. I had invited him to go to a talk by Important Author/Inspiring Figure, who was passing through, so he organized a two-day stay with me around that. I was a wee bit worried that he and GF wouldn’t get along for a bunch of reasons relating to gender identities and worldviews. I needn’t have fretted. It was a lovely visit – we all three got on beautifully, and my friend and GF very quickly found and riffed on their commonalities. My friend and I reflected on how well we had connected as friends, and how much we have in common across some important differences.

We went to hear Important Author/Inspiring Figure on Sunday. IA/IF is a transgendered person, and so were many in the audience. The experience of being in that packed auditorium with a very diverse array of genders prompted my friend, who is a trans man, to the edge of an important epiphany. And IA/IF spoke about solidarity, its political necessity, in a way that was no doubt compelling to every person in that room. We left and went to a nearby patio for dinner – GF, my friend, and an old friend of his whom I didn’t know but GF knew a bit from around, the way that queers do, even in big cities. We were all full of such different things, I think, all so charged with emotions and commitments and memories, and some of us didn’t know each other terribly well, so we were shy to begin, this foursome. But so eager to talk through our shifting perspectives and make something of our palpable desire to connect with each other. And it didn’t take long for us to warm to the dynamic at work in our little dinner group, and soon enough I think each of us was feeling pretty adept at enacting the very solidarity that IA/IF had just been speaking about. That felt good. Great, even.

Just as our drinks had arrived and we were hitting this groove, a woman at the next table interrupted my friend to comment on what he had just said. She was small and alone. And eavesdropping, apparently. We took in her comment politely, all of us, I think, impatient to get back to our own conversation, to pursue this tie that was quickly developing between the four of us in the afterglow of the talk.

Then the woman said, in a voice that wasn’t quite slurring but was clearly colonized by alcohol, the voice of a well-seasoned drunk, “You know what? I’m just going to be honest. I’m going to ask you if I can join you for a drink.”

We four WASP, bourgeois revolutionaries nodded and mumbled a half-hearted “of course”. Each of us chewed over our own disappointment that this outsider was crashing our party. But none of us had been able to be honest with her, to tell her that we preferred, at that moment, our own reflexive, narcissistic narrativizing.

She sat with us for nearly half an hour. She ordered and quickly drained another glass of wine. She told us random bits and pieces of her life. Later my friend’s friend said she seemed as if she was dying. She unraveled in front of us. Moving constantly to the edge of tears and back again. She told us about her boyfriend. How he didn’t like her drinking, although she claimed it used to be a problem and now it wasn’t. She could have a drink or two, she said. She alluded to something huge, and though at first I wondered if the boyfriend was abusing her, I became convinced that he wasn’t. I think it was simply that she knew she was killing herself with alcohol. And sabotaging her own possibilities for solidarity with people she loved.

All of this was punctuated with two refrains: “I can just tell you’re all nice people” and “it just feels good to get this all out”. She had chosen us, a group of trannies and queers, for a desperate attempt at connection.

And us? Well, we listened to her talk. Asked her some questions. Encouraged and assuaged her a little. My friend convinced her to go back home instead of having yet another drink. But we were shifty-eyed and slightly incredulous. We were uncomfortable. Solidarity? It was reserved for each other. Even a group of four "nice people" who know what it feels like to be live on the outside – the other three more than I, admittedly – found it impossible to really open ourselves to this woman.


Margo, darling said...

This is a powerful and beautiful entry. As in, I wish this were a short story. Loved the time I spent reading it. Got all the complexity--solidarity, civility, passion, compassion. Wow. Wow.

Sfrajett said...

Wow. What a beautiful post. I love how the definition of queer expands and expands here, and I love how you suggest, very subtly, that there are some kinds of outsiderhood that we think of as hard but we are actually really comfortable with. And that there are some kinds of pain that are impossible to face, but which we know and feel compelled to bear witness to anyway. Alcoholism is the snake twined tightly through and around our queer communities, and we are ashamed when we recognize it as an old friend among us, even in strange contexts. How queer are we? What hope and change can our solidarity bring to a larger world? Just beautiful.

MaggieMay said...

Wonderful, wonderful post-- and I can't do better than that, and nodding to margo and sfrajett's comments.

App Crit said...

Wonderful piece. Alcohol can dissolve all kinds of socio-cultural boundaries, but also distill them.

Cin cin

Flavia said...

Thanks for sharing this beautifully-evoked moment.

Unsane said...

I cannot understand it too much. Perhaps the issue is that you did not expect to feel so much contempt?

Hilaire said...

I don' think contempt, exactly, is what we felt. But you're right that I wouldn't have exactly expected to feel so...conflicted...