It is a gift when people are willing to explain their culture to you and to not be offended by your ignorance.
—Karin Kallmaker, Write What you Know
I watched a young man unwind his turban a few days ago, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind, even while cruising around in a boat full of lesbians.
These are opposite ends of a spectrum yet so clearly related in my mind. Diversity is on the rise in America and worldwide, yet increasingly under attack. More than ever, we must seek to understand those who are different and accept those differences just as we share and experience our own.
The Sikh Exchange
We are cruising to Alaska this week – note – next week’s post may just involve glaciers! My brother kindly agreed to give us a ride to the ship terminal, but first we had to accompany him to church which was a fair bargain. He is a very involved Unitarian, as was my mother. I am a lapsed Unitarian; I would say I agree with the beliefs but am, shamefaced to say, too lazy to act on many of them. For those unfamiliar with Unitarians, they feed the poor, care for the environment, help neighbors in need, support sister cities in the Third World, and meditate on faith and the importance of having a spiritual life. They just do it without reference to a specific set of scriptures – no Bible, no Jesus.
Last Sunday, the church invited a group of sikhs in to talk about their practices. This began with a children’s story – Unitarians often welcome children to participate in the service especially at the beginning. The story was about founder Guru Nanak who as a boy used his money for the market to feed a group of holy men. When his father expressed anger, Nanak explained that he had followed his father’s direction to use the money to get the best bargain possible, which was he decided meant to feed others who were hungry. Eventually, the practice evolved into langar, and then the story ended with a video about the largest langar spot in the world.
In langar, all people – rich, poor, high caste, low caste, families, men, women, doctors, laborers – sit together on the floor and share a simple meal. The huge operation requires hundreds of volunteers who cook, serve, and wash the thousands of simple metal dishes. 80,000 people daily experience this free meal service, the largest of the world. Another key sikh practice shared with the Unitarians was about chanting together which allows people to experience closeness to God as a group and to practice being an individual by learning how to pick out your own voice from your neighbor’s as you chant.
The demonstration that stayed with me the most was about tying the turban. The young woman who gave the sermon on sikh practices was Angie Panesar of the Sikh Sangat of North America. She explained how the sikhs think of the head as the temple of the mind, a place where you would get closer to God. The head is sacred, so sacred things should be covered. Most men wear turbans but so do many women and children.
Then, a young man, dressed teenager-fashion with oversized white tennis shoes and a huge polo shirt that came to his knees, stepped up to the stage. While his sister held a small mirror for him to see what he was doing, he unwound his turban.
There were three layers since, being young, he had a lot of hair. When he finally unwound the third layer, and showed the hair that had not been cut for years, it reached nearly to his knees. He combed it out quickly and then swiftly but carefully rewound it. There was something very profound about his deftness in tightly twisting the cloth, both self-conscious and un-self-conscious in performing this daily routine in front of 75 people who were not his people, but who were open-minded.
I have heard people wonder whether sikhs should be allowed to wear turbans in public because they could be hiding weapons. Seeing this made me realize what an absurd idea that seems, and how insulting to ask someone to uncover just because of fear and ignorance.
We came from the Sunday service over through Seattle, through June Pride Parade traffic, down to the cruise terminal. Getting on a cruise is always exciting – usually you have to pay and plan months ahead so there’s a massive buildup of anticipation. Getting on a ship full of my people is even more exciting, in a way the exact opposite of watching the young man share his hairstyle with us.
Pennants in the Atrium
This is the sixth lesbian cruise I have taken; I have been on five non-lesbian cruises as well. The cruise experience is the same. Gourmet dining, city a day, bingo and trivia on the Day at the Sea, the serenity of the open ocean, and the bustle of the tour to sample the sites. Luxury in the form of a smiling person to bring you fruity drinks at the pool, extra ice in your cabin, and the elegant midship atrium with its spiral staircases and magnificent sculpture. To be able to experience this with a group of My Own is like dialing the world up to eleven. I cannot quite explain how empowering it is to see – just for a week – the rainbow flag and rainbow-colored pennants superimposed on this atrium, to walk through the carpeted halls past the pricey tanzanite shops and the BB King Bar and hold hands with my wife without wondering if anyone is looking, questioning, analyzing, or disapproving.
To be lesbian is to go through the world under-represented, perhaps 10% of the population, knowing you are perhaps 10%, invisible as a lesbian most of the time, unless you decide to explain how you are different, and in doing so reveal things core to your existence that often others don’t want to hear. Sometimes, you just would like people to know without having to explain it and without having to be on display for their judgement.
Our dinner companions last night were P.E. teachers from Mississippi – one had a doctorate, the other taught women’s basketball all the way back to national pre-Olympic teams from 1972, and had actually coached Pat Summitt (!! Yeah, I know!!!). They weren’t fond of the idea of a cruise, not the type to sip margaritas by the pool admiring bikinis, or see themselves in the brochure as couples delightfully pointing at waterfalls or dining in opulence. But they finally broke down in order to see Alaska, and this was their first lesbian cruise; they were loving it.
“Sometimes,” Coach said, fingering her pink “newbie” wristband, “Sometimes you just want to be with your tribe.”
There are certain Olivia-branded, certain lesbian-specific aspects. Every show or discussion has an expert ASL signer, and has had one since the first cruise in 1990 (which I was on). There are vegan and vegetarian options at dinner and in the buffet. Events include Twelve step meetings, poetry readings, groups for women of color, and reflections on Gays in the Military or the Legends of Lesbian writers; these events are not found on straight cruises. These cruises have flower pots in the urinals, TomboyX briefs in the gift shops, lesbian herstory lectures, and lesbian comics and entertainers telling lesbian jokes. Just for a week. It’s blissful.
It’s hard to explain the party atmosphere because usually that is reserved for the young, bar scene. But a cruise was the first time I felt comfortable to dance in front of people and not be judged as either an object for potential mating (rejected!) or an object of disdain (not fit for children’s eyes). It’s hard to explain how it can be joyous to see so many women with short hair like mine: neat, practical, inexpensive cuts by barbers rather than stylists, not cut to be attractive but to communicate a kind of no-nonsense efficiency. I suspect, like me, most of them are often called “Sir.”
Being called Sir always makes me feel like I did something wrong, forced someone who is only trying to be nice to make a mistake. In expressing the simplest form of myself, dressing the way I am comfortable and combing my hair, I have caused a problem. I don’t enjoy going through life being a problem. Although I am done compromising about my hair.
Most people understand what it means to be with your tribe where you can wear your hair however you like without judgment. Anyone who has ever gone to a jazz camp or a church retreat or even seen their team in a stadium or at a sports bar play in the Big Game understands what it feels to be with my people. When you see someone with a sweatshirt from your state or your city while vacationing miles away, you walk up and say hello, exchange the secret words. That notion of hometown pride comes from the same source. My people, my tribe. I get it.
To breathe this air with my people, just for a week, is to be renewed. But then I go back and I have to think about how to continue expressing myself without hesitation among everyone else. It’s not easy to welcome in an Other and to sit patiently learning about their differences; it’s not easy to share your own and trust that others will allow you tell your story, uncompromising.
We were always defined by others and it’s time that we define ourselves…each step of the way, to keep enlightening others that we may not always be a homogenous mix.
—Col. Grethe Cammermeyer
More than I can ever remember, we are a divided populace in America right now. As many of us have been more open at bringing our culture into the mainstream, so have others worked harder to push it back into the dark. I can’t solve this with a few words here and now. I do know that we have to be willing to listen to each other and seek understanding, or we will let those who can capitalize on our fear and divisiveness use it for their own profit.
My spouse and I have had vigorous discussions speculating on what would happen if a red Trump hat showed up among this crowd of lesbians today. Much the same thing that a proud Dykes on Bikes t-shirt wearer would experience at a gathering of Mormons. Without pointing fingers, I would say that represents the sorry state of us. We can’t even talk any more and if we can’t have a conversation, then we can’t find common ground.
These two sides of the coin seem to me key to understanding. People will have tribes and should be able to practice within those tribes, revel in their common bonds, freely and without outside criticism. Those outside the tribe should seek to understand as best they can. I can accept your differences and learn not to offend by asking. That does not mean I need to be you in order to perceive you. I don’t need to become a sikh. You don’t need to become a lesbian.
But I can patiently watch you unwind your turban. I can understand a little about what it is to be you. We may even be able to find where there is common ground. That’s a start.