An Open Letter to the Neighbor Who Filed a Complaint against my Black Lives Matter Sign

Dear Neighbor,

I don’t know who you are, but you surely know me. We’re a pretty conspicuous family: two dads—one white and one Asian—and two young kids—one black and one Latino—who live right up the street from Thoreau Elementary. Maybe you’ve seen me reading on the porch while my kids play soccer in the front yard and maybe I’ve even said good morning to you as you walked by. I can’t be sure though, since I don’t know who you are.

Black Lives MatterTwo weeks ago, we put up a Black Lives Matter sign. Our eight-year-old black daughter was so excited. Our white neighbors across the street put one up too, and I think that meant a lot to our daughter. I know it meant a lot to me. So when we came home last week to find a letter jammed in our doorknob from the town Building Commissioner stating that an anonymous complaint had been submitted through an attorney against the display of our sign, I was disheartened.

After talking with the Building Commissioner and the Town Manager’s office, I understand the ways in which the posting of our sign technically violated zoning bylaws. And as I drive around town now, I can’t help but notice the other signs that are also clearly out of compliance: signs touting an open house at one of the expensive private schools in our town or the latest incentives to go solar. I wonder if those signs are prompting you to call your attorney and file another anonymous complaint.

I wish I could talk to you face-to-face. I wish I could tell you why this sign means so much to my family. I wish I could tell you the ways our children, currently in second and third grade, have been the victims of both implicit and explicit racism in our town. I wish I could tell you the ways that I faced discrimination in my position as a teacher at the high school. I wish I could tell you that although more often than not the people we encounter in this town—the teachers, the town officials, the shopkeepers, the families—go out of their way to show our family we are welcome here, this rarely takes the sting out of the experiences that consistently remind us that we have to work harder than most to achieve a sense of normalcy we thought would be commonplace in the suburbs.

And that’s part of why we put the sign up. Certainly, we wanted to draw attention and show support for the black people being killed in our country at alarming rates, but we also wanted to prove to our children—and by extension our neighbors, including you—that equality is something that matters to us. It’s not enough to just expect equality, and sometimes it’s not even enough just to work for it. We need to demand it.

I wonder if you understand what we mean by equality. We explain it to our kids as everyone getting what they need, not everyone necessarily getting the same thing. Surely you’re aware of the insanely high statistics for black deaths in this country, especially in relation to their white counterparts. Surely you’ve heard about the high profiles cases: Freddie Gray’s fractured spine, Michael Brown’s lifeless body left in the street for four hours, the tragic shooting of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, and so many others.

When you see my son is bouncing a basketball in the driveway, do you see a younger version of these boys and young men? He has a head full of kinky hair and he likes to wear baggy basketball pants and sweatshirts with hoods. In a few years, he’ll look a lot like Trayvon Martin when he walks up the street at dusk to get a bag of Skittles at the 7-11 up the street. When my daughter was running through the sprinkler in her swimsuit this summer, did you see someone that might grow into the 14-year-old black girl that an overzealous police officer threw to the ground before drawing his gun last June in McKinney, Texas? These are the things we think about when we proclaim that black lives matter in the form of our simple lawn sign.

We’re not taking our sign down, although we will certainly make sure we strictly follow the town zoning bylaws from now on. And as a result of your complaint, I suspect you’ll see a few more signs around the neighborhood. I’m assuming you’ll still be able to pick out our house amidst the dozen or so Black Lives Matter slogans out there. We’ll be here if you ever want to talk.

Who Needs Bedside Manner?

When I came down with a fever a few weeks ago and just couldn’t shake the sinus congestion that followed, I headed to the doctor I just recently started seeing. I had a pretty strange interaction with him a few months ago during my first visit, and this latest visit surely has to be my last. Here are some great highlights of the visit:

 “With that hair you’ve got, I’m going to start calling you Johnny Weir.”

Not me

Let me be clear that my hair nor any other aspect of my appearance even remotely resembles Johnny Weir. Apparently the mere fact that I’m a gay man means my doctor has the right to equate me with the most ostentatious homosexual he sees in the public eye. I’m not betraying some personal distaste for the celebrity persona that Weir has constructed for himself; while I find him mildly irritating at times, he pushes all of us to question the various components of gender identity. His antics certainly would place in him a long line of celebrated figures if he were a woman, but based on my doctor’s comments below, he probably feels that Weir is the type of gay who shouldn’t be given a voice, and since during my two visits to this learned man he’s brought up my role as a gay male educator, I have to question the parallels he’s drawing and whether he’s subtly suggesting that I am on the Johnny Weir of our local high school, a school he’s constantly reminding me that his children will one day attend.

I’ve got a feeling your politics are way to the left and mine are on the opposite end of the spectrum.

This was only my second visit with this man, the first one lasting about twenty minutes. In that short time, he has apparently intuited my political perspective, probably enumerating in his mind the items on my gay agenda that he opposes. And even if I am politically what he assumes me to be, it doesn’t really put me at ease to have my doctor suggest that he opposes many of my personal views.

You’ve got to be really careful; you can’t be seen hugging a male student.

As a high school English teacher, I believe there are seldom occasions when my students need a hug, but the insinuation here is that clearly any physical contact between me and a male student would be tantamount to molestation. Apparently, my doctor thinks I’m free and clear to get up close and personal with my female students.

I mean, you must have been bullied in school right?

Not me either

No sir, in fact, I wasn’t bullied in school. I had a great time in high school. I lots of open and affirming friends who accepted for who I am. Sure, I struggled with my sexuality, and like many gay people, my friends figured it out long before I was ready to admit it, but no one belittled me because of my perceived or actual sexuality. No one stole my lunch money. In fact, I was elected to study body leadership, ran several clubs on campus, and supported by peers when I was outspoken in class. Growing up LGBT is still a tremendous struggle and there are lots of things we as a society can do to ease the process of coming out for adolescents, but don’t assume that everyone gay person was harassed by the quarter back of the football team and shoved in dumpsters after school.

This guy clearly does anything but set me at ease as a patient. His constant assumptions, insinuations, and generally inappropriate behavior leave me feeling tense and nervous. At this point, I barely remember the way he worked in these horrible suggestions and questions, and I’m hopeful that my attempts to act unperturbed worked in my favor. Perhaps I’ll work up the nerve to write a terse letter once I find a new doctor, although I’m sure it will do little to change the way this man feels about himself and the poor chumps who walk into his office.