Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Birthday Fun and Neo-Nazis

Well, as promised, a birthday update is in order. Generally, last Friday was one of my best birthdays ever, and it far exceeded my expectations (which I had purposefully pegged pretty low, under the assumption that I wouldn’t yet know many people). That much of this post will examine one negative aspect of the day should not obscure its overall greatness, but to skip over the low point would be to miss an event that will affect my long-term thinking far more than the trivialities of parties and presents.

For context, Friday marked the last day of the CEU pre-session. The university celebrated this occasion with the official opening ceremony. No university operates in a political vacuum, but as CEU’s President explained, our mission here is more overtly political than most institutions; George Soros founded the school shortly after the collapse of European communist authoritarianism, giving it “the explicit aim of helping the process of transition from dictatorship to democracy…and to nurture respect for diverse cultures and opinions, human rights, constitutional government, and the rule of law.”

The ceremony was followed by an open reception, at which I received birthday salutations from practically every person I’ve met over the past two weeks. These good wishes were in addition to the numerous messages I received from other corners of the globe (thank you friends and family!)

That evening, our residence center also marked the end of orientation with a dorm wide party – complete with chocolate fountain, dj, and open bar. By the time 11pm rolled around, I was feeling awfully lucky that my birthday fell on the day it did, and everybody else was feeling pretty good too. Needless to say, under the pretext of my birthday, it wasn’t very hard to round up a large group to take the party downtown.

We caught a bus to the local transit station, where we needed to transfer to a night bus. We must have stuck out as an odd group, but frankly, I was paying more attention to a new romantic interest than the other people waiting to catch busses. My bliss was shattered when shouting drew my attention to three men who were advancing on my friend Som, corralling him in the direction of a busy street.

The aggressors, sporting black leather jackets emblazoned with Hungarian flags, all had shaved heads. Som, of Indian origin, happened to be the only member of our group of a darker complexion. They were drunk skinheads, Som was the easiest target.

By the time I saw what was going on, a number of guys from our group had already put themselves between Som and the skinheads. When the rest of our group joined the others, the skinheads backed down quickly. Apparently, they liked the odds of 3 to 1 a lot more than the odds of 3 to 30. Some Hungarians helped pull the skinheads back – their association with the racists was never fully clear, they calmed the ringleader down, but didn’t appear to be friends.

A few minutes later, one of these Hungarians tried to apologize for the skinhead who had provoked the confrontation. In a broken mix of German and English, he stumbled to explain that the provocateur was a “good man, he just had too much to drink.” Then he switched the subject to rock music.

I tried to sympathize with this lame apology, recalling lessons from a Humanity in Action session last June when I met an ex-neo-Nazi who had grown up with a tough family situation in an even tougher region. People don’t become violent racists randomly – it’s a insidious blight with complex social causes. This skinhead must have had a rough past too. But as I looked at Som, one of the brightest students to befriend me here, a scholar deeply committed to conflict resolution and a caring individual who has been more supportive of my sexuality than any other classmate…as I looked at him, I found myself totally unable to even attempt understanding the difficult past of the cowards who attacked him.

After boarding the night bus, my thoughts continued to take me back to my time with Humanity in Action, where we spent a lot of time discussing the role of bystanders. In a group of thirty people, it had been easy to step in…the odds were pretty favorable to us. But what would have happened if there had only been a few of us? As it was, plenty of our “friends” stood idly by. Sure, a couple Hungarians had stepped in, but many more looked to the ground and “minded their own business.”

For the past four years, I lived in Colorado Springs, the heart of conservative American fundamentalism and a dangerous breeding ground for virulent homophobia. As a teenager, my last family vacation to our favorite summer retreat near Laramie, Wyoming, had been tainted by the recent murder of Mathew Shephard. Still, I’ve always refused to hide my sexuality in public. On board the bus, I wanted to take the hand of my date and find solace in his presence. But with the skinheads right behind us, I was not about to even try. Our relationship had quickly become more of a liability than a reassurance, and all of a sudden, I lacked the courage acquired from years in Colorado Springs.

Earlier in the day, CEU’s president had challenged us to consider how we could make a difference in those societies that remain oppressed, the connotation being those “other” societies in underdeveloped corners of the world. Our run in with the skinheads served as a sharp reminder of just how far we still have to go in the most tolerant societies.

This date, a Romanian born under the brutal dictatorial regime of Ceau┼čescu, would probably laugh at the triteness of that statement. But to those of us who have grown up in the comfort of liberal democracies, it is difficult to realize how quickly advocates can become bystanders when personal safety is at risk. Faced with this same risk, I myself quickly jettisoned “queer” behavior.

We may never understand why some choose to intervene on behalf of others in these situations…so far, the best catalyst seems to be the strength found in numbers. So stand up, don’t look to the ground, and make sure you’re numbered amongst those who won’t stand by. There are more like-minded people around you, they just need to know they’re not alone. Challenge the banal events of daily racism – those who rely on intimidation are cowards, so confronting the small instances forces the reality that they are a minority fringe. As to the times you’re alone, well, I haven’t come up with much yet other than knowing the signs and paying attention.

Truly, it was a birthday I won’t forget.

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