My mother called this summer to stage an intervention. She'd come across a few snippets of my memoir, which wasn't even out yet, and she was concerned. It wasn't the sex. It was the language that disturbed her. For example: "I have been so many things along my curious journey: a poor boy, a nigger, a Yale man, a Harvard man, a faggot, a Christian, a crack baby, alleged, the spawn of Satan, the Second Coming, Casey." That's just page six.
So you may understand my mother's worry. But she wanted only to make one small change. So she called, and she began, "Hey, you are a man. You're not a faggot, you're not a punk, and let me tell you the difference. You are prominent. You are intelligent. You dress well. You know how to speak. People like you. You don't walk around doing your hand like a punk. You're not a vagabond on the street. You are an upstanding person who just happens to be gay. Don't put yourself over there when you are over here."
She thought she'd done me a favor, and in a way, she had. Her call clarified what I am trying to do with my life and in my work as a writer, which is to send one simple message: the way we're taught to live has got to change. I learned this the hard way.
I was born not on the wrong side of the tracks, but on the wrong side of a whole river, the Trinity, down in Oak Cliff, Texas. I was raised there in part by my grandmother who worked as a domestic, and by my sister, who adopted me a few years after our mother, who struggled with mental illness, disappeared. And it was that disappearance, that began when I was 13 and lasted for five years, that shaped the person I became, the person I later had to unbecome. Before she left, my mother had been my human hiding place. She was the only other person who seemed as strange as me, beautifully strange, some mix of Blanche DuBois from "A Streetcar Named Desire" and a 1980s Whitney Houston.
I'm not saying she was perfect, just that I sure benefited from her imperfections. And maybe that's what magic is, after all: a useful mistake. So when she began to disappear for days at a time, I turned to some magic of my own. It struck me, as from above, that I could conjure up my mother just by walking perfectly from my elementary school at the top of a steep hill all the way down to my grandmother's house, placing one foot, and one foot only, in each sidewalk square. I couldn't let any part of any foot touch the line between the square, I couldn't skip a square, all the way to the last square at the last blade of grass that separated our lawn from our driveway. And I bullshit you not, it worked—just once though.
But if my perfect walk could not bring my mother back, I found that this approach had other uses. I found that everyone else in charge around me loved nothing more than perfection, obedience, submission. Or at least if I submitted, they wouldn't bother me too much. So I took a bargain that I'd later see in a prison, a Stasi prison in Berlin, on a sign that read, "He who adapts can live tolerably." It was a bargain that helped ensure I had a place to stay and food to eat; a bargain that won me praise of teachers and kin, strangers; a bargain that paid off big time, it seemed, when one day at 17, a man from Yale showed up at my high school to recruit me for Yale's football team. It felt as out of the blue to me then as it may to you now. The Yale man said—everybody said—that this was the best thing that could ever happen to me, the best thing that could happen to the whole community. "Take this ticket, boy," they told me. I was not so sure. Yale seemed another world entire: a cold, foreign, hostile place. On the first day of my recruiting visit, I texted my sister an excuse for not going. "These people are so weird." She replied, "You'll fit right in."
I took the ticket and worked damn hard to fit right in. When my freshman advisor warned me not to wear my fitted hats on campus... "You're at Yale now. You don't have to do that anymore," she said. I figured, this was just one of the small prices that must be paid to make it. I paid them all, or tried, and sure enough they seemed to pay me back: made me a leader on the varsity football team; got me into a not-so-secret society and a job on Wall Street, and later in Washington. Things were going so well that I figured naturally I should be President of the United States.
But since I was only 24 and since even presidents have to start somewhere, I settled instead on a run for Congress. Now, this was in the afterglow of that great 2008 election: the election during which a serious, moderate senator stressed, "The message you've got to send more than any other message is that Barack Obama is just like us." They sent that message so well that their campaign became the gold standard of modern politics, if not modern life, which also seems to demand that we each do whatever it takes to be able to say at the end of our days with peace and satisfaction, "I was just like everybody else." And this would be my message, too.
So one night, I made one final call to my prospective campaign manager. We'd do the things it'd take to win, but first he had one question: "Is there anything I need to know?" I held the phone and finally said, "Well, you should probably know I'm gay."
"Hmm. I see," he nearly whispered, as if he'd found a shiny penny or a dead baby bird.
"I'm glad you told me," he continued. "You definitely didn't make my job any easier. I mean, you are in Texas. But it's not impossible, not impossible. But Casey, let me ask you something: How are you going to feel when somebody, say, at a rally, calls you a faggot? And let's be real, OK? You do understand that somebody might want to physically harm you. I just want to know: Are you really ready for this?"
I wasn't. And I could not understand—could hardly breathe or think, or say a word. But to be clear: the boy that I was at that time would have leapt at the chance to be harmed, to sacrifice everything, even life, for a cause. There was something shocking, though—not that there should have been, but there was—in the notion that he might be harmed for nothing more than being himself, which he had not even tried to do in the first place. All that he—all that I—had tried to do and be was what I thought was asked of me. I was prominent for a 24-year-old: intelligent, I spoke well, dressed decent; I was an upstanding citizen. But the bargain I had accepted could not save me after all, nor can it save you. You may have already learned this lesson, or you will, regardless of your sexuality. The queer receives a concentrated dose, no doubt, but repression is a bitter pill that's offered to us all. We're taught to hide so many parts of who we are and what we've been through: our love, our pain, for some, our faith. So while coming out to the world can be hard, coming in to all the raw, strange magic of ourselves can be much harder. As Miles Davis said, "It takes a long time to sound like yourself." That surely was the case for me.
I had my private revelation that night at 24, but mostly went on with my life. I went on to Harvard Business School, started a successful nonprofit, wound up on the cover of a magazine, on the stage at TED.
I had achieved, by my late 20s, about everything a kid is supposed to achieve. But I was real cracked up: not exactly having a nervous breakdown, but not too far off, and awful sad either way. I had never thought of being a writer, didn't even read, in earnest, until I was nearly 23. But the book business is about the only industry that will pay you to investigate your own problems, so—
So I decided to give it a try, to trace those cracks with words.
Now, what came out on the page was about as strange as I felt at that time, which alarmed some people at first. A respected writer called to stage his own intervention after reading a few early chapters, and he began, much like my mother, "Hey, listen. You've been hired to write an autobiography. It's a straightforward exercise. It's got a beginning, middle and end, and is grounded in the facts of your life. And by the way, there's a great tradition of autobiography in this country, led by people on the margins of society who write to assert their existence. Go buy some of those books and learn from them. You're going in the wrong direction."
But I no longer believed what we are taught—that the right direction is the safe direction. I no longer believed what we are taught—that queer lives or black lives or poor lives are marginal lives. I believed what Kendrick Lamar says on "Section.80.": "I'm not on the outside looking in. I'm not on the inside looking out. I'm in the dead fucking center looking around."
That was the place from which I hoped to work, headed in the only direction worth going, the direction of myself, trying to help us all refuse the awful bargains we've been taught to take. We're taught to turn ourselves and our work into little nuggets that are easily digestible; taught to mutilate ourselves so that we make sense to others, to be a stranger to ourselves so the right people might befriend us and the right schools might accept us, and the right jobs might hire us, and the right parties might invite us, and, someday, the right God might invite us to the right heaven and close his pearly gates behind us, so we can bow down to Him forever and ever. These are the rewards, they say, for our obedience: to be a well-liked holy nugget, to be dead.
And I say in return, "No, thank you." To the world and to my mother. Well, to tell you the truth, all I said was, "OK, Mom, I'll talk to you later."
But in my mind, I said, "No, thank you." I cannot accept her bargain either. Nor should you. It would be easy for many of us in rooms like this to see ourselves as safe, to keep ourselves over here. We speak well, we dress decent, we're intelligent, people like us, or act like they do.
But instead, I say that we should remember Lot's wife. Jesus of Nazareth said it first to his disciples: "Remember Lot's wife." Lot, in case you haven't read the Bible recently, was a man who set his family down in Sodom, in the midst of a wicked society that God decided he had to destroy. But God, being cruel, yet still a sap in part, rushed two angels out to Sodom to warn Lot to gather up his folks and get out of Dodge. Lot heard the angel's warning, but delayed. They didn't have all day to wait, so they grabbed Lot's hands and his two daughters' hands, and his wife's hands, and hurried them out of Sodom. And the angels shout, "Escape to the mountain. Whatever you do, don't look back," just as God starts raining down fire on Sodom and Gomorrah. I can't figure out how Gomorrah got dragged into this. But Lot and his folks are running, fleeing all that destruction, kicking up dust while the Lord rains down death, and then, for some reason, Lot's wife looks back. God turns her into a pillar of salt. "Remember Lot's wife," Jesus says.
But I've got a question: Why does she look back? Does she look back because she didn't want to miss the mayhem, wanted one last glimpse of a city on fire? Does she look back because she wanted to be sure that her people were far enough from danger to breathe a little easy? I'm so nosy and selfish sometimes, those likely would have been my reasons if I'd been in her shoes. But what if something else was going on with this woman, Lot's wife? What if she could not bear the thought of leaving those people all alone to burn alive, even for righteousness's sake? Isn't that possible? If it is, then this backward glance of a disobedient woman may not be a cautionary tale after all. It may be the bravest act in all the Bible, even braver than the act that holds the whole Book together, the crucifixion. We are told that up on Calvary, on an old rugged cross, Jesus gave his life to save everybody: billions and billions of strangers for all time to come. It's a nice thing to do. It made him famous, that's for sure.
But Lot's wife was killed, turned into a pillar of salt, all because she could not turn her back on her friends, the wicked men of Sodom, and nobody even wrote the woman's name down.
Oh, to have the courage of Lot's wife. That's the kind of courage we need today. The courage to put ourselves over there. The courage that says that either all of us have to be faggots, or none of us can be faggots, for any of us to be free. The courage to stand with other vagabonds in the street, with all the wretched of the earth, to form an army of the least of these, with the faith that from the naked crust of all we are, we can build a better world.