Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Le Van D. Hawkins, “Both Sissies” (non-fiction) from Chicago Quarterly Review #33

Robert took special delight in harassing me. He knew how uncomfortable I was interacting with him and he knew I hated being called a sissy. I was doing everything I could think of to squelch that description. My mannerisms were subtler than Roberts, something I thought made me more acceptable than him until one of my high school classmates sat across from me in our crowded cafeteria and loudly told everyone in the vicinity of our table that unlike Robert, I was a “sophisticated” sissy: one who couldn’t be detected on first glance, but was a sissy just the same.
… After all the work I’ve done, I still behaved like a sissy??? At the very least, I thought I had made the transition from sophisticated sissy (my classmates’ description, not mine) to nice but kool dude (kool with a k, like Kool cigarettes). I gave my voice edge when I spoke, dropping f-bombs and making sure when I tossed out motherfucker it was “mutha” and “fucka” not “mothER fuckER.”

I can still be surprised at the way we torment each other. But I’m also surprised at the creativity that springs from pain.

Hawkins recalls his experiences as a youth usher in a Chicago-area Black church. I had no idea ushering was such a Big Deal in Black churches; in the (overwhelmingly white) churches I’ve been in, it’s generally a few older members who are coaxed into handing out bulletins at the door at the start of service. But in Hawkins’ church, ushering was lifted to a calling, to an organized and disciplined ministry with a strong artistic dimension:

Right hands extended in welcome, left hands behind their backs, they executed a sequence of precise, well- choreographed moves that welcomed church members and visitors, then directed them to their seats. Later, during the services, we collected the membership offerings with the same sense of purpose, precision, and showmanship, then brought the gold-plated collection plates to the prayer table in front of the altar, left hands behind our backs, right hands holding the collection plates at our waists. As the minister began his offering prayer, every usher standing in the sanctuary – in the aisles, posted at the exits – would take their cue from the ushers standing before the prayer table as they emphatically dropped their hands to their sides in unison, raised and crossed their arms at their chests, then, finally, bowed their heads in prayer.
Extended hands, graceful turns on the soles of our freshly polished shoes, these stylish maneuvers originated at a Black Baptist church in Chicago less than a half hour’s drive from my church in Robbins, a predominantly Black Chicago South suburb. Representatives of various usher boards – officers, junior supervisors, or in many cases, the usher board’s most graceful members – traveled across Chicagoland, where they were taught to these procedures along with a series of hand signals that enabled the ushers to communicate while going about their duties.
…. Quickly, this dynamic new style of welcoming church members and visitors became so popular it was used in Black churches across the United states.

Unfortunately for Hawkins, there was Robert, his supervisor. Robert was only a few years older, but had a kind of presence that Hawkins wouldn’t recognize for what it was until years later. His beef wasn’t that Hawkins was queer; it was that Hawkins was ashamed of being queer. “Here’s the big difference between Robert and me: I did everything I could to fit in; Robert did everything he could to stand out.”

I’m a little puzzled that Robert was invested with the responsibility of leading the youth ushers given his willingness to stand out, as it were. And yet he was. Until he showed up as Robbie Mae in full regalia, right down to the red turban and heels.

I frowned at the gawkers until I caught Robbie Mae’s attention – I was frowning in her direction. She stared at me, her face indignantly asking, What are you looking at? You still think you’re better than me? Haven’t you learned anything?

Decades ago, when I saw Robbie Mae in all her glory, I wasn’t familiar with the words trans woman. I also wasn’t aware of internalized homophobia when I began altering myself to please people who hated me. I hadn’t heard the phrase toxic masculinity behaviors when they began mimicking the kool dudes’ stereotypically masculine way of behaving.

She was brave. I was not.
I still have a long walk to get to freedom.

Some people have to be brave just to be who they are. Seems to me that’s something that should change.

In retrospect, it seems Robert wasn’t taunting Hawkins to be mean, but to disapprove of his hiding behind kool. Not the kindest methodology, but perhaps all he had at his disposal at the time.

*   *   *  

  • Youtube is full of videos about the usher ministry in Black churches: here’s one, and another.

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