After experiencing an excruciating ‘plunge’ I endured with gays some years ago it dawned on me that African Americans and police officers might try such a life-changing event.
During the mid-1960s our seminary professor informed the class we had the option of signing up for a three-day homosexual ‘plunge’ in San Francisco. The gay community there was inviting theological students to meet with a cross-section of gay professionals, from single male prostitutes to couples who had lived together in committed relationships. Our class of twenty-five students would be matched up one-on-one for three days and nights with twenty-five gay men to learn about their life styles and environments.”
When we arrived at the site of the event in San Francisco we walked into a room comprised of twenty-five men that afternoon. We were immediately matched up one-on-one with gay men who were assigned to guide us through the Tenderloin gay area of the city for three days and nights. The experience of entering the room and being met by a two-dozen ‘straight looking,’ highly dignified gentlemen caught me off guard. They were respected business leaders, bankers, attorneys and engineers. It was an awkward moment when we realized we were to be assigned one-on-one. The facilitator caught the angst and assigned one gay participant to be with two class members.
The three of us started out by becoming acquainted with each other’s backgrounds and sharing our plans for the future. We then went to gay bars and other establishments where our host explained to us the unwritten rules of protocol for meeting in those social settings. The experience was fascinating but also threatening in the crowded bars. Later that evening we met with a young man who was an active prostitute and worked the streets of the inner city. We also visited with gay partners that had lived together for 30 or 40 years.
We met in the late evenings to debrief and reflect upon our experiences. The sessions turned out to be a form of modified group psychotherapy where we were pressed to share our honest impressions of what we had experienced on our visits. The sessions created more anxiety than the threatening encounters in the bars and on the streets, partly because we were in a hit-and-run emotional pressure cooker. My host asked me, for example, why I had managed to wind up standing back-to-back with my classmate in each bar.
“Did you expect to be patted on the butt in those settings?” he inquired. “Would butt-patting be acceptable in decent heterosexual social settings?”
When I denied the back-to-back defensive posturing he simply smiled and
said, “I watched you both maneuver around to protect your backsides in each bar and my hunch is you were not even conscious of what you were attempting to do.”
The confrontational session on the last evening, a chance to run deep and depart, was probably the turning point for me in my willingness to allow myself to truly experience the feelings of a gay person. I will confess my purpose for entering into that emotional arena was to come to know the pain and suffering within the lives of gay persons and not to connect with the intellectual and emotional power, dignity and talents they might possess. I probably approached the event with the assumption I was coming from a superior, ‘stable’ position, visiting a fragile camp of oppressed people to provide emotional and intellectual resources that might benefit their needs.
What if police officers and African Americans were to risk taking such three-day plunges? What if blacks hosted the events on their turf? My hunch is the training that police undergo on the issue are primarily limited to class-room reasoning and not much in-depth emotions that can make their heartbeats surge.
“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able go to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.”
Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn by Living, 1960.