By Paul Adler
Every other day or so, I walk across the street to the bodega to get a bacon, egg, and cheese for breakfast. This is always a little weird for me, though I suspect I’m not the first New Yorker to notice it: the guy behind the counter most mornings, who I assume owns the store, is quite obviously Muslim. I see him praying every once in a while, carpet rolled out neatly on the sidewalk, facing east toward Mecca. Every time I order a bacon, egg, and cheese, he winces just a little bit. At first, I was obtuse about it—why’s it such a pain in the ass for him to make my sandwich? I’d think. I mean, isn’t it his job?
Then one morning, it hit me: Muslim. Pork. Physically handling pork when your religion forbids it. Duh. The next time I ordered my sandwich, I asked him if he minded; he told me he didn’t.
We all make compromises between our closely held beliefs and the practicalities of everyday life, and my buddy at the corner store isn’t any different. He makes those sandwiches because it’s his job, because if he doesn’t make them, the customer will go somewhere else. He puts his beliefs aside so he can make a living—so he can get by.
Caitlyn Jenner’s been in the news a fair amount, recently. We at Punk Out have covered her transition, lauding her courage in making bare her soul for the world to see, to critique, to judge, to condemn, to mock. That Caitlyn chose such a public forum to make herself known is unarguably brave. We hear stories every day of transgender kids being persecuted, whether these incidents are simple acts of ignorance—like a high school principal banning a trans person from using the restroom of his or her choice—or brutal, violent crimes like assault and even murder. It’s impossible for me to imagine the significance of seeing a beautiful, confident transgender woman on the cover of Vanity Fair, essentially saying: “Here I am. Judge me as you will, but this is me.” I can’t fathom what it must mean for every trans kid in America and across the world struggling with their identities.
Of course, I wasn’t surprised at the immediate backlash. Everyone had an opinion. Though I won’t give bigots an additional soapbox by republishing their hate speech here, you know exactly what I’m talking about. From stupid quips to genuine rage, we saw all manner of uncouth rhetoric thrown at Ms. Jenner. But we also saw tremendous showings of love and support from all corners of the globe (read: internet.)
Meanwhile, I stayed uncharacteristically quiet. I know precious little about the trans community, and while I can certainly sympathize with the plight of Jenner and all transgender people, I lack the empathy that comes from knowing what it’s like to feel unable to truly express my identity because I’m a cisgender, half-white, straight male. I’ve never had to hide who I am for fear of being emotionally or physically hurt (except for that one time in Knoxville, but that’s a different story). I didn’t feel right giving my opinion, even though it was one of categorical support, on an issue with which I’m not comprehensively familiar. It felt cowardly to keep my trap shut, but I did it anyway.
For my day job, I’m what’s known as an editorial account manager for a small content development company. Basically, we ghostwrite content for all sorts of other companies—from one-person startups to multinational corporations—and if I’m not trying to convert a lead or deal with a client, I’m managing projects written by a network of thousands of freelancers. Sometimes, though, I get to write the content myself, which is my favorite part of the job because it’s the most creative aspect of what I do.
It was this facet of my position that dismayed me a couple weeks ago. Just after the publication of Ms. Jenner’s Vanity Fair issue, we received a request from a client of ours, a small film company that advocates for the black community. The company wanted to weigh in on Jenner’s pending reception of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, and they wanted us to produce a short op-ed on why Jenner doesn’t deserve it.
None of the dozen or so staffers at my tiny company wanted to touch the project, let alone send it out to a freelance writer. The account manager sent me a text about how upset he was at being made to deal with this now seemingly bigoted client. I told him I didn’t blame him. How could I? He supports trans rights and the LGBTQ community, as do I; taking a stand against someone as courageous as Caitlyn Jenner seemed, well, just plain wrong.
When I went into the office the next day, the piece still hadn’t been finished. Different writers at my company had taken a stab at it but the client still wasn’t satisfied because we were clearly balking at the work. I asked my boss—an understanding, progressive, kind man—what we should do about the project, as failing to complete it would almost certainly lose us the client, along with any potential leads and new business the client stood to offer. My boss pretty much said, addressing the office: do whatever you guys want; I’ll stand by you in any case.
I wasn’t wholly satisfied with that, so I asked him what his thoughts were on taking clients we were morally opposed to writing for. He said he’d never force any of us do anything that made us feel uncomfortable, but asked how I felt about banks, big pharma, oil companies, and the like—some of whom are our clients, the bread-and-butter organizations keeping our little startup afloat. Then he asked if I’d read the piece in its current iteration. I hadn’t. I’d taken a stand against something I didn’t even bother to read because I assumed it was inherently wrong.
When I read the piece, I was disappointed. A good op-ed takes a solid position, and ours floundered and equivocated. The decent human being in me didn’t want anything more to do with it. The writer in me saw the challenge. So I decided to write the piece.
My treatise against Jenner’s reception of the Arthur Ashe award hinged around the idea it’s meant for “athletes who transcend sports.”
“There’s an argument to be made about more recently active athletes who may be more deserving of this year’s Arthur Ashe Award of Courage,” I wrote. “The most high-profile of which hinges around Lauren Hill, the basketball star responsible for raising a million and a half dollars for cancer research before her untimely death this past April.” I continued: “We’re merely asking if this award, which is based predominantly around recently active athletes, should be given to a former Olympic medalist who hasn’t stepped onto the track competitively in nigh unto four decades. No matter how courageous Caitlyn’s transition has been, the real debate, here, seems to be about whether she’s enough of an athlete to receive an award ostensibly meant for those who’ve been active in sports a bit more recently than forty years ago.”
And that was that.
No debate over Jenner’s courage, no condemnation of the idea of transitioning to make your outside appearance match how you feel inside—just a semantic, logical argument about whether Jenner is meritorious of an award for athletes, having been inactive in sports for almost forty years.
The client loved it, and I was admittedly a bit proud of myself for being able to write the piece without using any hateful rhetoric or condemning Jenner. Even though I believed, and still do, Jenner is more than deserving of the award, I got the work done, I saved our relationship with the client, and I didn’t have to steamroll my beliefs to do it.*
(*Disclaimer: this is coming from someone who’s spent the majority of his adult life writing term papers for college students. Hell, last year, I got a girl into Columbia’s clinical neuropsychology master’s program and didn’t so much as bat an eye. So I guess you could say my morals are, well, flexible at times.)
As a writer, whether freelance or on staff, I know I’m going to be faced with stories I don’t want to cover, opinions I dislike, and stances I all but refuse to take. I was lucky I could write the Caitlyn Jenner piece and do it my own way; it was a win-win. I might not be so lucky, next time.
We all do things in life to get by. Sometimes, those things involve compromise on a personal, moral level. I admire my friend at the bodega, who picks up that bacon and tosses it on the grill every morning without a second thought. I wish I were brave like that. And I wish I were brave like Caitlyn Jenner. But I’m just me, and I’m sure as shit not perfect. Nobody is. But whether we’re transgender former Olympians, Islamic bodega owners, or navel-gazing twentysomething writers, we’re all just trying our best.
Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed on our Artist Corner and Blog are exclusively of the author and do not reflect the views and opinions of Punk Out as an organization.