â€śTHE ONLY GOOD ARAB is a dead Arab.â€ť
I knew I was going to get this e-mail, or something similar, long before I opened it casually one recent afternoon at work as I was plying through my regular deluge of electronic correspondence.
It was hardly the only such letter I received in response to an editorial I wrote several weeks ago detailing my two-decades-long struggle with my Palestinian father over my being gay.
Despite my very difficult history with my father, Sabirâ€”who I havenâ€™t seen in 17 yearsâ€”I still worry about him becoming a casualty of war, as he currently lives in the West Bank, part of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian Territories.
The recent war in Lebanon, and Israelâ€™s corresponding crackdown on already unbearable living conditions in the Palestinian Territories, prompted me to call Sabir.
And to write about it in these pages.
Thatâ€™s when the flood of hate mail jammed my e-mail box.
As someone whoâ€™s written about highly emotional topics for 15 years, including the separate and sometimes intersecting issues of being gay, and being Arab in America, I figured I was prepared for the anticipated torrent of name-calling.
When I got this particular note, however, I have to admit I was momentarily taken aback.
But dozens of other work-related e-mails were sitting there waiting for me to read, deadlines loomed and articles for the newspaper I edit sat in my In box, waiting to be reviewed.
I didnâ€™t have time, I told myself, to expend any energy, emotional or otherwise, on this kind of gratuitous hate mail.
AS A WRITER WHO REVELS in controversy, Iâ€™m used to contentious debates on heated topics.
Iâ€™m certainly used to angry mail.
Years ago, at a previous job with an edgy, progressive weekly political paper that pushed the envelope, and pushed many local leadersâ€™ buttons, those of us on staff used to wear it as a badge of honor when weâ€™d get letters that called us all kinds of political bogey-man names, like â€ślefty-pinko-communist propagandists.â€ť
A letter like that could just make your day.
Then, through most of the 1990s, as a columnist for the mainstream daily newspaper, the Philadelphia Daily News, I penned one of the countryâ€™s first regular columns specifically dedicated to gay and lesbian issues. As you can imagine, it generated its fair share of â€śhate the homosâ€ť fan mail.
But little, if any, of the angry hate mail Iâ€™ve received over the years rivals the veracity of the e-mails I recently got.
As a journalist and a die-hard freedom of speech advocate, and particularly as a gay man, I have always defended even the most vicious hate speech, and I still do.
It is far more dangerous to try to censor expression of any kind that we dislike than to have to listen to the unpleasant babblings of people who donâ€™t know how to express their differences in a civil manner. Putting up with hate speech is an irritating inconvenience well worth the price of a free and open society.
But none of the intellectualism of defending even the most egregious speech nullifies the sadness I feel in the fact that the hate mail Iâ€™ve received from straight homophobes about being gay has never made me feel as bad as the hate mail Iâ€™ve gotten from my fellow gay and lesbian citizens about being Arab.
Iâ€™VE BEEN TOLD I SHOULD know better, but I canâ€™t give up the notion, or the hope, that by virtue of the fact that we are gay and lesbian people, we should somehow collectively be more sensitive and tolerant and open-minded than others.
Itâ€™s not that I expect all gay and lesbian people to be liberals, or share my viewpoints on Middle East politicsâ€”or anything else, for that matter.
But I would hope that we could see how our experiences as a community extend beyond our own immediate issues.
The parallels I have personally faced being gay and being Arab are stark.
How many times have I heard the accusation that, as a gay man, I could pose a threat because I could be a pedophile?
How many times have I heard the accusation that, as an Arab in America, I could pose a threat because I could be a terrorist?
If any group of people understands what itâ€™s like to be stereotyped, vilified in the media, unduly feared by the general public, turned into scapegoats by our enemiesâ€”shouldnâ€™t it be us?
And if that is so, then shouldnâ€™t it make us more willing, even eager, to hear about and try to understand others who are stereotyped, vilified and feared? Shouldnâ€™t it give us a collective skepticism? Shouldnâ€™t it give us a little more heart?
Shouldnâ€™t it give us pause before we wish an entire group of people dead based on their ethnicity?
Before sitting down to write this column, I went back and re-read some of the comments generated by my last opinion piece, including what I have come to call the â€śdead Arabsâ€ť e-mail.
When it came back up in front of me, I stared blankly for a moment at my screen.
Then I clicked on it and closed the e-mail box, both literally and figuratively, from my computer, wishing it were equally easy to vanquish it from my mind.