Softness Defeats Hardness (and Homophobia)
A child of the Deep South and the gay son of a Southern Baptist preacher, I know homophobia too well. When I left the finger-lickin’ Cajun food behind for a new life in the Northeast (a place I imagined to be a tolerant, queer-loving utopia), I truly felt I had parted ways with homophobia for good. Boy was I wrong!
Homophobia has been a character in my story since I was first outed as a teenager and sent to conversion therapy. Homophobia has played various roles on the stage of my life: villain, patriot, pastor, doctor, therapist, brother, mother, and father. Over the years, I have employed various tactics to deal with this menacing adversary: defensiveness, hostility, anger, denial, gallows humor, and, as I previously mentioned, physically moving to another part of the country.
Even now, in my private moments, far from the Baptist pulpit, I can see its ugly face, a pointed finger, a whisper of gossip, my mother on the phone saying casually: “So, at this new job, they don’t mind you being around children?” My fist clenched, my face becoming bright red, the words firing out of my mouth before I can think: “Are you really that ignorant?”
The problem is when I fight back, it fights back, and when I don’t fight back, it grows stronger. Last year when I was recovering from an illness, I began to study tai chi and qi gong. Tai chi, while traditionally a martial art, is recommended by Harvard Medical School for its health benefits. Based on the teachings of Taoist philosophy, tai chi can be described as “the way of effortless power.”
In tai chi, one becomes like water, soft yet powerful. One of the concepts taught is that “softness defeats hardness.” As Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching, “Nothing in the world is softer and weaker than water. Yet, to attack the hard and strong, nothing surpasses it.” When I first heard this, I thought it sounded wonderful, but was probably just some esoteric mumbo jumbo. Someone wants to fight and what do you do, sit back, sip your iced tea, and talk about world peace? Seriously. Not in the real world.
But then I thought about how a single drop of water seems harmless, yet something as marvelous as the Grand Canyon is formed by water gently corroding rock over millions of years.
Last summer, I was at a barbeque with my partner’s family. His family has been very accepting of our relationship. However, he has one relative—Paul, I’ll call him. Paul seemed extremely uncomfortable around me. He would whisper to his sons, while glancing my way. Suddenly, I was back in Louisiana, ready to fight.
Then I remembered the teachings of the Tao, how softness (kindness) can defeat hardness (hatred). I walked over to Paul and told him the pickled hot peppers he made were the best I’d ever had (they really were).
He smiled. “You really think so?”
“Seriously,” I said.
Now, at family gatherings, he walks over to me, shakes my hand, and says, “I made more of those peppers you really like.”
It doesn’t happen suddenly, but gently, over time, the Grand Canyon forms, the spell of homophobia is broken, and Paul’s pickled hot peppers are known as the best in the universe. ▼
James Adams Smith works as an English tutor at Delaware Technical & Community College and is studying to become an occupational therapist.