Black And Gay In Montana -- And Still Alive!
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
Are white people really as dangerous as we think, or is our reality being distorted?
August 18, 2019
In the summer of 2011, my partner and I loaded up our cars and followed a moving truck north on Hwy 101 out of Santa Barbara, abandoning our Golden State cocoon to take a deep dive into the unknown.
In one sense, our move wasn’t all that unusual. Each year, millions of people migrate to other cities and states, prompted by employment opportunity (or lack thereof), family needs, or simple twists of fate. Americans are more geographically mobile today than at any other time in history.
But what made our relocation so unique was who we were and where we were going. I’m black, and I also happen to be gay. I’m partnered with a white woman, and our adopted son is bi-racial. We had decided to make a new life in Bigfork, a flyspeck of a town in northwestern Montana with a population of less than six thousand people — 98% of whom are white, Christian, heterosexual, and extremely fond of firearms. We were headed into the dragon’s den, the heart of what would become, only a few years later, MAGA country; a place where no sane person of color or sensible white folk would dare set foot.
Our friends and family were mostly supportive of our mid-life gambit. But they were also puzzled, and more than a little wary. On the one hand, they vicariously relished our Quixotic escape from the urban grind. Stress, soul-sucking congestion and chronic busy-ness weren’t topics of daily conversation discussed over frappuccinos and scones, but it was getting harder to deny the toll these stressors were taking on health, relationships and sanity. On the other hand, we weren’t just leaving the city; we were going to Montana, a crimson state that didn’t seem likely to turn purple anytime soon.
And while Big Sky might be gorgeous country, it was hundreds of miles outside the “Safety Zone,” the comfy swaths of diversity and tolerance lining the coasts and a few urban pockets in the interior. Even Seattle, the nearest Safety Zone outpost, was an eight-hour drive west on I-90 — or, as one of my thunderstruck friends put it, “like driving from LA to San Francisco, and back!”
There was an unspoken sense that dragons roamed outside the Safety Zone, and we were headed straight into their lair. The question on everyone’s mind (whether or not they voiced it): “Would an interracial gay couple be equipped to slay them?”
It’s hard to miss the seismic political and cultural rift between “red” and ”blue” America that emerged almost 20 years ago when George W. Bush snared the White House in the closest presidential election in U.S. history.
Having been born and raised in California, a state boasting some of the most well-educated and enlightened minds in the country, I'd always taken comfort in knowing that I stood on the right “side” of that rift, that I had aligned myself with those who held the moral high ground. It had always been easy to look down my nose at people in flyover states (the mostly white, mostly cold, mostly flat places somewhere between L.A. and New York) who voted the “wrong” way and didn't care about making life better for those who don’t look like them or live near them.
But I was gifted with an entirely different perspective when I found myself standing on the other side of that divide. It happened the day I told a colleague I was moving to Montana.
At the time, I was a lawyer laboring in the bowels of unscripted a/k/a “reality” television at VH1. Kim worked down the hall, and we had been friends ever since I had joined the company eight years earlier, occasionally sharing gossip over lunch or a glass of wine after work. But in recent years we had become politically estranged. While I had been a die-hard Democrat for most of my adult life, something had begun to shift within me over the last few election cycles. I suddenly found myself in the throes of an existential political crisis, questioning the effectiveness of the two-party system and beginning my inexorable drift off the partisan spectrum into no-man’s-land.
But Kim was clinging to the Left for dear life.
I remember her staring at me, slack-jawed, when I told her that Lisa and I had decided to leave California.
“Wait, where are you moving to?” Kim asked.
“Montana!” I repeated, waiting for her face to register something other than mild horror. Maybe she thought I’d said Guyana?
“Wow.” She blinked, taking it all in. “Isn’t Montana, like, Republican?”
“Yeah, I think they mostly vote Republican.”
“And…you’re comfortable with that?” she asked, the way you might ask someone if they were comfortable having a colonoscopy or dabbling in pedophilia.
I shrugged. “Well, I guess I’m more concerned with how people treat me than how they vote,” I told her, suddenly defensive and a little confused. Why was I feeling compelled to justify my lifestyle choices to a colleague who prided herself on being tolerant…?
“Uh huh. And if they vote Republican, how do you think they’re going to treat you and Lisa?”
“We visited last summer, and people were really nice,” I said. “It made me realize how much things have been changing everywhere, and I had no clue. Crazy, huh?”
What didn’t change was Kim’s expression. In fact, she didn’t seem happy to hear that I had ventured outside the Safety Zone and returned unharmed. She obviously had no interest in crossing into the red wilderness, and she couldn’t understand what had compelled me to take the trip. She didn’t say it, but I could see it in her eyes: “You’re black. Why in the world are you doing this?”
After I left her office and processed the exchange, I realized that Kim’s reaction shouldn’t have surprised me. She reflected the wariness that many well-intentioned white folk within the Safety Zone have towards those beyond its borders. I think this wariness stems from the fact that these days, it’s just not “cool” to be white.
Let’s just be honest about the times we live in.
If you happen to be “pigment-challenged,” you need to exercise caution — a lot of it — when dealing with people of color. Because the stakes are damn high now. If you mis-step and say the wrong thing in the wrong way, even in jest and without malice, things can go sideways fast. You’re likely to be branded a racist and tossed in the basket of “deplorables,” the miscreants itching to dial back the Civil Rights clock and bring back Jim Crow. And that’s if you’re lucky. If you’re high-profile enough to be subjected to the wrath of social media, your mistake could derail your career, or even end it.
If you’re lacking in pigment, you also need to get used to apologizing. In fact, you’d better get pretty damn comfortable with it. Because with “privilege” comes guilt. It’s a given that you’re a member of a club that has granted you special access, and it’s your fault that those outside the club have been forced to scrape by for eons without the benefits gifted you by sheer luck.
This holds true even if you’re getting your butt kicked by an economy that no longer seems to recognize your “privilege”; even if your civil liberties are under constant threat from an Orwellian-esque government; even if you’re fed up with a political system that consistently sells you out and ignores your interests.
All that really matters is that you’re white.
These days, it’s just not “cool” to be white.
And yet as un-cool as it is to be white, it’s doubly-uncool to be white in a state brimming with people who are absolutely clueless about their “privilege.” The white people in these uncivilized hinterlands are the worst of the lot. These aren’t white people who vote Democrat, drink wheatgrass, or wear black to show just how much sexual harassment pisses them off. These are white people who dig God, hunt and trap their meals, and sometimes forget to recycle. These aren’t “safe” white people; these are “dangerous” white people.
But having lived among “dangerous” folk in one of the most pigment-challenged states for the past 7–1/2 years, I’ve discovered a reality that’s often obscured, and even distorted, by opportunistic politicians and hysterical cable news pundits: when they’re not being cattle-prodded and steered by sound bites during election season, these white people really aren’t so different from everyone else. On a day-to-day basis, they’re actually more focused on the same issues that people in the Safety Zone are grappling with. Ironically, I’ve even found that the intolerant white people in these parts are, in some respects, more tolerant of outsiders than those in the Safety Zone.
It’s a little-known factoid, but Barack Obama lost the Treasure State to Senator John McCain in 2008 by a surprisingly slim margin: 49.5% to 47.1%. In fact, Obama even outperformed Bill Clinton and Al Gore in Montana by almost double-digits. Granted, Montana may not be representative of all places outside the Safety Zone, but Obama’s performance in a state that’s 92% white prompted me to take a closer look at how race played out for the first black president on the broader electoral landscape.
In both the 2008 and 2012 elections, Obama swept the “Rust Belt” states chock full of working-class white Americans (the same scrappy voters who were branded racist “deplorables” when they abandoned Hillary Clinton a few years later, sealing her loss to Trump). But Obama didn’t just perform well with working class folks in Rust Belt states; he nabbed 43% of ALL white voters in 2008, and even 9% of Republicans. No matter how you slice it, that’s an awful lot of white people who were willing to give a black man the chance to lead the free world — not once, but twice.
So what’s really going on in these pigment-challenged states?
Is it likely that tens of millions of people set aside their prejudice for two election cycles — then went back to the business of being bigots a few years later? Or is it more likely that people, desperate to believe a man who gave them hope, decided that color wasn’t as important as the chance to change a System that was gravely failing them, in many of the same ways that it had been failing people of color for decades?
Here’s my take: yes, America still has a problem with race. It’s real, and it would be foolish to deny this. But I question whether the problem is as dire as we’ve been led to believe. And election data isn’t my only clue that leads me to wonder if our “racial reality” is being distorted.
I haven’t explored every inch of Big Sky, but I’ve seen a lot. I’ve hung out in honkytonks packed with hardscrabble mountain men reeking of booze and packing heat. I’ve spent afternoons at bowling alleys with families low on entertainment options and dreaming of a pot big enough to piss in. I’ve had coffee at diners with retirees scraping by on fixed incomes. Nine times out of ten, when I see these people I’ll get a friendly smile or a “How ‘ya doin’?” Five times out of ten I’ll get caught in a chat loop bringing me up to speed on the weather or the latest cherry harvest. And sometimes we’ll swap stories about how damn hard it is to make ends meet now or how little sense the world “out there” makes to us.
But what I never get from these people is fear, disrespect, or intolerance.
My new life in Big Sky has given me a rarely-discussed perspective on white “privilege.” Until we moved to Montana, I’d never seen white poverty. But now I’ve got a ringside seat. I see it every day — a slow-motion surrender to diminished expectations, a desperate longing to escape a quality of life hopelessly in decline, a quiet despair that transcends any concern for the race or the lifestyle of neighbors. When I hire an unemployed logger who never finished high school to take down trees on our property, he doesn’t care that I’m black or gay. When I pay him, his only thoughts are “Will the check clear? And will she have more work for me?” I see it in his eyes.
In America in 2019, the struggle to survive knows no color.
I suspect this is why so many white people outside the Safety Zone had no problem electing a black president — twice. Focusing on pigment is a luxury they can no longer afford. From where I stand, the national discourse on race is missing the bigger picture. It’s keeping us from seeing that the vast majority of white Americans are well-meaning and have no issues with people of color; like everyone else, they’re far more concerned with just getting by in a world that no longer seems to know or care that they exist. But when we’re pummeled 24/7 by a frenzied media and "trending" videos that sensationalize racial atrocities committed by a handful of white people gone rogue, our reality is distorted. We succumb to fear and see our allies as enemies. We disassociate ourselves from our common struggles. We enable a mind f**k.
We don’t have time for this, people.
The “haves” are quickly being sifted from the “have-nots,” and we’re running out of time to set things straight. So if we think we can address our common threats by expecting, and even hoping, to see the worst in each other, then we’re fooling ourselves.
We can’t fix what’s going wrong unless we turn our collective attention to the pervasive problem that’s gripping all of us, regardless of skin color: a System that increasingly and shamelessly serves a very few at the expense of many. Only if we’re brave enough to leave our comfort zones and identity cocoons can we appreciate our common struggles. Only by questioning our racial reality will we be able to craft fundamental solutions that benefit everyone.
It’s time to unplug.