Covington and the Seeds of Hate

James Corcoran on Covington and Queer Identity

I remember the first time I was called a faggot. I was in sixth grade. We were between substitute teachers, a constant liminal space my class found itself in. We were the bad class, full of a strange mix of sweet and sour children, all of us with a manipulative streak. Our teacher had either quit or been fired (no one knew) and our long-term substitute had arrived and left after an episode in which she cried in front of us. The school secretary, a tough woman possessed of a sort of kindness I couldn’t then recognize, was left to mind us while the cause of learning was suspended in search of another gum-and-paper-clip solution.

We were in the schoolyard next to the building, a glorified parking lot, with the pastor’s car crookedly jammed in the corner, a constant reminder to be careful lest we dent the Audi. The convent with some retired sisters sat bright and yellow and tired next to us. We were playing a form of dodge ball, the ostensible goal of which was to protect the best player on your team so that the last man standing was the man from your team. The game involved value judgments of your teammates’ capabilities, and I have always been frank with myself. It was a well-acknowledged fact that Jim couldn’t see very well, so I did my best to sacrifice myself early on in each game. In the pursuit of being hit by the ball (and succeeding), I stumbled into an eighth grade boy who gave me a look that will always be seared into my mind. It was a smirk, but he didn’t find me falling into him funny.

He looked down at me, no hand extended, no trace of compassion in his steely eyes; instead, the Smirk of Superiority twisted his eyes and mouth, and he said, “Don’t ever touch me again, faggot.” I thought he was going to punch me or kick me, thought he would try to hurt me somehow. He didn’t need to; the secretary had intervened anyway. The boy, I thought, had found me out, had seen my secret, and had judged that he was better than me. I was so afraid and shaken that I tried never to make eye contact with anyone for a few years.

Eventually, an elderly woman at the church who complimented me on my singing one Sunday said, “You always look down at the ground. At least look up to God to see Him smile at you.” It took me a while more to believe that the smile of God was not the cruel smile of that boy. God, made known to me by kindness of uncommon depth, is goodness and love and nothing like that boy who expressed such cruelty with his words and face. God, should God have a face, would be a shining face of abiding contentedness in you, in me. But too often, God is not like us–despite our best efforts. That look is all around us. The face is under the guise of suspicion or grievances. That sneer is the stuff of our dialogue, which is to say the lack of a real conversation. Our body language is awash in judgment, proof of an unwillingness to allow an internal change to transform the expression of our most visible, eternal self. Our face.

Last month, when some feverish news stories came out about a group of Catholic high school students from Kentucky jeering (or maybe not) at a Native American elder, the facts of the situation didn’t interest me much. Instead, what bothered me was the smirk on the face of the boy with the MAGA hat. It was the same face, the same Smirk of Superiority, the same belief that he was better than Mr. Phillips. No one deserves to be on the receiving end of that face. The snarling mouth cuts deeply and hurts broadly. So while the facts of this situation are unclear, that face is not. I see it for what it is. This story is complicated, but there’s a lesson in this face. I encourage you to look at that face and ask if you’ve ever made that face and consider what led you to sneer at another human. Look at that face and recall if you’ve received it and know the person who judged you is wrong. And know that such a face reveals an uncomfortable truth to us: we can be both perpetrators of pain and the receivers of violence.

James Corcoran is a theologian-in-training at Yale Divinity School. His interests lie in the critical study of American religion, the nexus of racism and religion, and queer theory and theology.