As I remember the story, Noah Webster was caught by his wife making love to the maid. “I’m surprised,” she said angrily. “No,” he replied, being a well-known stickler for definitions, “I’m surprised by your entry. You’re shocked by my behavior.”
To be surprised is to be startled, or taken unaware. To be shocked involves judgment.
The first time I saw a bearded man in a dress was 40 years ago. There were four of them in what was called “Skag Drag” at the time. I was speaking on gay issues at the University of Michigan, and they walked in dramatically, and sat on the floor in front of me. I was startled by their entry, and I was shocked by their appearance. I had never seen hairy drag queens before, so it took a little while for me to sort through my thoughts on their gender expression.
A handsome, young, bearded man just won a major European singing competition. I was surprised that he won, because of what he wore, but not shocked by his appearance. He sang in a dress. Apparently, some Russian men are so shocked by his appearance, and by the acclaim he received, that they are now shaving off their beards. They no longer consider facial hair a sign of masculinity. Shaving off their beards feels like a bit of an over-reaction. It might have been easier for them if they decided just not to wear a dress.
I watched the video clips of Conchita Wurst singing Rise Like a Phoenix in the Eurovision Song Contest, seen live by 170 million people. When not in drag, the Austrian singer’s name is Thomas Neuwirth. Thomas, who sees himself as a man, might have won the award without the golden dress, but wearing it allowed him to express herself more comfortably, and enthusiastically. She did a beautiful job with the song. He should be very proud of himself.
Having been exposed over the years to people such as Thomas/Conchita, whom I admire and love, I’m no longer shocked by the multiple ways people express their gender. Having a face to put on the issue of diversity in gender expression eliminated any fear or judgment I might have initially had.
I don’t remember the first time I saw two men kiss in public, but I do recall sitting in the movie theater in 1982 watching Making Love, when Michael Ontkean kissed Harry Hamlin. Some members of the audience made loud sounds of disgust. They were shocked. I was surprised by their response. Didn’t they know what the movie was about?
Michael Douglas turned down the role played by Ontkean. So did William Hurt. Either they, or their agents, felt it was too risky for a straight actor to kiss another man. It was shocking. A few years later, Hurt won an Oscar for playing a transgender, gay man in prison in the film, The Kiss of the Spider Woman. And, more recently, Michael Douglas won an Emmy for his portrayal of the flamboyant, gay man, Liberace. Sometimes, we get past the things that scare us, and the results are very rewarding. It takes time, exposure, and effort to go from being shocked to being surprised.
There’s been some public gasps of disgust at the televised kiss that the football player Michael Sam gave his boyfriend Vito Cammisano. Sam had just been drafted by the St. Louis Rams. It was an emotional moment for Sam, as he became the first openly gay player to be drafted in the NFL. Although many people across the country were perhaps surprised by the kiss, they nevertheless cheered its display. However, there were also some people who were shocked by it, and who tweeted their disgust. The media reported that a couple of football players took great exception to the kiss, and a conservative Christian commentator urged that Sam and Cammisano undergo conversion therapy to turn them straight. No mention was made as to whether they could, or should, then grow beards. Signs of masculinity are in question. But kissing on the lips is forbidden by some, unless you’re from another country, such as Russia, where bearded men kiss each other on the lips.
I understand the experience of shock when we see something we’re not used to seeing. I remember bobbing as a youngster in the pool with a buxom friend of my mother. When her bathing suit top came off, I was shocked by the sight of her big breasts. I was also shocked when I first saw my grandma’s false teeth in a glass in the bathroom. I was shocked when I first heard of people sticking their tongues into each other’s mouths when they kissed. And when a teacher in high school held up a magazine that showed pictures of naked men, I lost my breath.
There is a lot going on in the world that is shocking to many of us. And much that is shocking is also frightening. I’m shocked by the speed with which polar ice caps are melting. I’m shocked when Buddhists kill Muslims, Muslims kill Christians, and Christians kill Jews, all with the alleged blessing of their God. I’m no longer shocked by the sight of large breasts, false teeth, French kissing, or pictures of naked men. That’s because of exposure, time, and the will to grow.
I suspect that many people who were shocked by Conchita Wurst’s gender-bending performance at the Eurovision song competition, or by the sight of Michael Sam kissing Vito Cammisano, will, with time and more exposure, have lives that celebrate such diversity. But they have to want to change. Some people, because of their religious beliefs, or their plain stubbornness, don’t want people like Conchita, Michael, and Vito in their lives. They don’t want to lose their sense of shock at people they disapprove of. Many of these people will go to their graves wanting to be shocked by life. That doesn’t surprise me.
I’m very grateful to the bearded men in dresses who shocked me 40 years ago, because they opened my world to Conchita Wurst. I celebrate her victory in the singing competition, and in putting a face on gender expression diversity for the whole world to see. I’m very grateful to Michael Ontkean and Harry Hamlin for accepting roles in a movie in which they kissed romantically and sexually when doing so was shocking to the majority of people. They helped me to start kissing my male friends, gay and straight, on the lips in public with more confidence and pride, and to clap enthusiastically with appreciation when Michael Sam and his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, kissed on ESPN.
We choose to live our lives with delightful surprise or in constant shock. We create our heavens and our hells. From my experience, there can be no shock in heaven, here or in the improbable hereafter, except that which is caused by the awareness of one living thing’s cruelty to another living thing. That shouldn’t be surprising to anyone.