I’ve always felt comfortable around fellow musicians. Among the wide range of people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing in my musical life -- professionals, skilled amateurs, and beginners -- I’ve always felt we were pretty much the same. Musicians laugh at the same jokes (that nobody else gets), we’ll go down rabbit holes talking about the finer points of our favorite recordings and players. And, of course, we play. Knee-to-knee or eye-to-eye. For me, the company of musicians has always been a comfortable place to be.
In fact, I’ve nearly always felt comfortable, more or less. Very rarely have I felt that I was out of place, or that I would somehow be personally or professionally at risk if I were to make a misstep in unfamiliar company. I’ve had little reason to; I’m a straight, white, cisgender man.
I’m aware that I am a picture of cultural privilege.
Today, I’m fortunate to live in a good neighborhood. I have a lovely wife and we have three beautiful kids. There’s a play set in the backyard, courtesy of Grandma. We drive a hybrid and a minivan; we use our own grocery bags when we go shopping.
Beyond being a mere example of privilege, I’m a ridiculous stereotype.
For most of my life, and mostly without my knowing, living within this stereotype has served as a kind of armor -- shielding me from risk and consequence. At times literally keeping me out of danger. Oftentimes garnering entrée or a degree of respect that I hadn’t yet earned. It has virtually always been okay to just be my authentic self and to share those qualities that make me “me” without a second thought.
I’ve never felt a need to be self-conscious about those qualities or to keep them hidden. I’ve never had a reason to.
This ignorance, this blind spot, allowed me to believe that I was the rule, rather than the exception. I did know that I had some advantages, but I was generally unaware of the obstacles faced by people who didn’t enjoy my particular set of traits. Disenfranchisement, bias, prejudice, bigotry, homophobia, racism, sexism, were terms I knew, but I didn’t FEEL their force; pulling the rug out from under me, or with their hands around my neck.
My friends, many of whom I have played music with (knee-to-knee and eye-to-eye), know these real-life threats and have tried to help me understand what it feels like, even though I never fully can. They’ve told me in their own measured words the things I’m sure they’ve wanted to scream for years. I’m grateful to them for that. I’m listening, and I’ll keep listening. Thanks to their hard work and immeasurable patience my blind spot is growing smaller.
Last year, I had the pleasure to participate in the SF Pride Parade with some of these friends in the first-ever Bluegrass Pride celebration. I wasn’t surprised that, like many powerful moments in my life, this one came while I was alongside fellow musicians. It was incredible to share that day with friends old and new, all of us connected by Bluegrass music, marching side-by-side with enormous smiles on our faces, a live band on a truck behind us and Marlene Twitty-Fargo leading us with a phalanx of rascal scooters. It took all day but was over all too soon. Bluegrass is an identity music if there ever was one, and it’s only hitting me as I write this how extreme the juxtaposition must be between the SF Pride Parade and what the general public thinks of as a “Bluegrass person”. I’m sure we were a sight to behold.
While walking around the staging area before our contingent got on the move, there were times when I felt out of place. When that old feeling of comfort wavered for just a moment or two. When I wasn’t sure what to say, or how to react, even while surrounded by friends. To say that my experience pales in comparison to the daily reality for innumerable people is a vast understatement. But to say that I felt incredibly fortunate to have been invited to participate isn’t. I’m grateful to have been there, I’m grateful for those moments, and I’m hopeful for more.