I was trapped; the noontime feeding-frenzy encircled my car as we all waited for the light to turn green at Airway and Woodman. The smell of gasoline punched its way into my car and I looked around for the culprit who no doubt would have failed those old Ohio emissions tests. It was behind me—an old beat-up pickup truck with a rebel flag framing its license plate.
When I was a child, I spent a good bit of time in Knoxville, Tennessee. My entire family lived within fifteen miles of one another so Thanksgivings, Christmases, and many summer vacations were spent there. Beater trucks parked in front yards, coon hounds running fence lines, and huge families filing into Cracker Barrel after church every Sunday were all scenes I was accustomed to. These scenes play back in my head on occasion, fond memories set to the sound of a Hee-Haw banjo or a Charlie Daniels fiddle.
My Dad, to this day, loves country music—Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson. I grew up with these sights and sounds, so my decision to hang a huge rebel flag in my bedroom when I was about twelve years old was simply about identity.
“If the south woulda won, we’d have it made,” I sang, not having a clue about ambiguity.
I proudly wore cowboy boots and bow-lo ties, blasted my favorite twang on my car radio once I was old enough to drive, and even wore a cowboy hat to school. Eli Clare talks about culture and how it lives in and on our bodies in his memoir Exile and Pride: “The body is home, but only if it is understood that place and community and culture borrow deep in our bones.”
“Where did you park your horse?” Coach would ask as I strolled through the hallway on my way to my first period Spanish class at Beavercreek High School—my boots clicketing against the floor.
I don’t think I ever replied with anything other than a smile, but I do wish I would have said something clever like, “Next to your car. Careful you don’t step in anything.”
I could say that comments like Coach’s never bothered me—I was going to be who I was going to be and no one could stop me! But the fact that I recall them just proves that those comments did affect me. Teachers and coaches have so much influence on young lives, and many of them have forgotten that.
Thankfully, I was one hell of a stubborn kid! I still smiled and said hello to passing strangers, many of whom looked at me like I was nuts. At home, my mother and I sat on our front porch swing—talking, rocking with Vince Gill or Reba McIntire, or just listening to the crackle of the ice in our glasses of sweet tea. The negative symbolism of being a southerner was far from my mind until I became an adult. So when I saw that rebel flag on the man’s pickup truck, it struck a nerve.
The stench of it nauseated me, and I prayed that my own symbolism might out-scream the flag’s proclamation. The fact that my rainbow sticker was on the ass of my car suddenly seemed well-planned as I thought, “Kiss it.” But as I glanced at the truck again in my rearview mirror, I saw that no one was in the driver’s seat.
I had bought the car about two months before. Always the type to keep my cars long after they are paid off, I opted for a new small four-door sedan. I was 23 years old, and this was my first new car. As soon as I drove it off the lot, I sped to The Import House in Yellow Springs to find the perfect rainbow sticker—a long thin rainbow bar. I cleaned the bumper, pulled off the white backing, and labeled myself.
My girlfriend at the time did not understand why I would stick something, anything to my nice new car. “Why do you have to share your business with strangers?” she asked.
I didn’t really understand it either, but it had taken me so long to find a community that accepted me, I felt that I needed to proclaim my allegiance, just like all the people who stuck American flags on their cars after 9/11. I felt that if I didn’t state this allegiance, it would mean that I was not proud. It would mean that the others had won. It would mean that I was ashamed.
“I parked my horse right next to your car, asshole! Watch out when its tail rises up!”
The light was still red. My mind raced—Who in the hell was driving that old clunker behind me?
I shifted in my seat and glanced in my side mirror. A scruffy man was walking towards me, sporting a “If the south woulda won” muscle shirt.
The light was still red. The lunch crowd still boxed me in. What had I done? Why was he out of his car? I didn’t think to roll up my window at the time, though I know better now.
The man didn’t say anything until his tattooed arm had reached inside my car and grabbed the collar of my shirt.
“Faggot,” he screamed, his eyes red.
All I could do was try to roll up the window, trapping his arm. So many times I’d heard about hate crimes and thought how I’d be the one to kick everyone’s ass. Those thoughts were nowhere to be found amid my fear.
The light turned green, and I inched forward, his arm still trapped. I would have driven off with him attached to my car, but thankfully, he did move his arm and run back to his truck.
I drove and drove, fearfully aware of everyone in every car around me. I thought about not going back to work. My boss would understand, but I’d have to explain it. I tried hard not to let my personal life into my work because the words teacher and homosexual don’t always harmonize, especially in a military environment. So I went back to work.
The smiles and everyday hugs of my preschoolers eased the remainder of my day. But as soon as I got home, my girlfriend helped me remove the rainbow sticker from the back of my car. I realized that to me, the sticker meant acceptance and pride in a specific group of people. But to others, it was a slap in the face—a shouting defiance of “the norm”—a statement that threatened the “good ole boy” life.
This experience made me think more about symbols and their connotations. It made me realize that although I did not have any desire to inflict harm on someone whose culture was different from my own, I did judge it. The beat-up pickup truck wreaking havoc on the environment—the rebel flag—the muscle shirt—the wording on the front of the shirt. To me, these meant violence and ignorance.
Recently, I saw a bumper sticker with a rebel flag that said, “If my flag offends you, you need a history lesson.”
It did offend me. I’m thankful to that individual for prompting me to dig a little, but it made his ignorance even more clear. That version of the Confederate flag was not even used in the Civil War. The “stars and bars” that represented the southern states actually has red and white stripes and a circle of white stars in the corner.
Yes, it offends me because the flag now seen in popular culture has a meaning far deeper than the pride I felt as a 12-year-old lying on my bed staring up at the emblem that made me feel closer to my family back in Tennessee. Bigots tore the pride from my flag, as if they themselves used a permanent marker to draw the huge X that now reaches across its borders.
As an adult, that symbol and the danger it promotes makes me want to take a big permanent marker and write ROSA PARKS in the middle of it. It makes me want to cut out the letters O-B-A-M-A and make a new flag to be proud of. But I won’t do that. I won’t do that, because yes, I am scared. I am scared of those few remaining “good ole’ boys” that still have gas-guzzling pick-up trucks and gun racks and misdirected anger. I won’t do that for the same reason I took that rainbow sticker off. Fear.
Those sheet-wearing bigots—their proud hatred—that scares the shit out of me. Those bible-thumpin’ judgers—their devotion to personal gain and self-preservation—that scares the shit out of me.
So I will sit quietly in the back of the bus. I will avoid establishments that do not like “my kind.” But while I do that, I will observe. I will learn. I will educate myself so that the layers of grit and grime on my own glasses can be noticed and wiped away. It’s harder to see people with that layer between us. I want to be a better me—a more aware me. Follow or leave. That is your choice.
But me…I will be free.
about the author
Gina Marie Giardina is an English graduate student at Wright State University, with a focus in Composition and Rhetoric. A Technical Writer at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, she has been employed by the base for eighteen years. Gina has had two essays published in WSU’s Fogdog Review and various poems published in Stepping Stones Magazine and previous editions of Mock Turtle. Her recent awards include WSU’s 2011 Library Research Award as well as WSU’s 2012 English Department Poetry Contest and 3rd place in the 2011 Dayton Metro Library Poetry Contest. She would like to thank her dad (Sam A. Giardina), Dr. Annette Oxindine, Dr. Barry Milligan, Dr. Adrienne Cassel, and Dr. Kelly Zaytoun for all of their encouragement and support.