I loved those Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies, when I was a kid. I’m pretty sure it was in one of those silly black and white films that I first saw the jungle drums as communication trope. Supposedly all the tribes of the jungle, no matter their culture or language, participated in this form of long distance communication where the pounding of drums could warn the neighboring villages of some disaster, perhaps, or to call the tribes to war.
So when I later first heard a pundit or read an editorial that referred to people advocating an escalation in our military actions in Vietnam as “the drum-beat of war,” I thought of those jungle drums. And it seemed to fit the context of the editorials.
In the movies the drumming was always a bad portent. The drums always signaled something that would menace our heroes. Something savage, unpredictable, and utterly merciless (there was, of course, more than a little racism in this trope).
Since drums had been used in various European armies centuries before any of those Hollywood depictions of Africa came to exist, I’m certain that particular turn of phrase also predates the jungle drum trope. Still, whenever I hear the phrase “the drum-beat of” my imagination conjures up black and white images of people dressed in khaki and pith helmets, fearfully looking this way and that, but only able to see impenetrable leaves and vines.
So, when the leader of one of the groups trying to hide their homophobia and religious supremacism behind an innocuous sounding pro-marriage name starting referring to the shift public opinion has been undergoing regarding gay rights in general as “the drumbeat of gay entitlement” I started laughing. Many of the other haters have picked up the phrase, and when they say it on one of those news show, they get such a serious, worried look on their face. Often exactly the same expression from those old jungle movies that the one person who knew what the drums meant would have while he explained to the rest of the party.
They describe gay people and gay-friendly straight people as being on a crusade to destroy all that is right and good in this world. When they do, they have that wide-eyed look of someone who knows the menace is near, but can’t figure out from where the menace will strike.
There isn’t an evil, menacing army beating those drums and preparing to ambush them. The forces for tolerance and equality are not savage, unpredictable, nor merciless. There is a battle going on, but not that kind. And the people beating the drums aren’t at all like that.
A great example was a police raid on a gay bar in Atlanta three years ago. A SWAT-type team of cops from multiple agencies stormed into the bar without a warrant, made everyone lay face down on the floor, and proceeded to harass, threaten, search, and occasionally assault the customers for about 90 minutes. When the news first broke, city officials said the officers were following a lead in a perfectly legitimate investigation. Some veiled comments about “those kinds of people” were made, and they expected it to go away, just as tens of thousands of such raids have in cities everywhere for years.
They didn’t expect a protest march made up primarily of church ladies. For years people like those cops could count on at least two things to protect their bigotted actions from a serious investigation: virtually none of the men they harassed or assaulted would press charges (for fear of being outed), and families of the men harassed would be so ashamed of their gay children that they would never pressure any politician to look into the matter.
Neither of those things are universally true, any longer. A bunch of those men had parents who were not ashamed of their sons. Some of those parents stood up in their churches to describe the warrantless, unjustified police action. And a bunch of those church members—surprise, surprise—thought that “love your neighbor as you love yourself” didn’t include handcuffing innocent people, shouting at them, and kicking them in the head.
The church lady march was only the beginning. With the unexpected pressure from the community, the city had to conduct a real investigation. No evidence of any crime was ever found. No explanation of a legitimate case in progress was ever given. The review board ruled that two of the officers and some supervisors were provably guilty of misconduct, though the punishments at the time were minor, and to this day the city claims that other than those few “mistakes” nothing was wrong with the raid. Eventually, six of the officers involved in the raid were fired for lying about events in the raid, but the city tried to do it very quietly. A report was reluctantly released under a freedom of information request detailing how a total of 16 officers had lied or destroyed evidence to try to cover up the misconduct.
The drummers aren’t just bleeding hearts from liberal churches. Last year, while marriage equality was being debated in my state’s legislature, one legislator who was known not to be in favor of the bill hosted a townhall-style meeting in her district to let people from the community give her their thoughts. After a couple hours of person after person passionately speaking in favor of same-sex marriage, the surprised legislator said that she knew their had to be voices in the community who felt differently. She looked at a man in a police uniform who had been sitting in the front row, looking angrier and angrier the entire time. “This gentleman, for example, hasn’t said anything.”
The cop reluctantly rose to his feet. He explained that he hadn’t said anything because he hadn’t had time to change out of uniform before coming to the forum, so he didn’t want people to think he was speaking for his department. But if she insisted, well, he just wanted to say that as a father of four sons, he wanted all of his boys, including his gay son, to be able to marry the person they fell in love with.
She never found anyone at the meeting willing to speak against the bill. She eventually voted in favor of it.
Or the pair of grandparents I saw, speaking at a legislative hearing in another state, who said, “We want to dance at the weddings of all of our grandchildren, including our lesbian granddaughter.”
There is a drumbeat out there. But it isn’t calling us to march to war. It isn’t warning you of a slaughter or some other danger.
It’s inviting you to come dance at some weddings.