Read this essay as published in the 3/3/22 edition of Watermark
The week before Thanksgiving, we flipped on Jeopardy and saw her for the first time: a super-plain “Engineering Manager, from Oakland, California.” My spouse and I giggled a little. Our interactions with the “T” of our community have been sparse-to-nonexistent: the cashier at Publix who we’ve only seen from across the grocery belt a couple times and the super-fun Tampa pride parade when I met Beneva. We are active-adjacent members of a community of two.
Of course, we have gay friends, but we don’t sit around with them talking about being gay and how gay our lives are—we discuss sports and politics and family and travel and cats; LGBTQ is the unspoken background to the foreground of living our best lives. As white gay men in 2022, we exert a privilege that was fought for and won by generations of brave cultural activists dating back to (even before) Oscar Wilde with a throughline including Stonewall uprisers and AIDS martyrs.
Like children who don’t remember nine months in the womb, we take our lives—and the sacrifices of our forebears—for granted. We can never thank our mothers enough for what they endured for us; we acknowledge this as a specific privilege.
We were the kind of kids who, though slightly socially awkward, were able to “pass as straight” sports-playing, church-going, good-grade-getting teenagers. Neither, though, were we given the freedom to openly explore our curiosities about sex and gender. Positive imagery and technicolor visibility were for the generation that followed.
Despite the trivially superficial—thin straight hair, beady grey-blue eyes, and scoop-necked sateen blouses backgrounding her omnipresent pearl necklace—we were wowed by the vastness of Amy Schneider’s knowledge. Our own minds obsessed on the unfamiliarity. “I don’t think she was born a woman,” my spouse, after the fifth episode, verbalized.
Channeling two year’s worth of lockdown-fueled virtual-wokeness: “Let’s take ‘Things that shouldn’t matter’ for 2000.”
Intellectually, I knew that it shouldn’t matter. As a penis-obsessed gay white male, I autonomically wondered. The consumptive curiosity manifested like the fascination of seeing a unicorn. It did matter. It DID matter that her experience with her body and gender and sexuality was not as easy as mine. IT DID MATTER that she was standing, as her authentic self, in front of the world.
I am of that generation—before Ellen, before Will & Grace, and a full decade before Queer Eyes righted Straight Guys’ broke fashion senses— that had to dig hard to find representation in popular media. The 1990s didn’t afford the luxury of explicit heroic imagery to identify with—to validate us, to reject even. Although trailblazing LGBTQs were fighting for us even then, even when we didn’t know them, popular media did not give them to us. The fully swinging culture wars of the 80s and 90s didn’t show us victorious images, they showed us hospiced AIDS victims, they showed us angry gays shouting down confused Christians, they showed us Jafars and Scars. Eventually, we got Pride and marriage and acceptance. Eventually we, the “G”s in the LGBTQ spectrum, won.
And so, it was with adolescent awe that we watched Amy Schneider—transformed in our minds from giggle-worthy novelty to affable winner—win. We tuned in, religiously for 39 more days. We invited her into our home. We cheered her on. In a world where much of the imagery around the transgender community has been warped—where the images are of bullied and beaten victims, of angry transitioning twenty-somethings shouting down confused Christians, of botched Danish Girls and tragic HBO docuseries—a winning face became a human face.
“Let’s make it a true daily double.”
Forty days of visibility mattered. It’s mattered to those high school kids—longing to find and love their right bodies in a swill of pubescent hormones—who’ve needed to see a victorious image reflected back at them. It’s mattered to me and my spouse, who’ve needed a reminder that there were pioneers who stood in front of the world, proud and brave, to clear a path for our own normalized lives. And, frankly, it’s mattered to those confused Christians who’ve needed more than anger to counteract their judgement and polarization.
We thought her unbeatable. She was our unicorn-made-real. Fantastically, she shattered the records of the greatest Jeopardy champions of all time, along the way changing the way we talked about people like her. As though touched by a magic signaling buzzer, she transformed before our eyes, owning her body and her identity and beaming an infectious—dare I say, sexy— smile into our closest quarters.
And then, in the most humanizing event of Amy Schneider’s historic run, she lost. And then, in that moment, Amy Schneider truly became like the rest of us: no longer merely a transgender icon of superhuman intellect: no longer merely a curiosity or unicorn-made-real. When Amy Schneider lost, she proved that she needn’t keep winning to make her point, that behind those icy blue eyes and below those pearls on a low-scooped sateen blouse, was the soul of a happy, inspiring, comfortable-in-defeat, very human, human being. The specifics of what was hidden behind that podium didn’t matter. And for that, Americans, Jeopardy fans, the slightly more open-minded members of my immediate family, and members of the broad LGBTQ community could rejoice.
Amy Schneider, a former engineering manager, a citizen of our hearts, whose cash winnings are $1,382,800.00, is more than a timeless Jeopardy Champion. She is the T in a Thanksgiving season that spanned nearly four months: a momentous, runaway Final Jeopardy round that continues to play out in our nation’s soul.
Read more original short stories, poetry, and essays at Momentitiousness.com
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