Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Wrong Words Can Be The Right Ones

I have a long history of having the wrong reaction when someone comes out to me. I was fifteen the first time. Scene: a group of us at summer arts camp, sitting on the grass in front of my elementary school, eating lunch and having ordinary conversation. One guy, who struck me as studious and serious said something as part of the conversation on Greek Mythology and concluded with the words, "I'm also a homosexual."

Clayton. The guy's name was Clayton. My first thought was, "look, I think you're wrong about Icarus - oh, wait, should I say something about that homosexual thing?" None of my time at the library had prepared me for moments like this, and so far as I can recall, no one said anything; we went right on talking about Greek Myths.

With hindsight, I suspect that this was probably a huge moment for Clayton, that he had geared himself up to insert this in the conversation, to say this to people not form his school and community (possibly safe?) who seemed to like him. I can't speak for everyone else, but I don't remember that our attitudes toward him changed at all after that revelation. Clayton being from out of town was far more significant to us than that he was homosexual or that he was black - oh, did I mention that? Yeah. The adult me wonders what happened to him.

When my closest friend in high school came out to me, my response was a brilliant, "I knew that. So what?" Again, I was the first person he told, and I'm pretty sure he knew I wouldn't care one way or the other, but the adult me kicks teenaged lemming for not having a more meaningful reply. Supporting that friend proved an interesting dance. I didn't face any repercussions, but as he became more out with his sexuality, some of his male classmates did respond by vandalizing his possessions, making threats, etc. What fascinated me was that a few of the guys who took no stand in public gave him support in private. About five years later, one of our classmates contacted my friend to say that he too had known he was gay and stayed in the closet through fear of exactly what my friend experienced, "but I was with you and behind you and rooting for you."

My track record of brilliant responses continued - I think the most classic might have been when one friend said, "I'mgayandIdon'twantyoutohatemeandIjustthinkthatmenareattractiveok?" and I blurted out, "hey, I think they're pretty attractive too!" Yeah, real supportive, lemm.

When my oldest friend finally got around to telling me, I did better, I hope. The last time someone came out to me, I responded, "to be honest, I could never figure out why you were married in the first place" but only after I'd said, "thanks for telling me - it makes no difference."

In all honesty, I didn't think that my voice or my words in all this counted for that much. I vote, I speak out, I've attended rallies in support of gay marriage, and I have tried desperately to understand the other point of view, from a religious and a legal standpoint. I'm slowly realizing that being a heterosexual woman in favor of gay rights does carry meaning. I'm a small voice, but my saying anything at all, even the wrong words, carries weight to those I know and those I don't for whom this is so personal. Some may know me as "lemming, a person" but that simply as "that white straight woman who thinks we're OK" is a powerful small-scale act.

The news from North Carolina really hit me hard yesterday. I can cite all of the usual frustrations - the age gap, people drawing assumptions about gays because they don't think they know any, and as a teacher I wring my hands over people saying, "I'm not very religious, but I am a Christian, and the Bible says that marriage is between a man and a woman" from people who set foot in church twice a year if that. To say, though, that all of the people who oppose gay marriage are ignorant and unread is easy, but wrong. There are plenty of intelligent, articulate, well-read people who oppose it. Some have given it more thought than others, some cannot divorce their religious reasons from their legal ones (which is why they also oppose civil unions) and there are some very careful, well-thought out arguments against it that can be framed within the context of church history as well as scriptural interpretation.

Not all of the Loyalists supported the British during the Revolution through snobbery. Some held very strong religious and cultural beliefs against rebellion, and they get very short shift in today's classrooms. The same goes with the suffrage movement; many women opposed getting the right to vote and worked very hard against it. Again, we don't discuss them in the classrooms.

 I believe that gay marriage will become more widespread in my lifetime, though I fear that, like abortion, it too will face legislative challenges that open endless sets of additional problems and quite possibly lead to further reduction in opportunity. All very safe, all very legal, mind you...

When the history of this period is written by future generations, I hope that my lifelong "so what?" attitude is the one that prevails in the classrooms. I fear that the opposition will be written out to be flakes and fools, and I worry about the partisan legal battles that are to follow. Whatever comes, I still believe.

Clayton, I hope you've led a glorious life, wherever you are. I don't care whom you love, and that's good.


Joybells said...

I think the biggest gap in understanding between queer and non-queer people is around how exhausting it is to be always weighing whether and when to come out to people. I think it feels like such a big thing to us queer people because it takes up so much space in many of our heads, even when people around us have already figured it out. Who can I tell? Will I still be safe? What will s/he think of me?

I worry a whole lot less about it these days, and yet I still find myself in situations occasionally where I feel inclined to hedge my disclosure, or to censor myself. Afterwards, I think, "What the hell was that? What exactly are you STILL afraid of?" The work of coming out feels like it's never, ever done. That fact in itself can be daunting, and is often what keeps people in the closet, even in the 21st century.

My favorite response that I've ever gotten to coming out to someone was simply, "Thanks. I'm honored you told me." Short. Simple. To the point. And acknowledges the weight of the burden without making a huge deal of it. Your mileage may vary.

Thanks for being such an out and proud allies, you and your whole family. It means so much more than there are words to say.

Magpie said...

interesting. thinking back, i can only recall one person who actively told me he was gay. it was a former assistant, who i'd stayed in touch with, and we went out to lunch and he told me. but with him, it was that he'd only just figured it out; when we were working together, he was still in that limbo confused state.