Saturday, April 25, 2009

LGBT for Straight People - Lesson 3 - geekgirl's own story

I would be a hypocrite if I didn't write about my own life experience in getting to know people who are gay. Mysteriously - and truthfully - I don't recall learning that some people are gay. It just kind of became something I knew. In many ways, I consider myself lucky that I came of age in the late 60s, early 70s. Yes, I believed in the hippie messages of peace, love, accepting other people, fairness, and justice.

My family was a typical white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (aka WASP) but we weren't exactly rich. My father never went past 8th grade and he always did physical labor. It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized we lived at the poverty level. (She's straying, where is this going?). Here's where I'm going. Even with being white and straight, I knew the world wasn't fair. I knew that kids with money had an easier time, I knew rich kids got into Ivy League schools, thanks to their alumni parents and I knew that women were supposed to stay home and have babies.

In other words, I knew that who we are and what we are capable of as individuals was nowhere near #1 on the list of how a person became accepted or successful.

I watched other kids get bullied. I was a wallflower and being around mean kids made me retreat even more. I was already painfully shy. The last thing I needed was to be made fun of for crooked teeth, knobby knees, ugly glasses, a not-so-gorgeous face and, worst of all, being smart.

So when I learned about gay people - and we're going back 40 years - I thought "so what?". Mind you, I had never heard of people who were bisexual or transgendered. But I knew that the words faggot and queer hurt as badly as being punched. I saw it happen.

Still, a lack of bias doesn't equal being comfortable with people who are gay. After all, what does one say? What is the etiquette? Are there things I should say? Shouldn't say? Were the stereotypes real? Just what were they like?

My first real friend that was gay was a woman I worked with. I didn't know she was a lesbian. I just knew that she was kind, smart and funny. This was..... at least 32 years ago. We worked the switchboard in a hospital. After a few months of knowing her, I asked her if she had a boyfriend. I could see her face start to panic and I didn't know what I had done wrong. I do have a gift of asking the most innocent of questions and it turns out I've tapped a sensitive topic. At that very moment, the switchboard lit up and as I started to take the call, my co-worker said "My lover's name is Doris." Her face was in a state of fear and I could tell that every nano-second was an eternity as she waited for me to be able to respond.

Not wanting her to wait out this interminable, excruciating 30 seconds, I wrote on a piece of paper and gave it to her. I wrote " I sure hope this is a woman named Doris as I would hate to see you involved with a man named Boris." She burst out laughing with relief. Our friendship continued the way it was. It never occurred to me to change how I treated her, what I asked or what we talked about. After several weeks, she said to me "I want to thank you for not treating me like I am a dyke." I sat quietly and staring blankly. I had never heard the word dyke. And back then, words like dyke and queer were still words that hurt. The gay community had not used the strategy of reclaming words. After waiting for me to respond, and me saying nothing, my friend has the aha moment and says "You've never heard the word dyke, have you?" I nodded. She said that explained a lot. I think this was one instance of ignorance is bliss. Without stereotypes to cloud my mind, I was just simply myself. But more importantly, I saw only who she was - not a stereotype.

And now I will apologize to everyone named Boris. Forgive me. I was young and humor is how I express caring and affection. I just needed something that rhymed with Doris.

There will be more stories on geekgirl's LGBT education as our series continues.

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