Thursday, August 6, 2009

Setting an Example

In early 2002, Chris and I took a trip to Mexico. Through work, I'd been awarded a five-day trip to Cancun, during which the company had planned a number of activities for us to participate in if we were interested. One of them was a jeep rally that involved us driving from the hotel zone down the east coast to a small, impoverished Mexican village named Tulum, and back again.

On the return trip, Chris, feeling sick and lethargic, drove the jeep while I sat in the front passenger seat. In the back seat was a gay couple we'd gotten to know over the previous few days. We'd attended many of the events together, talked about everything, laughed our faces off, and thoroughly enjoyed each other's company.

At one point, I turned to the couple behind us, their hair blowing wildly in the wind, and I asked them, "Do you think you have a responsibility to other gay people through the example you set as a couple?"

Earlier, we had talked about being out to colleagues, being a visible example of gay people in a long-term relationship, proving gay relationships work, conducting yourself in a respectable manner, living lives in an upstanding way--all to help other people, no matter their sexual orientation, to see another aspect of gay life, one not often portrayed in the media or in life. The answer I received was, "No," and, while I was disappointed, I had no choice but to respect it.

But, as far as I'm concerned, whether we're aware of it or not, known gay people are always under scrutiny while in public, and how they conduct themselves, I believe, can have an effect on what people think about gay people in general, and how they are likely to react toward other gay people in the future.

When I still worked for one of Canada's largest financial institutions, there were numerous occasions when Chris and I presented ourselves as a couple in social situations. Our social committee planned several events during the year, including bowling, eating out, hiking, mini-golf, kayaking, annual Christmas parties, and the like. Husbands, wives, partners, children, and friends of employees were always welcome, so, of course, Chris and I participated in the events together as a couple.

As much as I wanted to show my support for the social committee's efforts by attending the events, and as much as I knew I'd enjoy myself spending time with some of my colleagues outside of work, I also knew Chris and I had a responsibility, as a gay couple, to present ourselves in the most favorable way possible, both to make other people feel more comfortable with us, and to set an example.

I was aware some of my colleagues might be uneasy with us around, particularly if they were with children and found themselves having to explain how Chris and I were related. But we always conducted ourselves in the most upstanding manner to ensure we didn't embarrass ourselves or anyone else.

Sometimes, flag waving isn't necessary. Sometimes, we don't have to attract attention to ourselves to make a point. Sometimes, the quietest "demonstration" is the most effective. All that's required is going about your daily business in a positive way, interacting with other people, so that good impressions are made, stereotypes are broken, and acceptance is given a change to flourish.

In the seventeen years that Chris and I have been together, do I think we, in the way we've conducted ourselves in social settings, have set a good example of what gay people and couples are like, and helped to change people with negative opinions of gays? I hope so. If the way we are today has made the road smoother for someone else tomorrow, then I will be one happy person.

Did Chris and I ever receive any kind of negative vibes from people who encountered us and clearly didn't approve of us or our living situation? Sure. There are still bigots out there. There are still people who, no matter how much evidence to the contrary, will always hold negative opinions of gay people, for religious reasons or otherwise, and it's not presenting ourselves in a positive manner that will change their minds.

But I'm pleased to report that, by and large, most of the people we encountered during our social events at work accepted Chris and me openly, and they were completely supportive. I think they were the type of people who respected the diversity of people in general, and I believe we added another dimension to the social makeup of all those who participated.

But our job continues. As long as Chris and I are a couple--which I hope will be for the rest of our lives--we will be in a position to help people become more comfortable with what may not be familiar to them. It's our job to make them feel more at ease in the company of gay people. It's their job to be open to accepting gay people in their lives and in their hearts.


  1. I like the point of this - your life is always an example to someone, whether you like it or not. And it will be positive or negative, depending on how you conduct yourself. You don't have to say a word. Wayne and I have experienced the same "vibes" from co-workers at social functions. We don't drink, we don't party, and everyone knows where we're at from a "religious" perspective. You kind of become ostracized for that, believe me. So I know of what you speak! We stopped attending work social functions years ago, simply because we just didn't enjoy ourselves. I took a lot of flack from senior management on that one because it was expected that the leadership team be there. Oh well.

    Thanks for this, Rick.

  2. And thanks for your response to this too, Wendy. I appreciate what you shared here. It just goes to show that whether you're gay, or "religious," or whatever, we are more alike than not, and we all have similar experiences, even though they may have been caused for different reasons. Something to think about.