Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Where Openness and Acceptance Come From (Guest Post)

On the final day of November, it gives me great pleasure to share with you a second guest post from S. B. Graves.  

Some of you will recall S. B.'s first post, titled "Hate Is Not A Family Value," appeared on October 8th.  If you haven't yet had the opportunity to read it, I encourage you to click here.

In subsequent email exchanges with S. B., I asked if she would consider answering the following question in her next guest post:  As a straight, happily married, parent of three, how can she account for being so open and accepting of gay and lesbian people, when she herself is not gay, her children and husband aren't, and, to her knowledge, no one in her immediate family is?  In other words, how can she account for taking up our cause as though it were her own?  This intrigued me--that is, I was curious what her answer would be--and I hope you're intrigued by it, too.

I've written before that we, as gay and lesbian people, will not get what we want--in terms of legitimacy and respect in a predominantly straight world, as well as the human rights we're entitled to just by being on the planet--without the support of our straight allies.  S. B. Graves is more than just an ally, she's an enthusiastic and tireless champion of us, and she's a remarkable example of what we would all hope the straight people in our lives would be.

I hope you enjoy reading S. B.'s guest post as much as I enjoy presenting it to you.

Thanks, S. B., for your contribution to my blog, and, on behalf of all gay and lesbian people, for your compassion, understanding, and willingness to fight the fight along side us.  We sincerely appreciate it.


My thanks again, Rick, for giving me this opportunity to guest blog.

When I first came across Rick’s blog and commented on the post of the day, Rick responded by saying he was happily surprised that a straight, married mother of three was so open-minded about gays and lesbians. This was a little puzzling, because I didn’t think my views were all that unique, and I felt I didn’t deserve any shout-outs.  To me, it felt like giving someone a pat on the back for not being a racist.

This led to a further discussion about why I’m open-minded on the subject when many others aren’t. Although I have to admit it makes me laugh, just a bit--“My dear, tell us how you got to be so completely fabulous!”--I’ll try to explain (keeping in mind the many faults I have, which balance out my lack of homophobia).

My husband likes to say I think the place where I grew up (a very liberal city on the East Coast of the US) does not represent the rest of the States, even though I frequently claim it does. I used to begin statements with, “Well, in the US…,” to which he’d respond, “you mean, ‘Cambridge,’ not ‘the US,’ a complete anomaly that doesn’t represent the rest of the States at all.” So, I guess I grew up in an anomaly.

Cambridge, like Berkley on the opposite coast, is incredibly liberal and so blue (as compared to the more conservative “red” states) that the shade is closer to indigo. I lived with my mom and brother (my parents divorced when I was five), about a mile from Harvard Square, and had what would now be described as a free-range childhood: My friends and I walked and played everywhere. There were no organized sports, and we were more likely to tag along with our parents to protest marches (back in the day when Nixon’s Watergate scandal was underway) or investigate all the cool things one could do around New England.

When I was twelve, we moved back to the small university town where my dad lived, so we could spend more time with him. He had a small office back then, with about 15 employees, two of whom were gay. I don’t remember attaching any special significance to this; it was just the way they were. I remember driving somewhere with my dad along with one of these men, and they were looking out the car window at someone they knew (and obviously didn’t like for some reason).  This guy said to my dad, “Well, I’m glad he’s on your team and not mine,” and they both laughed (yes, I got my snarky gene from my father).

Homosexuality was open and unremarkable, just business as usual. My parents were open about it and didn’t attach any judgment to it.  It wasn’t secretive or shameful; it was just part of a person’s personality, mentioned without fanfare. While I think it’s obvious some kids learn bigotry or homophobia at home, I think it’s also true some kids see being gay as “scary” or “different,” simply through the absence of gays or lesbians in their lives. This is why, as a number of advocates have stressed (Rick Mercer most recently), being openly gay is important not only to gay kids growing up but also to straight kids, as things cease to be “scary” when they’re commonplace.

Interestingly, while Rick thinks I’m so open-minded, I felt I had to tell him a story from when I was about 17, as it hasn’t been a seamless journey (all open-minded, all the time), and I think this is a good illustration of the way people may react to that which is unfamiliar.

In my last few months of high school, I did an internship with a non-profit anti-nuclear organization. I arrived for my initial interview and was told to go to a room down the hall. As I walked in, I interrupted two women who were making out. I must’ve looked a little shocked, because they were laughing a bit as they moved away from each other. I distinctly remember feeling uncomfortable and being angry with myself about it:  What was my problem? Why did this bother me? Two women making out--get over it.  I know I strongly felt the problem was mine and not theirs--I had an unacceptable reaction, and they had done nothing wrong.   

So, if I’m playing armchair psychologist, I’d say my upbringing was definitely non-homophobic--which meant I didn’t see any difference between gays or straights--but I also had a very human reaction feeling uncomfortable with the unfamiliar.  I think it’s okay to acknowledge things foreign and unfamiliar often take us aback, and we have to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones in order to grow and learn.

In the office that day, I gave myself a little pep talk--“Okay, chill out, they’re just lesbians, and they totally didn’t notice your wide open eyes and little gasp.  Show them you’re cool with it.”  Yeah, right, they saw through me, no doubt--but the important thing was, I knew I was the one who had to adjust.

I believe we need to teach our kids and students this: Occasionally, when they’re confronted with things that are unfamiliar, they should acknowledge their reaction is the thing that needs to change, not the person who is different or unfamiliar. I’d say that’s one problem with many conservative families, in that parents teach only the typical is acceptable, and those who are different, or do not represent the norm, should be condemned and made to change.

I also wonder if my differing reactions--not taking notice of the gay guys in my dad’s office versus being a little freaked out by two women kissing--were simply a function of my age: Introduce a kid to something at a young age and it’s easily accepted; wait a bit longer, when we’ve become less flexible, and there’s more resistance.  If my story is an average example of this, imagine those people who have never spent time with someone they know is gay.  What kind of prejudices would they have built up over decades?

To me it’s pretty clear that if you want your kids to grow up to be open-minded about anything, you need to be careful not to lump others into “us and them” categories.  And even if you don’t know anyone who’s openly gay--I say “openly,” because everyone knows someone who’s gay, but not everyone is comfortable about being out in some communities, schools, or offices--you’re careful about the things you say, and you immediately address homophobic remarks your kids or their friends might make.   

In the bigger picture, the more gays and lesbians who are out, the better.  In large cities as well as small towns, if everyone knew someone who was openly gay, homosexuality would cease to be remarkable, and we could comment on the things about them that really matter--like their shoes or hairstyle.  Just kidding.

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