Words like ‘fag’ and ‘queer’ used to roll off my tongue as just another figure of speech. They weren’t laced with anger but retained their measure of derogatory descriptiveness. I’m not sure why that was because I had never known a ‘gay person’. When I allowed myself to open up some old chapters, I was afforded a fresh perspective in retracing my steps … and it was humbling.
Why are you here? The persistent question I was asked while participating in the AIDS Life Cycle 11 event from San Francisco to Los Angeles. At a charity event that attracted mostly gay folks, apparently a straight guy like me stuck out like a sore thumb. Duh. I had to admit I wasn’t there to hug old friends or mourn the loss of a friend, or even to vow AIDS would end in my lifetime – I was there primarily for the physical challenge, …and to learn – about the gay–lesbian community.
In 2000, my oldest son told me that he was gay. My reaction was; “no way”, followed by deep sadness, and then total silence. At which point I uttered the most ignorant words ever to leave my mouth … “Let’s fix it”. I remember him looking at me with this sense of emptiness as he shook his head realizing I didn’t have a clue. He knew I had no idea who he was, what had led him there, the fragile nature of his self-esteem, what his life experience had been, how he viewed his future – all that pretty important stuff that even semi-conscious dads know about their own sons.
My nature compelled me to begin attending seminars espousing compassionate-reparative therapy, read books by every type of psycho-PhD, seek counsel from really smart, straight people; but otherwise I kept my mouth shut. ‘We’ made little progress because “I” remained ignorant about him and his world. Even though I loved my son, there was no real connection because I couldn’t get past the gay stereotype to actually get to know him. I didn’t understand ‘it’ and was embarrassed to make any real effort to change that.
Nothing about homosexuality made sense until I formed social and professional friendships with truly brilliant and successful gay people. It was then that I saw they had some real issues – but their issues weren’t any less relevant, less mainstream, or deviant or outlandish than the ones I, or my straight friends possessed. We are simply wired differently. I’m not sure it’s important to me anymore to unravel the mysteries of the ‘how’ and ‘why’. I accept not understanding.
Stereotypes can be incredibly funny or horribly toxic. All of us fit into one type or another. Being perceived as an ‘evil right wing conservative’ often set me up for social confrontation. Breaking down the gay stereotype sensitized me to my own stereotype leading me to replay instances when my opinions and passions were not accepted. I was thought to be either too dogmatic or tone deaf to other perspectives. How did I expect anyone to hear and respect my views with an open mind if I was closed, ignorant, or hostile to theirs? One never gets to the dialogue if you can’t make it past the introduction; and dialogue is typically where evil right wing conservative and homosexual stereotypes get shredded.
In a nutshell, I rode the 545 miles from San Fran to LA with 3000 gay people for the benefit of Immersion Therapy and the opportunity to experience the community in which my son lives – to shred some stereotypes.
Refreshingly, there wasn’t as much difference as I thought there would be. Had this been a Muslim, Jewish, Mormon, Environmentalist, Libertarian, Liberal, or Conservative event, the differences between our respective daily lives would not have been measurably different than it was with the Gay and Lesbian community.
There are truly outstanding people as well as genuine jerks in every situation. There are as many ill-equipped and helpless in the straight community as there are in the gay one. We all checked our texts constantly, logged-on at every opportunity, enjoyed the same red meat at dinner, and knew when it was time to quit for the day knowing the next day would crush us if we didn’t. If you want to dispel a stereotype watch someone you perceive to be an effeminate sissy type hammer out a 3 mile – 7.5 degree grade ascent and cruise down the backside at 55 mph. I rode with some incredible athletes …. that just happened to be gay.
Sure, there’s flamboyance and drama that marks them as much as the stoicism and up-tightness that marks us straight types. They are far more relational and tend to hug and kiss a whole lot more as well. Truth be told, they squeeze fun out of every minute in life they can. Conversations, even with mixed gender participants typically had too many F-bombs, sexual innuendo and double entendre for my sensibilities but it may have something to do with the fact that most were at least 20 years junior. Never did I hear a word in anger, an outburst, or witness a confrontation. What I did see was a group whose members were persistently positive, encouraging and selflessly came to the aide of each other unlike anything elsewhere in our culture.
The anomaly I did observe in this group of 25+ year olds was a certain lack of social awareness and maturity in their actions. Contrived “Mardi Gras” type atmospheres would spontaneously erupt on a moment’s notice. My uptight straightness got a little tired of the manufactured fun by about Day 5. I mused that if this had been a group of 3000 heterosexuals I would have been scratching my head wondering if these grownups would ever grow up? It became pretty clear how a spouse or a slobbering kid hanging off ones leg actually does force one to …. act their age, at least in my case. Truth is, I met and talked with some great people that offer incredible value to our society.
At the end of the day, the gay and lesbian community is a grass roots civil rights movement that will succeed. The most instructive thing is that unlike other movements they won’t bring their pent up anger to society’s table; just their passion, intelligence, perseverance, and hard work. They come to win their case by taking care of their own, supporting each other’s endeavors and creating lasting results within the community where they reside. It won’t happen overnight and there will be opposition from many sides claiming moral high ground. Luckily, I gave up rendering opinions on anyone else’s morality but my own.
Am I onboard with them? Does it really matter? What matters to me is that I am on onboard with my son, ….who happens to be gay. My time, my training, my pain, and ultimately – my immersion were well spent.
Thanks for your patience, Matt.