In the face of some truly ridiculous legislation recently steamrollered into existence by so-called “leadership” in the states of North Carolina and Mississippi — and here I’m referring actions far more significant than the governors of both states signing proclamations declaring April as “Safe Digging Month” — allow me to recall a few of my most awkward attempts over the years to express support for the LGBT community.
Early in my career I worked as a customer service agent for a large telecommunications company. During periods of sparse call volume we’d handle correspondence, opening and reading letters (this is back when people still put pen to paper) and shuttling them to the appropriate department to prepare a reply. During one shift I handled a letter from someone who expressed his dismay that my employer was hostile to gay employees. Seeking guidance where to direct this missive I showed it to my supervisor, feeling for some reason I should add my own amused observation that this person was misinformed since “we have gay folks all over this place.” I meant this in an inclusive, not invasive, way but that distinction did not register with my boss. In my own mind I was attempting to express favorable recognition that I was part of a diverse workplace; this job was my first exposure — so far as I knew — to openly gay people in a professional setting (back when being closeted was much more the rule than the exception). What I did not know was that the company had not always treated its gay employees fairly, and this letter was part of a social action campaign supporting a lawsuit intended to eliminate institutionalized discrimination. What I also did not know was that my supervisor was gay. I’m sure my comment sounded to him like those made by so many others trying to hide prejudice behind self-immunizing statements such as, “Some of my best friends are [insert marginalized population].” He shot a stern glance in my direction, provided a quick history lesson regarding the underlying legal issue, and provided instruction for the proper next steps to make sure the protest was correctly registered and responded to. I was beyond embarrassed and, after filing the letter, gave serious thought to how I could better express my open-mindedness regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. I also decided to no longer rely on my obviously defective gaydar.
Decades later I was working for a company that had signed an amicus brief in support of the (eventually successful) effort to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act. This company consistently and enthusiastically supported the advancement of gay rights as part of the corporate culture. During a visit to one of our field offices the area director took me out to lunch. For most of the meal we talked only business, but after ordering coffee the director shifted the conversation to inquire about my family status. I answered and then asked the same question in return since he had broached the subject. His reply: “Well, I have a rather unconventional lifestyle. I live with my partner and we are raising an 18-month-old.” The only things about this arrangement that initially struck me as “unconventional” were that he didn’t specify the gender of the toddler or pull up any baby pictures on his phone. Or perhaps they had acquired an orphaned tiger cub, or were really into nurturing some sort of exotic house plant? With his mention of “unconventional lifestyle” and “partner” in such close proximity I made an assumption — one intended to come from a place of acceptance — and decided to launch into an illustrative anecdote to express my understanding of his situation. A summary here: a man I once offered a job to said he couldn’t start work for another month because he’d gotten married a year ago and “we have travel plans for our anniversary.” I offered my congratulations, asking where the couple was planning to travel. He said they were going to Ireland and the trip was focused around playing golf together. I was about to say, “How nice that you and your wife both enjoy golfing,” but just before speaking out loud a little bell went off in my head and I said “spouse” rather than “wife.” This was a good thing since he then confirmed what an avid golfer his husband was. I related this story to my lunch companion to send a clear signal that I was “cool” with the concept of same-sex unions. There was an unexpected silence before the director looked me in the eye and said, “My partner is a woman. We have a child together but aren’t married; that’s the unconventional part. I’m not gay.”
“Oh, that wasn’t my point at all!” I quickly scrambled. “I only meant to convey my feeling that as long as two people love and respect each other there’s no reason to think of their relationship as ‘unconventional’.” I think in the history of CYA attempts this one should have received an award.
These days I’m glad to have among our friends those who have chosen to share their sexual identities with us as well those who haven’t — gay, straight or somewhere in-between it doesn’t matter and quite frankly is none of our damn business. Nor should it be the government’s. Why can’t we proclaim it’s safe to dig that?