In the middle of one of my self-help meetings -- recently I've been helping myself to a lot of personal growth -- a woman related a story about her friend trying to help her get more exercise. His solution, she told us, was to introduce her to two-stepping, and she explained what an intense workout she had, and how she actually had fun in the process.
When another woman asked where the two-stepping occurred, the speaker explained that it was out of town, at a bar called Taboo. A little flag went up in my head just before the speaker added, "It's a homosexual establishment." [Emphasis hers.]
Some of the ladies in the meeting tittered at that comment, and it was unclear to me whether they were uncomfortable with the idea of dancing with the gays -- after all, what if a scary lesbian came up and wanted to dance with them? -- or if they all had little flags raised in their heads, too, and were laughing in an "oh, of course" sort of way.
I chose to assume the worst -- nobody said any of my various self-help processes would result in instant positive change -- and I glowered for a few seconds at the speaker. I'm pretty sure she didn't notice, and maybe she didn't care if she did notice. Obviously if she goes two-stepping with a gay man, she's already more evolved than certain segments of the U.S. population.
A couple of weeks later, another woman at the same meeting mentioned that she was elated to have recently received encouraging feedback at the gym about her weight loss efforts. "You know when you get a comment from a gay man, something's working!" she said, and again with the tittering ladies.
I suppose the danger of doing anything in large numbers where I am not wearing my sexual orientation on my sleeve and the words gay and lesbian aren't part of the event title is that someone at some point might make some sort of nebulously intentioned gay-related comment and, as a result, ladies might titter. Depending on my mood and the level of impertinence with which the comment is delivered, I might smile knowingly or I might scowl. I will not be caught dead tittering.
I once sat through a workplace social gathering that somehow turned to the topic of a certain religious group. Before I knew it, some key office players were making comments about members of this group that made me severely uncomfortable. The prevailing sentiment seemed to be that these people existed on the fringes, and many snide remarks were made at their expense.
I looked at the faces around me, trying to gauge the reactions of those who weren't speaking up. I realized that there were a couple of people in the room who were new enough to our office that I didn't know yet what their religious affiliations (if any) might be. I knew most of my coworkers wouldn't know this information yet, either -- so essentially those who were engaged in the bash session were taking a chance that they might offend someone.
I wanted to speak up, but cowardice prevented me. I wanted to point out that they might as well be talking, for instance, about gays or Jews (our office has a good representation of God's chosen people) or any other marginalized minority -- that as weird as they thought this particular religious group was, there are people out there who are inclined to spew the same sort of vitriol toward the various identities some of us might claim.
So I sat silently, hoping my newest coworkers weren't really disgusted at best or personally offended -- or, worse still, invigorated by all the hate-talk around them. As it turned out, no one I talked to later was personally offended. But I couldn't help remembering the college professor I had who was a member of this maligned religious sect, and he was a really sweet, normal guy who taught me many skills I still use to this day and who used to pay me to babysit his darling children. It was a real "some of my best friends are" moment, but I remained stunned into silence.
I sometimes wonder if my own gay-tinged humor falls flat, either because not all of my listeners know or remember that I am a lesbian, or because maybe they think that because I make a crack about something, it's OK to let some of that sarcastic attitude seep into their consciousness. But whither the fun of being "in group" if I have to spend my energy worrying about how my audience might take every little syllable I utter?
It all comes full circle; it could well be that the women causing all that tittering in that one self-help meeting could be "in-group" too, for all I know. I mean, they seem pretty clearly to not be gay men, but maybe they're lesbians. Or maybe some of their best friends are gay men. Maybe I need to lighten up, or maybe I need to speak up. Maybe I need to shut up.
A few weeks before the two-stepping and gym-talk anecdotes, a woman in my meeting reached a milestone and had an opportunity to make some remarks. In doing so, she thanked her partner, a woman, who was standing with her, smiling broadly. There was no tittering; people seemed respectful.
I made a point of approaching the speaker that evening and thanked her for coming out during her remarks. I felt a little like a sexually confused high school girl, or an Ellen DeGeneres fan, but I felt like it had to be done.
The more we hear that sounds not quite friendly, the more it is important for us to feel encouraged when we say something that even verges on daring.
The more we say, the less there will be to shout about.
Kristina Campbell's columns appear biweekly, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.