Gay people used to make me really nervous. I haven’t always been an ally. I was around gay people all the time without knowing it (most notably my younger brother), but for many years being around someone who was out definitely put me on edge.
Growing up, I didn’t have much contact with people who were out, so LGBTQs existed mostly as an idea, a caricature, and a catch-all playground insult. Certainly “fag” was hurled back and forth between us boys multiple times a day, a barely understood implication being that of insufficient masculinity. As we entered adolescence, it became far worse for boys who had the misfortune of actually displaying any gay tendencies, and it was a matter of survival to distance oneself from any such individuals or behaviors.
I think that the turning began for me when I was a freshman in high school. I was a part-time theater kid, and one of the full-timers was a boy from my neighborhood who I had known peripherally for years. It seemed clear that he was gay, some of my other friends made comments about him, and he took his share of flak. But, we had interesting conversations, he was a cool guy. He introduced me to the Pixies, a musical experience for which I owe him a lifetime of gratitude.
I remember once we were walking home from school together and a carful of guys drove by. One of them opened his window and spat on my friend. He stood there, looked down at himself where he’d been spat upon, and said, “Thank you!” in an incredulous and hurt tone. I didn’t fully grasp that he had just been gay bashed, but I wasn’t completely blind to it, either. I knew without question that this was bullying. I knew without question that this was wrong. Although he appeared to brush the event off quickly, I was hurt and embarrassed for my friend.
My vigilant parents had helped to instill values that gave me a strong sense of the importance of racial equality. My self-concept as a social progressive was developing, and it naturally occurred to me that the same respect and protections should be extended to gays and lesbians. As more and more science publicly emerged revealing sexual preference to be an inborn characteristic, not a choice, I became firm in my conviction.
I began to speak out on the subject, wearing a, “Homophobia is a Social Disease” shirt on the closing night of a school play, even going so far as to publicly challenge a Republican Congressional candidate at a benefit luncheon. I was growing into my role as an ally.
At that time, however, I had a little unresolved issue regarding gay men: I didn’t want to have sex with a man, and I didn’t want a man to force himself on me. I worried that this made me less of an ally. My friend Danielle helped me to put this in perspective. She said something like, “I do like sex with men, but I don’t want a man to force himself on me, either.” Ah, so wanting my own boundaries respected did not make me homophobic. Cool.
I still didn’t really know any gay people.
However, my friend Dave did. He had a group of friends who were a few years older than us, and among them was a guy named Jeff who was out and proud. I started hanging out with Dave’s friends, and before long, there was a gathering and Jeff showed up.
I was nervous. I didn’t want Jeff to receive anything other than total acceptance from me, but I also didn’t want to send any mixed signals. I felt awkward. But I think I did okay, and over time Jeff and I became friends. And he never hit on me.
Over the years, men have hit on me, both overtly and covertly. I’ve had friends tell me after the fact that they’d been sending me vibes as a test, I’ve had men tell people close to me that they were hoping I’d give it a try with them. These experiences helped me learn how to be clear in my boundaries, how to be clear about what I want and what I don’t want.
When I’m clear in myself, I send clear signals to others, and clear signals are understood. When I’m understood, I can relax and be comfortable, whoever I am with. I don’t even have to say anything in particular.
It’s taken me over 20 years of intention and attention to achieve this level of comfort with my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, but it’s easy now. I can even joke with some gay friends in ways that might’ve made me profoundly nervous way back when.
Becoming an ally isn’t necessarily easy or natural. It takes some time and some adjustment. It takes a little work.
It’s worth it. There are few greater satisfactions than knowing that you are helping to advance the civil rights battle of our time. And the company is grand!
As I said, unbeknownst to me, my younger brother was gay. The single most meaningful step in my evolution was the day that he realized I was a safe person, and came out to me himself. That is another story, and I plan on sharing it with you soon. Stay tuned.