Of all the questions I answered on Monday, one deserves further reflection. The fourth question Liam asked was whether I believed people choose their sexuality. My first reaction to this inquiry was “does it matter?” Today, I confess that wasn’t always my first reaction.
I have supported equal rights and equal marriage since high school. This support has taken different forms through the years as I have learned more about the world, but my support never faltered. Even when I was certain that Catholicism was right for me (a view I no longer hold), I never thought that people who choose a different path were any worse than myself.
Growing up in a small town, I encountered very few people who existed outside a homonormitive box. There was one, and while he was a friend, we weren’t very close. Half way through college, one of my friends told me she was bisexual and I never thought anything of it. That was the totality of my exposure to diverse sexualities in the first two decades of my life. What opinions I had to this point stopped at equality.
Eventually, I moved to Chicagoland for an internship after college. I found a roommate on Craigslist and we got along well enough. She was a bit of an introvert and we rarely talked when we were both home. Still… there was something there. I don’t want to list anything specific, because nothing about her was indicative of one thing or another. I’m not going to sit here and say that certain characteristics and interests are specific to lesbians. Call it gaydar, if you well. I had my suspicions.
But I never asked, and she never said. At least once, I wondered why she never thought to tell me. That’s when it dawned on me. Why does it matter? I didn’t meet up with her and say, “By the way, I’m a brunette. That’s okay, right?” Being brunette doesn’t define whether I’m a good person or a good roommate. Being gay or lesbian doesn’t matter in the same way. Why should that one quality define the total person?
Playing devil’s advocate with myself, I thought about what the most conservative people I knew would say. I imagined they might react as if I had moved in with a single man. Would most people in my situation worry about… about what? Getting hit on? I wasn’t a lesbian. Certainly that carries some weight. I’m not prey and I can make my own choices. The same would be said if I was living with a single man. Common decency would say that, even if advances were made, when I rejected him, the man would/should respect my decision. Not to mention that even attempting a relationship with a roommate would be a bit awkward.
I thought about the time I had spent in Europe and how no one cared if people of different genders and sexualities lived together. No one batted an eye. Whatever your sexuality, a person doesn’t lose control over their humanity when they encounter someone attractive. Moreover, a person’s sexuality does not dictate who they can be friends with and who they can date. People like to say that a (straight) guy can never be ‘just friends’ with a (straight) girl. That ridiculous.
Also ridiculous is the idea that anyone would feel obligated to share personal information about themselves that has absolutely no effect on the situation. As these thoughts made their way through my mind, I instantly scolded myself. Why did I assume my roommate, or anyone else for that matter, would need to inform me of their sexual preferences? I thought about the many tragic coming out stories I’d read through the years. While I’m sure there are plenty of people who don’t have painful coming out stories, many do. Should I, or anyone else, then demand that they come out again and again? I can think of few things that are more cruel.
So, I have stopped caring. I don’t need gaydar and I don’t need to know the sexuality of anyone before I befriend them. That’s just the most absurd notion. Perhaps you’ve read all of this knowing it was absurd from the start. All I can say in my defense is that I grew up in a conservative home, lived in a small town and attended a school where I could usually count the minority students on one hand and some students proudly wore Confederate flag pins.
None of that excuses me from my own actions. All it means is that I had to choose to learn how to react and/or address the types of people I wasn’t familiar with. I didn’t grow up with an understanding of what being gay even meant. Likewise, I had little awareness of other cultures outside of the media I consumer.
Most of my learning was in college, when I first encountered true diversity. The best example I have takes place in a class I took called African Americans in the Media. When voicing an opinion to the content we were discussing, I used the term ‘colored people.’ Nothing in my past had told me I was wrong and I was completely unaware that anyone would take offense. The people in my class were kind and understanding of my mistake. One man spoke up to say that he could tell that I meant no offense, but that I had used on offensive term. He said ‘people of color’ would have been more appropriate in the context I used it in.
There are two types of people in this country: those would would complain about being politically incorrect and refuse to hear or understand why something they said was offensive and those who would listen and learn why they were in the wrong. I like to think I tend to be the later.
I like to think I have also learned and grown from the period of time I spent with this roommate. She was a wonderful person and it pains me to say that I spent any amount of time wondering why she didn’t tell me about her sexuality. yet, because of this experience, I am now a better person.
Have you ever mistakenly stuck your foot in your mouth because you didn’t know a term or phrase was offensive? Were you raised around diversity or did you have to seek it out? If you made a new friend who happened to be a sexuality other than straight, would you expect them to tell you?