Thursday, May 22, 2008

Straight Man's Burden

This is the story of a straight, Southern, good-hearted, just-this-side-of-Fundamentalist, proud-to-be-from-Alabama young man named Patrick. When I went to work at his company three years ago, he had no idea I was one of those “active homosexuals.” I never tried to hide it from anyone there at the company, nor did I do anything - in my opinion - to flaunt it. I just went about my business, did my job better than anyone ever had before, and quickly made myself all but indispensable to the company. Several months later, when Patrick finally asked me what the pink triangle on the bumper of my car was, I knew he was finally able to talk about it.

Throughout the years we spent working together, Patrick and I learned a great deal about each other. He shared with me the joy of he and his wife having a baby girl, and I spoke to him about my success in the Marine Corps and as an activist in the South. I grinned like an uncle when I looked at pictures of Kelsey, his beautiful baby, and Patrick would patiently read my column, giving advice or asking questions before I would send the piece over to the magazine in New Orleans. He was also the one I turned to when I lost yet another friend to AIDS, and he spoke to me of the pain of watching his granddaddy die a day at a time. We learned a lot from each other, he and I, and moving away from him this past summer felt like leaving behind a brother. (Of course, the fact that his parents were like family to me as well sure helped all that along.)

You can imagine, then, how excited I was when Patrick flew out to spend a working weekend here in San Diego this month. His days were busy, but we had planned to spend a couple of the evenings out on the town together. Thursday, we stopped by the Sports Club for a beer, then headed to Pizza Novo for dinner. There, at the Village Hillcrest, as we headed for the restaurant, Patrick saw a gay couple walking towards us. They had their arms wrapped around each other’s waists and were talking in that giggling-kissing-smooching chatter that makes single people want to smack them. For Patrick, though, you would have thought that they were a two-headed monster. In the little town of Citronelle, Alabama, gay men do not walk around arm-in-arm.

Once seated in the restaurant, I explained to him that we were in Hillcrest, and gay people here are like big hair in the South - everywhere and proudly displayed. Still disbelieving, he asked the waitress if it was true that everyone in the restaurant was “of the alternative lifestyle.” She being of quick mind, and picking up on his accent and my bemusement, told him that “of course everyone is Hillcrest was gay.” The look on his face was priceless. For him, the thought that he was a minority just wouldn’t quite sink in. Worse still, he couldn’t figure out a way to tell everyone that he was straight, short of standing on the table and shouting.

After dinner, we went to Kicker’s, where Patrick was able to experience what most women put up with when they go to a straight bar. You know what I’m talking about. . . someone wanting to buy you a drink but they won’t take no for an answer, someone standing right next to you and hoping you’ll take pity on them and dance a song or two. . . that kind of thing. Now, Patrick handled it all with courtesy and respect, and I appreciate that because I know he felt very uncomfortable.

The lesson to be learned from all of this (and Patrick hates that everything with me has to have a lesson), is that it is truly eye-opening to walk in someone else’s shoes. Gay people deal everyday with what he experienced for one night - feeling alone in a crowd, hating for people to assume your sexual orientation, wanting to be with your own kind. Perhaps he even learned a little more compassion for having experienced it.

To Patrick, I say thank you for again keeping your mind open. For a country boy, you manage to keep your heart in the right place. I am proud to have you as my friend.

To the rest of us, I don’t expect you to say “Big deal, so he accepts us. I don’t need some straight man’s acceptance to live my life.” Of course we don’t. But, let’s not forget to take the time to appreciate those who are trying to understand, those who are working to step out of their own comfort zones and reach out to the gay community. Maybe they aren’t radical liberals fighting tooth and nail for our community. Maybe instead they are just a bunch of regular Joe’s trying to be more caring and accepting. In my book, that ain’t so bad.

(Originally published in San Diego Gay and Lesbian Times, 10.24.96)