Originally, I thought I would talk about the great harm, the damage, being done by the religious right in the name of Christianity, and the importance of accepting and respecting the spirituality of others. Last weekend, though, in St Augustine, I met the neatest woman, a psychic, actually, and we discussed my giving this talk. As I began to explain my intentions, she began shaking her head and raised her hand to stop me. She said she believed I was making a mistake speaking on religious intolerance. I wondered if it was some psychic impression, and she said "No, I am Unitarian. We already know about religious intolerance. If you'll allow the pun, it's like preaching to the choir." She told me instead to speak on what I know.
So, I am. All week I have been thinking of the irony of me speaking to a congregation. I'm the one who turned my back on the church long ago, right after I realized that Catholicism wasn't big enough for me and my homosexuality. Now I know different, because without gay men the Catholic Church would have a severe priest shortage. But growing up, I believed there was no place in a house of worship for someone like me. Sad, but in my time of greatest despair, the place I most needed to be felt like the place most off limits. Standing here today is a bit of coming full circle for me, and I thank you for this moment.
When I came out in 1989, I promised myself that I would never put myself in a position where I had to lie about who I am. Four years in the Marine Corps will do that to a person, I guess. Since then, I have lived my life as an openly gay man. It has been easier in some places than others, but it is a decision I have never regretted. Being so open, though, I have found that I am the person acquaintances come to with "the questions."
What are "the questions?" They are the things non-gay people ask gays about their lives, and the questions are always the same. Sure, there are some variations on a theme, but for the most part, they are always the same. I joke about this, like I joke about everything, but I honestly respect the openness of the people who ask these questions. As silly as some of these sound, they are at least an attempt to understand, and that is never silly.
In celebration of June, which is Gay Pride Month all across America and the World, I will speak for my people and give "the answers." Those of you who are gay may feel free to hum along.
Q - When did you become gay?
A- I have always been gay. As a child, I knew I was different, I just didn't know what it meant. I felt all the same giggly crushes and feelings of puppy love as other kids, I just had to hide it. You don't just become gay, any more than you become right or left-handed. Sexual orientation is a part of who a person is, and though it can be denied or accepted, repressed or nurtured, it can never be changed. It just takes some people longer to understand that.
Q - Did your parents make you gay?
A - My mother is sitting right there, and she can probably answer this question as well as I can. No, my parents did not make me gay. My brother is straight, and no one asks my mother if she made him that way. For every gay man or woman that comes from a dysfunctional family, there are gay men and women that come from Ozzie and Harriet families.
Q - Why do you have to flaunt it? I don't run around telling everyone I'm straight.
A - I don't have to flaunt it, and yes you do. My secretary, after working for me a week, asked me this question. So, I asked her what exactly she knew about me. She said, "Well, I know you're gay." I said, "Really? Well, I know that you are straight, your husband's name is James, you have been married for several years, you have two children, Lindsey, 4, and the baby, 9 months, you are Pentecost, you sing at the church, you Mother does Missionary work each year in Indonesia, and you can't balance a checkbook to save your life." So, who's flaunting their lifestyle? Straight people wear wedding rings, place family pictures on their desks, and walk arm-in-arm in public and hold hands at restaurants. My partner and I holding hands at the local Krystal would not exactly go unnoticed. Coming out is a constant process. I bought a card at a Delchamps, and the cashier asked if it was for my girlfriend. Once again, the great debate over being out. Am I supposed to seize every opportunity to proclaim my sexuality? Am I copping out and hiding if I say nothing? These are all questions non-gay people never have to ask themselves.
Q - How can you define your life based solely on sex?
A - Hey, it works for Madonna. Seriously, being gay is not just about having sex with another man. I knew I was gay long before I was sexually active. And today, if for whatever reason I was no longer able to have sex, I would still be gay. For straight people who are married, I ask if something happened to your spouse and they were no longer able to perform sexually, would that be the end of your relationship? Is sex all you have? Yes, I am sexually attracted to men, but I am also emotionally attracted to men. Actually, one man in particular. But our relationship is about much more than just sex.
Q - Why should you have special rights?
A - Ah, yes, the great special rights debate. Newsflash, ladies and gentlemen, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness should not be given to gay men and women because they are gay, but because they are human, just like everybody else. I want the right to be hired for a job based on my qualifications, not because the boss thinks I'm straight. I want to be allowed to make medical decisions for my partner in an emergency, instead of being excluded because I am not "family." I want to be able to walk down the street with my partner without fear of being attacked by people "fag-bashing." Since gays and lesbians are the ones most likely to be victims of hate crimes, what good is a Hate Crimes Bill that doesn't mention them?
Q - Why can't other gays be like you? You don't act like them.
A - Please. Why is it that butch women and faggy men are the only image of gays most straight people have? Because we see what we want to see. We look for the stereotypes, never knowing that the beautiful, effeminate woman sitting next to us is lesbian. We see the wimpy, lisping villain in a movie, but we don't know that the tough hero is played by a gay actor. Wherever there are people, there are gay people. And whether they are ‘straight acting’ or not, they are human beings who deserve respect and love. Like everyone else, gay people are bad and good, some worthy of contempt and others worthy of praise, but all worthy of being seen as a person, not a label.
Q - Which one of you is the "man?"
A - (I love this one.) Well, my partner does the laundry, but he also fixes the car. I love to shop, but I also shoot pool and throw darts. In a gay relationship, we are automatically freed from the assumed roles of husband and wife. I mean, if we both sit around and wait for the dishes to be washed, it won't be long before we are eating on paper plates, you know? Every gay couple defines for themselves their roles in a relationship. I like to think that many of us have the best of all worlds, in that we live our lives in a way that feels comfortable, not common. Gay men and women are more than stereotypes.
Q - If you could change, would you? Would you want to be straight?
A - A tough question, and one that many answer differently. For me, though, the answer is definitely no, I would not change. The person I am is the sum total of everything about me, my sexuality and sexual orientation included. How much of my personality is tied to my being gay? I don't know for sure, and I wouldn't want to find out. I do know that being part of an invisible minority has made me more aware of the prejudice and hatred faced by those who cannot hide in a closet. I am involved with women's issues and racial issues as a direct result of being gay. No, I wo
uldn't change. There is something special about me, about all of us, and I know that being gay is a part of it. I heard a comedienne say that she didn't choose this lifestyle, "she was chosen."
Q - Okay, so now I'm open and enlightened. What exactly do I call your, you know, your, well. . .
A - Real good question. Personally, I call him my partner, but other people call them their lover, companion, spouse, husband, wife, lifemate, or soul mate. The only advice I can give here is ask someone what they call their significant other, than respect that term. (It may be difficult to do that if their term is something like love bunny, pumpkin or puddin', but make the effort.)
The most important thing I can say is open your hearts and your minds. In a world such as ours, where gay men and women are openly attacked as immoral, sinful, and perverse, an outstretched hand of acceptance is like a beacon of light.
Do not fear your gay and lesbian neighbors, for we are a threat to you only if you are intolerant, bigoted, and ignorant. (Like that narrows some neighborhoods down.) We are everywhere. We are your children, your brothers and sisters, your parents, your friends and co-workers. We want to live our lives, to love and be loved, to grow old and look back at a lifetime of happy memories. We are, in fact, not so different after all.
Thank you for listening, and hopefully for hearing. Gay men and women everywhere are waiting, watching for any sign of love. Be the one to give it them.
Originally presented to Unitarian Universalists, Mobile, June 1995