I’m 50 (almost 51). I’m white. My hair is short. I’ve been married to the same (wonderful) woman for 25 years. I have lived in the suburbs, in the southern half of America, for most of my life. I represent an industry that is made up of a lot of people who would be considered conservative by most. I’ve been the member of quite a few Christian denominations (yes denominations, not just congregations). In essence, if I were a book and you were judging me by my cover you’d just assume I was a conservative Republican who subscribes to all the beliefs and theories that those things imply.
Here’s the thing. I’m neither conservative or Republican. I’m not a Democrat and I don’t consider myself liberal either, but my “cover” has rarely led anyone to believe I’m a member of the liberal Democrat club, and it has often led people to believe I’m a member of the conservative Republican club. What that means is that people say things in front of me that I seriously doubt they would say if they knew I wasn’t really a card-carrying member of their club. This is most notably true with the topics that we are taught to not talk about at dinner parties: race, religion, sex/gender and politics.
Normally it isn’t that big of a deal. When it involves politics, in particular, it tends to be more entertaining than anything else. But in other areas, the things I hear can truly be disturbing because they reveal an individual’s belief system that I just can’t reconcile myself with. Go on a racist rant? I can’t look past that. Talk about women as sex toys, second class citizens or, God forbid, possessions? Nope.
But there’s one area that really hits home hardest: anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and actions. This one’s hard, because, quite frankly I was at one time guilty of saying some pretty shitty things about and to gay men. As a young intern in the early 80s I worked in a part of Washington, DC that had a vibrant gay community. I was a typical young, insecure guy and the fact that I was propositioned by gay men on several occasions really bothered me, largely because I thought it called my masculinity into question, and so I lashed out. On one drunken night, in particular, I screamed some terrible things at a guy I thought looked at me wrong. It was hateful, it was mean, and I would have deserved any condemnation or criticism I received.
In my fraternity, I originally had a nickname, FM, that started out as a positive because it was based on the song by Steely Dan and in particular the line “no static at all” largely due to my being laid back. Then word got around about the propositioning and FM morphed into “fag magnet” which I just rolled with. Ha-ha, funny, right?
Not too many years after graduating I got married and had kids. As the kids got older I would tell stories about my younger days, including the FM stories. Again, ha-ha funny. Now I want to be clear. I got past my insecurity and became a strong believer in equal rights for the LGBTQ community, and I don’t think anyone would have accused me of being a “hater.” Still, I had vivid memories of the night I screamed at the young guy, and I was extraordinarily ashamed by them, yet I had no problem with gay jokes or with the casual way that guys my age refer to things as “gay” and not in a happy sense.
That all changed when, in his second year of college, our oldest son came out. He told me over the phone – a conversation I’ll never forget – and the flood of emotions I felt was overwhelming, and probably not what you’d expect. I was horrified he’d felt the need to wait so long to tell us. I was scared for him, for what he would face in the world. And I was mortified at the realization that he’d had to listen to his dad tell FM stories, and to endure the casual, negative references to gay men I’d likely subjected him to.
I do feel the need to clarify that I don’t think he ever had reason to doubt his mother and I support him completely. He knows, I truly hope, that what we want for him is what we want for his sister and brother; to find a happy, healthy relationship with a person who makes his life exponentially better than it would be without them. It’s as simple as that: health and happiness, and we truly don’t care if it’s with another man as long as that man is a good person and makes our son happy.
Over the months after he came out, we navigated these new waters with our son, in particular how he wanted to deal with telling family and friends, and hopefully creating an environment that would allow him, and us, to thrive. One thing we discovered was this: we have some really good people in our lives. I don’t know of a single family member who thought less of our son, and I don’t know of any instance where he, or we, have been shunned or cut off by friends.
One thing I discovered about myself is this: I’m no longer okay with just shrugging when people assume I’m part of their club and they say something negative about another group of people, in particular, the LGBTQ community. It’s become personal, and visceral, for me.
When our son came out we still belonged to a church, but after listening to several men in the congregation, who assumed I was part of their club and who I otherwise respected, talk about the need to fight against gay marriage and to not let “those kind” ruin our church, I left. Sure, I could have stayed and fought, but here’s the thing: the church wasn’t worth it. When you say things like “we accept you despite your sin” to a gay person you’re telling them that their fundamental being is a sin and that is something I will never accept.
This is especially tough in business. My job sometimes requires me to work with people who hold what I consider to be odious beliefs, but because they think I’m part of the club I think they share those beliefs with me more freely than they do others. To do my job I have to ignore that and focus on the business at hand, but it’s getting harder and harder to do. I’m truly beginning to understand the meaning of cognitive dissonance, and I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep it up.
It’s a testament to how weak my character has been that it’s taken it becoming so personal for me to be truly engaged. It’s shameful that I haven’t stood up and said, “I think this is wrong” when people have made racist, misogynistic or homophobic things in front of me because they assumed I was part of the club.
I’m tired of being ashamed, and it’s about time I start letting people know their goddamned club sucks.