I grew up in a place where Confederate flag stickers littered the lockers of my Catholic high school, and our plan to have a “jeans day” on World Aids Day (students would theoretically pay $5 to wear jeans instead of our usual uniforms, and the proceeds would benefit an AIDS awareness organization) was rejected because AIDS was “the homosexual disease.” Needless to say, as soon as I graduated, I set my sights on the northeast, and eventually New York, where I could (hopefully) leave all that behind.
Coming from Florida, I thought New York City would be the one place where I wouldn’t have to question being out, and where I naively thought we were all on the same page with regard to homosexuality — like it wouldn’t even need to be a conversation.
Unfortunately, in the few months I’ve been here, I’ve come to realize that I’d been wearing some seriously rose-colored glasses.
A couple of months ago I was floored by this one guy’s response to a discussion of race. He’s a cis white male, talking about how sick he was of hearing about “blacks against America.” I jumped in and tried to begin to explain how being a minority works and that the “battle against America” is actually just a fight to be treated equally. To illustrate my point I used another example of a minority group looking for equal rights: gay people. Before I could finish, he cut me off.
“Gay people aren’t a minority. I’m a minority. I’m a musician. Musicians are a minority.” He went on to talk about all of the ways he is “discriminated against” as a musician.
I didn’t know whether to be appalled by his ignorance or just laugh.
I didn’t have long to decide before he started fighting with the two men next to him and I decided to leave, not wanting our conversation to continue.
Just this past week, I had another jarring experience that really illustrated the degree to which these queer issues that loom so large in our own lives are invisible to others. I work as a Social Media Manager and our firm was hosting a dinner for current and prospective clients. Among the group were the Social Media Managers for several big name companies and at dinner, I was seated next to the SMM for a major airline.
As social media is our business, we began talking about dealing with the crazy posts that come through on our walls on any given day. She was clearly educated and well-qualified for her job. As the conversation progressed, I asked her what had been her biggest social media “crisis.” She said when a famous actor was kicked off the plane recently for reasons some deemed ridiculous, she heard about it for days on end.
I recalled having read recently about another high-profile incident regarding a pro-choice t-shirt. The shirt had read “If I wanted the government in my womb, I’d fuck a senator.” The girl was asked to change her shirt before boarding her flight. As her luggage was already checked and she wasn’t going to buy another shirt, she was told she could put her shawl over the shirt and that would suffice. I asked the Social Media Manager if she had seen much fallout from that incident, given the current political climate. She said it had only lasted for about a day, but explained the issue wasn’t the message. “The only reason this made news was because the shirt had a pro-choice message, but the problem wasn’t the message. The problem was the profanity. Airlines often ask passengers to change their shirt if it has profanity, and it just doesn’t make the news.”
Though I don’t personally agree with the policy, I thought her explanation was reasonable and went on the ask her about another incident I had heard about and followed closely: when Leisha Hailey and Camila Grey were approached by a flight attendant for kissing and told it was a “family-oriented airline.” As Hailey became upset, she and her girlfriend were escorted off the plane. I couldn’t remember which airline it was specific to and asked her if this was her airline. She said, “No, it was Southwest, but I could understand why they did it.”
Despite the fact that my boss was sitting next to me, I couldn’t let the comment pass. “Why is that?” I asked. She replied that often if something is making a majority of passengers uncomfortable, they have to consider the other passengers. I was beside myself.
“What if the majority of passengers on the plane are racist? Would you kick a person of color off the plane because he or she made other people uncomfortable? It just seems to create a slippery slope.” To which she quickly replied, “My best friend is gay…” to demonstrate that she couldn’t possibly be homophobic.
She suggested it was because of the PDA, regardless of the genders involved. I mentioned that I had never heard of a straight couple being approached or removed from a flight for PDA. I mean, there is a reason the “mile high club” is a cultural concept. And I have heard enough stories of my friends actually getting down to (some forms of) business in the seats. Was it really the PDA, then, that was making other people uncomfortable?
“Well, I won’t ever fly Southwest again after that incident.” I said. She looked at me surprised, “Really?”
She went on to say that it was possible that the issue wasn’t that they were kissing. “You know, if someone is big enough that they need two seats on the plane and refuses to buy a second seat, we may remove them from the flight because they are infringing on the space of another person. Perhaps Hailey and her girlfriend are were infringing on someone else’s space.”
I said maybe, but it didn’t seem likely considering homosexuality remains socially unacceptable. “Really?” She said, “I don’t think homosexuality is socially unacceptable anymore.” I was stunned.
I said it was probably because she had the privilege of living in New York City, and she said she was actually living in Dallas. Dallas, however, is also a metropolitan area and does have a strong gay scene.
She proceeded to tell me that gay people often think what is happening to them is because they are gay. I said, “Yes, that is their worldview because so often, these things do happen to them because they are gay.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing; I tried to find a common ground. “Well, I’m sure you can understand that as a woman?”
“I’m not really discriminated against as a woman. I don’t really think it is a problem.”
I didn’t know what to respond or even how to begin. I brought up a recent story about a friend of mine who was being sexually harassed by her boss. “Well, my friend works at J.P. Morgan…”
“Oh, well, yeah, I hear the financial sector is bad.”
Silence fell for a few moments. I struggled to process the entire conversation before someone came to the table to make an announcement.
She is educated. She is working at a very large and influential company and has lived in major metropolitan areas. And she can’t see the oppression.
She is in a position in the public eye. She contributes to formulating the public messaging surrounding situations such as the incident with Leisha Hailey and whether she realizes it or not, she has power to contribute to these cycles of oppression. And even scarier than active homophobia or sexism is the complete denial of its existence. If someone who is well-educated, clearly successful, a member of a group that is largely discriminated against, and best friends with a member of another discriminated group can’t recognize the oppression, how many other people also can’t? And how long will the oppression continue?
The next day, I wondered if I had crossed a line, given that it was a professional environment and I was sitting next to my boss. Did I go too far by continuing the conversation? Should I have dropped it at some point? I didn’t get angry and I remained respectful throughout the conversation, but I still felt I had done something wrong. Then I realized how absurd it was that I was the one worrying about this. Why should I worry that I crossed a line? Why should I have to stop and think about whether or not I had made her uncomfortable? Why is a conversation like that often considered “inappropriate”? I wish I didn’t have to ask any of these questions.
Another upsetting incident was at last year’s Dyke March. I wanted to attend the Dyke March this year. However, after my experience last year, I will only attend the Pride parade. The Dyke March ended in Washington Square Park last year and, as it is the Dyke March, there are several topless women. And I know that for most of these women, being topless isn’t sexual. It is about freedom and personal expression. But the straight men who congregated in the park to watch the women certainly considered it sexual. My friend and I watched the women splash around in the fountain, feeling free to be who they are, if only for that moment, as the straight men hooted and hollered and whistled them on. I left, discomforted and discouraged.
Was I naive to think that leaving the southern part of the country for the most-educated and liberal region of the country would provide an escape from ignorance? As I am learning, apparently so.
Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.