Dec 27, 2006 – revised and expanded Jan 12, 2008
I grew up in a household without homophobia: one of my dad’s childhood friends was gay (and had known he was since age seven), a fact which never bothered Dad, who had other gay and lesbian friends in high school and college. No one ever told me otherwise, so, if I thought about it at all, I assumed that being gay was simply an aspect of a person, no more surprising or shocking than their race, religion, or native language.
I didn’t actually have much exposure – knowingly – to gay people until I got to college. Woodstock School in India in my day was tolerant of every other aspect of humanity except homosexuality, but its tacit intolerance of that was based more on ignorance than revulsion. In India, it was customary for men to walk down the street arm in arm or hand in hand with men, and women with women, while it was forbidden for men and women to have physical contact in public. This aspect of Indian culture was cause for some imported discomfort among Woodstock school boys (many of them American), so our public displays of affection were rigorously heterosexual – and those were forbidden by school rules, out of respect for Indian (and Christian missionary) culture.
So, although there were gay people at Woodstock when I was there, at the time I was neither aware of them nor sensitive to the issues of gayness. Some of those gay people were not themselves aware of it then – not surprising, in that environment.
I therefore arrived at college in the US with complete tolerance for, matched by near-complete ignorance of, American gay culture. (I loved “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” which is in some sense a celebration of sexuality in all its forms, but too camp to be a useful guide to average gay comportment!)
I don’t remember particularly noticing any gay people around me in my first year or two of college (except at that Joan Armatrading concert in Santa Cruz). Then I got a crush on a guy who, though happy to spend time in my company, was oddly elusive, and always talking about his sisters – I grew confused as to how many sisters he had! He didn’t respond to my low-key, clumsy attempts at flirtation, but I was used to that – I wasn’t any good at flirting, and guys tended to either not notice at all, or run away screaming.
Eventually he came out to me, which resolved my increasing confusion, though I don’t now remember what specifically was said. We remained good friends, and I had my first experiences of open gay culture – most memorably, a disco party at which all the men and all the (straight) women threw themselves enthusiastically onto the dance floor for “It’s Raining Men”.
Sometime during the 1990s, during one of my frequent US trips, a Woodstock schoolmate took the unprecedented – and for her very scary – step of coming out to me. Or, at least, she tried to. She came to Boston to visit me from Northampton, MA, a town which I now know is reputed to be “the lesbian capital of America.” I didn’t know that then, and knew even less about lesbians than I did about gay men. My poor friend dropped any number of hints, and must have begun to wonder if I was being wilfully ignorant.
Finally she said: “I bought a pickup truck. I felt it would make a statement.”
I stared at her blankly. “A statement of what? That you move a lot?” (Having to frequently pack up one’s household to move was the only reason I could think of to own a truck.)
She almost gave up at that point. It wasn’t until she was on the step of the train, about to leave to return to Northampton, that she blurted out: “I wanted to tell you: I’m lesbian.”
“Uh, okay,” I answered, or something similarly lame. And the train pulled out. I felt terrible that I hadn’t understood her in time to have a real conversation about it, but I certainly wasn’t perturbed by the fact in itself, and we had plenty of later opportunities to talk about it.
Some years later, leaving California after a business trip, I used a phone in the business class lounge at the airport to have a long conversation with her about the wisdom or otherwise of coming out to our schoolmates. (I was in favor.) When I finally hung up the phone, a man sitting nearby gave me a huge smile. I supposed he was gay and liked what he had heard me saying.
My next new gay friend, years later, was Gianluca, a colleague in California. I was initially attracted to him, which I should have taken as a signal: somehow, most of the men for whom I feel more than a momentary attraction turn out to be gay. Perhaps it’s a marriage-saving reflex: I’m rarely attracted to any man who might actually be a threat to my husband.
It took some time for me to figure out that Gianluca was gay, and even longer for him to come out to me. Once we went to see some art film, and there was a trailer for a foreign movie about women’s sexuality. “Oh, I want to see that,” I exclaimed. Gianluca seemed completely uninterested.
Instead, he wanted to see “Jeffrey,” a film about a gay man. I figured that, while a red-blooded heterosexual man might reluctantly go along with someone else’s suggestion to see a gay film (as my college boyfriend had), he was not likely to propose it himself.
So we went to see it, and both laughed our asses off (it’s a cute movie, and was ground-breaking at the time). As we sat in the emptying theater afterwards, an obviously gay couple came up to chat with Gianluca. “Well,” I thought to myself, “I may not be sure he’s gay – but they are!”
It was that same evening or soon after that he finally invited me to see his apartment. As he threw open the door he said, “Now you’re going to see a whole new side of me!” The art posters of nude men on the walls came as no surprise whatsoever. So Gianluca officially came out to me, and we had a long talk about that.
Gianluca had led a sheltered childhood, and as a child was confused about the feelings he felt. He told me that at age 14 he finally learned that homosexuality existed, while watching a TV program on AIDS. So he simultaneously realized that he was gay, and became convinced that he was condemned to die.
It was heartbreaking to me to think of a child living with such enormous fears, all alone, feeling unable to talk to anybody about it. I don’t want that to happen to any other teenager if I can do anything to help.
The long dance around Gianluca’s finally coming out to me also made me understand just how fraught this process can be. I could feel vaguely insulted to think that anyone wouldn’t instantly know that I am homophobia-free. On the other hand, it seems utterly absurd that, in modern society, gay people feel the need to be so very careful. Oh, I totally understand their reasons – I just think it’s crazy that society forces that caution upon them. I have a lifelong habit of telling people exactly who I am and what I think. I had never realized what a luxury that is. I cannot imagine always having to weigh what you’re going to say to whom – and most of the time concluding that it’s probably safer to hide a large part of who you are from most people. This, too, is terribly sad.
I would like to think that everyone I care about feels free to be absolutely who they really are with me. So I have no patience with waiting to get to “do I know you well enough to tell you I’m gay?” – and my gaydar is now developed enough that I’ve usually figured it out long before we get there. I give the other party every possible opening (in tête-à-tête situations, to protect their privacy), dropping heavy hints to let them know that “If you were gay, it’d be okay.”
My reward is that moment of relaxation, a visible unclenching, when the person realizes that I’m not going to freak out, that I accept and like them as they are. And then a true friendship can begin.