At a dinner party, an elderly woman found her path to becoming an LGBTQ ally.
I was seated next to “Erica” – 91-years-old, college educated, Catholic, a “homemaker,” 3 grown children, 5 grandchildren. She asked about my work, and I told her I was an author. She wanted to know what inspired me to write my first novel. I explained that when I was 15 years old, I was extremely upset seeing gay students bullied in my high school. Decades ago, in 10th grade, I knew I’d write about it some day. Erica looked down at her plate, then met my eyes and spoke quietly.
“I’m not comfortable with gay people.”
We had barely sampled our appetizers, and I wondered how in the name of Harvey Milk I was going to get through this meal. But there was something in the way Erica looked at me that made me think twice. She was trying to open a conversation, not close one. So I asked what made her uncomfortable about gay people.
“It’s just,” Erica shifted, painfully embarrassed, “whenever I find out someone is gay, I can’t stop thinking about them having sex, and it makes me kind of sick. Then I don’t want to be around them.”
Erica looked at me expectantly. Was she waiting for me to to agree that gay sex is “kind of sick”? Was I supposed to reassure her that it was okay that she was a bigot? She was 91, and cultural mores would demand that I respond politely, accept her as set in her ways. But apparently I’m not very good at politely accepting homophobia.
“Seems to me, if you can’t look at a gay couple without imagining them in bed, having sex — I can see why that would make you uncomfortable. I mean, if I looked at you and ‘Cameron’ (her 92-year-old husband sitting across the table), and all I could think of was the two of you naked, rocking it out in the sack, then I don’t think I’d want to be around you either.”
Erica stared. I felt myself turning icy, harnessing my anger, ready to turn my back on her for the rest of the evening. Then her lips twitched, and she began to laugh. I don’t know which one of us was more surprised.
A productive series of communications followed over the next several weeks. She asked me to recommend one of my blog posts, to help her “understand being gay.” She read it, and asked for more. Several posts later, she emailed: “I think I get it. It’s not just about being gay. It’s about the whole person.”
A few months later, we ran into each other. Erica told me about meeting a gay couple at a fundraiser for a museum. She started to imagine them in bed, then caught herself. Instead, she asked what they did for a living. It turned out one was in the same field as Cameron (biology professor), and the other had completed a doctoral dissertation on Erica’s favorite author. By the time the evening ended, she had stopped thinking of them as gay and just enjoyed their company.
When many people hear gay, they’re bombarded by sexual images, obliterating the whole person standing in front of them. Many have no interest in challenging themselves to evolve into a new way of thinking. But Erica did. Even though she was embarrassed, she admitted her own homophobia. Next, she allowed the two of us to open the conversation. Then she followed through, asking for more information, trying to learn. Finally, she pushed herself to interact differently with a gay couple, who validated her new perspective.
Many people are unwilling to give up their stereotypes – but not all. Erica now calls herself an LGBT Ally. Sure, for every productive conversation there are many that send me into a fury. I still haven’t figured out how to handle my anger when people cling to their view of LGBT+ as a perversion, their aggressive allegiance to ignorance, their primitive urge to target someone simply for being LGBTQ. But Erica reminded me to give people a chance. If someone is ready to rethink homophobia, then I’m ready to offer support.
Let’s open the conversation.
*All names and identifying information in this post have been changed.
Amy Kaufman Burk is an author and blogger. Her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, was written in reaction to seeing gay teens bullied in high school, and follows a family’s journey after the daughter comes out. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, includes a strong friendship between two men, one gay and one straight, as well as a lesbian couple (raising a son and daughter) who become role model parents to the main character. Amy’s blog has several posts in strong support of LGBTQ+. To learn more about Amy, visit her website and find links to her blog and to her novels on Amazon.