by Gabi Clayton, with Catherine Dawdy
(originally published in GayPlace Online in 1997)
Among many other things, I am a PFLAG mom. My son Bill would have been 19 this past January, but two years ago he was assaulted in a hate crime and then committed suicide. Bill's Story is somewhat long, and I have published it on my homepage. I have also become increasingly visible and vocal in the last year.
It might not have felt safe for me to testify at a Washington State Senate Education Committee hearing, as I did in February, but I don't have Bill to protect anymore. I spoke out against SB-5167, a horribly homophobic bill that would have silenced the schools in this state from saying anything positive about BGLT people. Public speaking does not come natural and easy for me, and it took a lot of preparation and energy from me and from my family. I am happy to say that the bill died in committee.
For me, that kind of being "out" is the company-coming-to-dinner kind with time to prepare and put on my best, like the "company china" my mom kept that she only used on special occasions. And then there are the "everyday dishes" -- those opportunities that pop up in our lives unplanned and unexpected. The kind that if you stop to think too long, the opportunity will be lost.
There is a woman who must be around 70 years old who I had chatted with a few times at the downtown bus station. One day she sat down next to me and said, "Didn't you say one of your children died last year?" I said, "Yes." Then she asked me, "How?" There it was. In an instant, there was my fear. I didn't know how this woman would react.
I took a deep breath and I answered her question. I think she got more than she bargained for. When I was finished telling her about Bill being bisexual and about the hate crime and his suicide she was almost in tears. She gave me a big hug and she said, "I don't understand why. Why would they beat him up? Bisexual - that means he liked boys and girls, right? So what? What difference does that make, and why was it any of their business, anyway?"
She was angry. She was angry that the world was so unsafe that her new friend's son would choose suicide. As I went for my bus, I realized that the next time this woman hears someone say something hateful, she may remember Bill and speak out.
I want to share some other examples of what I am calling "everyday out."
My friend Linda George, an active member of PFLAG and PFLAG-Talk, wrote:
Emily [her daughter] and I were at Stroudwater's Book Store last night. I was looking for POZ magazine and Emily was buried in the gay and lesbian section, and this man was sort of standing in front of me as I tried in vain to see around him. He thought I was his wife, and held up a magazine and said, "Check this out - a magazine for those gays and lesbians." I piped up, "Oh thanks - do you think I could see that? It's just what I have been looking for!!" You guys would have loved it! Unfortunately, I was fibbing - I could not see POZ anywhere, and even asked at the desk, but their distributor does not carry it. They asked me if it was an art magazine...Deb Lopitz, another one of my friends from PFLAG-Talk, wrote:
Treated myself to the beauty parlor for a haircut today. While sitting there, the two stylists started talking. "That girl that just left, she's so nice but I think she's funny." So, I said, "Well, what do you mean funny?" She says, "You know, she seems to like girls." So, I ask, "How does that make her funny? You know I have a gay son and he doesn't think he's any funnier than the next person." "Oh," she says, "I just say that cause that's what my mom calls them... I'm sure she's really alright." ARRRRRGHHHHHHHHHH. (But still, I'm proud of me for speaking up!)And my friend Kerry Russ shared this story with me:
I went to pottery class last night, and we had a visiting instructor. We'll have visiting instructors for the next three weeks as the main owner looks for an apprentice. After our demonstration the owner and the visitor had a discussion regarding the gentleman coming next week. To avoid confusion, next week's instructor is named Joe. They discussed Joe and kept mentioning his "little problem". I'm, of course, thinking he's an alcoholic. One of the women asked them what the devil they were talking about and it comes out that the man is gay. I'm pretty much ignoring what's being said since I'm in the midst of making a pot, but I overhear "The good news is he's going to church and asking God to change him!" Well, my mouth went off (it just does that sometimes) and I said "Great! Next week I'm going to church and ask God to make me a man so I can get a raise. After all it would do about as much good." In the rural South one doesn't say things like that and the palpable silence that followed was pretty unnerving.It is so powerful to speak the truth and be visible. The "company china" kind of being out is important, but it is with the "everyday dishes" that unexpected opportunities can provide the real openings. It seems to me that while formal (systemic) changes are of vital importance, in the long run it is everyday acceptance, inclusion and respect that will change people. One by one.