Thursday, May 17, 2012

Personal and Political - From China to the U.S., and Back

I have taken my professional journey and personal values to a crossroads where I am considering moving abroad for work. To begin to understand the lay of the land regarding refugee and asylum issues, as well as teaching opportunities, I interviewed a friend who teaches English as a Foreign Language. She has befriended many of her former students, and recently received a request from a student in China who is studying "Homosexuality in America." I was able to repay my friend's kindness by answering the questions of her former student.

Her questions and my answers are topical to many issues at the forefront of current U.S. politics. I know that personal stories influence public perception, and can therefore influence political outcomes, so I have shared our exchange below. Although I have gone outside of my comfort zone, I have also redacted some portions of my answers in light of what feels appropriate to share with a broader audience.

I have changed the interviewer's words only as needed to transform the text from texting slang to more spell-check friendly formal English.

  1.      When exactly did you come to realize your sexual orientation? Does it comes naturally or something triggered you to realize it?
I was 19 years old when I realized that I had been in love with a woman I had met 9 months earlier, on the first day of college. The chemistry was immediate - I thought she was beautiful, brilliant, funny, and kind. Although I was an award winning public speaker, I felt stupid and tongue-tied. When that first class was over, I did not want her to leave. We became friends, and when we would hug goodbye, I did not want to let go. She was the only "out" lesbian on campus, back in 1992. I had a boyfriend. 

[She] decided to withdraw from school, and she was also moving away for the summer. I felt unbearable panic at the thought that I would never see her again. I wrote her a long letter detailing my pain at the thought that I would never see her again. Then I wrote her detailed directions to my house. We had our first date in June 1993. Our relationship lasted almost a year. 

[After we broke up] I began dating a wonderful woman I met at a coffee shop. We have been together for almost 18 years, and we got married in Canada shortly before I went to law school. The marriage has no legal standing in the United States, but it means a great deal to me.  

  2.       Any hard feelings such stressed, disappointed and angry when you realize your sexual orientation?
No. I did panic about what to wear on our first date, and about what it would be like to kiss a girl. We each wore khaki shorts and a green top. The first kiss was good enough to get a second date.

  3.       What do you think is the most important thing that makes you hold on to it despite all the obstacles?
I faced many challenges as a child, including the death of a sibling, a betrayal of trust by [an extended] family member, and fights at grade school. Through it all, my parents taught me to respect myself, stand up for what I believe, tell the truth, and take responsibility for my choices. This is the foundation of my personal integrity.

In grade school, I also learned about the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, and the Trail of Tears, the Japanese-American Internment Camps, and the civil rights movement in the United States. I learned that following orders and trying to go unnoticed in the hope of escaping persecution does not guarantee safety.

When I was taunted in grade school, I experienced first-hand that living a life of hiding in fear is a miserable life. I found freedom and relief in fighting back. I would never throw the first punch, but my father taught me how to throw the last punch. My mother had been the captain of her Catholic high school's debate team, but later left the Catholic Church. She taught me how to fight back with rational thinking, well chosen words, and impeccable timing. 
My parents modeled for me what it looks like to live life with the courage of your convictions. My father was a conscientious objector from the Vietnam War, and as a consequence he was required to move from his home in New York to Pennsylvania to serve his country through public service at a school for children with learning disabilities. When my father moved, my mother married him and moved with him. 

When I was a child, my mother petitioned the local school board to allow the school bus to pick us up from the bus stop closest to our child care facility, instead of near our house, as the school's policy required. A school board member told her that if she was a good mother, she would stay home and spend the day with her children, instead of going to work. She told him he was a “sexist pig.” She got the school board to change its policy, not just for us, but for everyone. When my father’s employer laid off all the workers, my mother supported our family. If my mother had stayed home instead of challenging the way things were done, we could have lost our home.

I am a Caucasian woman and I was raised by two college-educated parents, in a safe, middle class suburban community, with an excellent free education. I benefit from enormous privilege and opportunity. I have experienced discrimination, ignorance, and hatred, and I face them head on in part to honor the people who have born the brunt of discrimination before me, and "pay it forward" for those people who have fewer opportunities to influence change, and for those who come after me.

  4.       It's said that gay people have this "radar" that can help them identify the homosexual; to what extent do you agree or disagree?
I have lousy gaydar for queer women. I always have. In addition, most people assume I am straight.

I find it easy to spot gay men. My best friend does not.

My best friend is a straight woman, and she has excellent gaydar for women. Many gay women assume she is gay and will flirt with her in public - even at the grocery store - while ignoring me. She has long blonde hair and large blue eyes, and was a ballerina, so she does not fit the stereotype of what "looks like" a lesbian.

  5.       What is the most disturbing stereotype of the homosexual to you?
I was disturbed by the trend of depicting queer people in fiction books and films only as suicidal, criminal, or insane. I am glad that queer people are now represented with more diversity and humanity.

I used to laugh at the cultural stereotype of lesbians as women who drink a lot of herbal tea and have a house full of cats. Now I drink a lot of tea, and I have three cats. I am allergic to cats. 

  6.       What’s your opinion about homophobia? 
I am sad that people jump so quickly from ignorance, to fear, to hatred, instead of shifting from ignorance to inquiry even in the face of feeling fear.

Writer Rachel Held Evans has done an excellent job of addressing this in two recent blog posts about Christianity, "How To Win A Culture War and Lose a Generation," and "From Waging War to Washing Feet: How Do We Move Forward?"

  7.       Will you vote for President Obama for his recent announcement that he’s in support of marriage equality ?
Yes. I would have voted for President Obama even if he had not voiced his support, but now I will volunteer for him, too. I was honored to serve as a "poll watcher" for 12 hours on the day of the election in which he was voted in as President. It was one of the longest and best days of my life.