01 January 2016

Guess who's coming to dinner?

Living in the rural Midwest, I’ve had to  develop a finely honed sense of gaydar as a means of self-defense. I want to know who’s a safe person for me, who’s not, before I open my mouth and render myself vulnerable. Sometimes the cues are fairly obvious: hair, voice, dress, mannerisms. Sometimes I see my former repressed self in a person and little bells in my head go ding, ding, ding.

My husband Dave and I arrive at our favorite charity’s fund-raising dinner to discover we’re assigned to table four. Feels a bit posh, reserved tables; a bit constrictive, assigned seats. Table four sits stage right, a round top with eight chairs, four people already seated. We know two of them—a married couple. We sit down next to them, leave two empty seats between us and the strangers. These are two women. We exchange names, greetings. Then one of the women pulls out her smartphone to check football scores, reports to the other. Ding, ding, ding.

Hmph. ’Might have sat closer to those two had I known they’re lesbians.

An African American couple joins us just as a local dignitary rises to say grace. 

Ah, ours is the diversity table: gays, lesbians, African Americans, and white Anglo-Saxon Catholic heterosexual allies. 

In my experience, people who value diversity are more relaxed, less uptight, more fun than the average sourpuss. Sure enough, ours is the table to be at. All through dinner we laugh and carry on loudly. Others cast glances our way—envious glances, I’m sure.

As the program concludes I pull the lesbians aside, ask them over for supper sometime. I am conscious of what I am doing—zeroing in on one couple to the exclusion of the other two. I have my reasons. The lesbian couple is most likely to be safe; after all, we speak a shared language of experience; we can compare notes on what it is to be queer in conservative rural Indiana. The WASC heterosexuals live too far away. The African American couple keeps a tremendously busy schedule. 

Too, I'm reading a book about our systemic racism, how in this country racism gets infused into our thinking, our belief systems, our very blood. No “c’m’on over for supper some night” gesture is enough. If I'm serious about addressing my internalized racism I need to meet my African American neighbors on their own turf. I need to make a serious and lifelong commitment to familiarizing myself with their culture, their area of town, their church traditions. I need to hang out in places where African American people hang out, eat in the establishments they frequent, shop where they do. Combatting the years of entrenched internal racism is no easy task. Nothing simple about it. No guarantee of success, only the promise of effort and energy. 

I don’t want to sign up for that gig. I don't want to work so hard. Easier for me to keep my life small, set my sights low. When I do open my door to new acquaintances I want them to be just like me. 

The irony smacks me upside the head. In coming out, I wanted my parents to understand what being gay means to me. I wanted them to meet my friends, read books, think critically about stereotypes they held. And would they? No. They clung to wilful ignorance and I faulted them for it. I wanted to holler, “For God’s sake—or mine, anyway—get outside your comfort zone and see what you’re missing.” 

Now here I am, doing my own version of their polka. Quick mincing steps. Limiting myself. Clinging to what feels safe. If I don’t stick my neck out it won’t get chopped off. But what do I know?

Several days after the charity fund-raiser I chance to meet the organization’s executive director, a friend of mine. “Dave and I were glad to be the gay male couple at the diversity table,” I tell her. “In fact, the lesbians we dined with are coming over for dinner next week.”

She looks at me with furrowed brows. “That wasn’t a diversity table,” she says. “I put people there who volunteer for us. And those women? They aren’t a couple as far as I know. They’re friends. They live a long ways from each other. Different counties. One has a husband and three children.”

This dinner party may prove more awkward than I imagined.