How Much Is That Gay Man in The Window?
Recently, I served on an LGBT discussion panel at a local university. I’d organized the panel discussion on behalf of Delaware Pride, for a human sexuality class of current and future psychotherapists. I was proud of the diverse panel I had assembled—two gay men, one lesbian, and one male-to-female (MTF) transsexual. Unfortunately, a mother and stepfather of two gay children were unable to attend due to illness, but it was still a great panel and a great experience. I served on many LGBT discussion panels during my college years, many with my friend Chris, who also served on this recent panel. Chris lightheartedly refers to the panels as “Ask a Queer,” and although I very much enjoy serving on these panels, I admit that I sometimes feel a bit like a zoo animal. Please do not feed the homosexuals!
I’ve served on enough LGBT panels, and endured enough “is he gay?” looks in my life, to gauge people’s reactions pretty quickly, especially when I’m in the room for the sole purpose of talking about being gay. To some people, you’re just another face in the classroom. These are the people who know other gay people and understand that we’re all just people. To some people, you’re Lucifer personified, although these scary types were much more common during my college days than in the panels I’ve served on as an adult. These are the people you half hate, half hope to illuminate. To some people, you’re an exciting guest and a beam of educational light. These are the people who like to ask multiple multi-part questions. To some people, you’re about to speak on behalf of every queer person who currently exists, ever existed, and ever will exist, and these folks eyeball you with a strange mix of awe and fright, as if Joan of Arc had stepped out of the history books to lecture about the evils of burning suspected heretics at the stake. These are the people who will hang on your every word but won’t ask a single question.
I was surprised at the range of attitudes toward LGBT persons among students in this class of therapists. Many of the students seemed curious, knowledgeable, and educated. A few seemed indifferent. A few seemed…well…a bit clueless. All of the students were polite, kind, and gracious. After Chris, our lesbian panel member, explained that she’s been with her partner for over 16 years, one student talked at length about her lesbian neighbor who has quite an appetite for alcohol and casual sex. “She’s always going out drinking, partying at the clubs in Philly, and sleeping around with different women,” the student explained. “She’s invited me to her place for parties, but I say NO, THANK YOU,” she declared with a small smile and a big eye roll.
I was surprised that someone training to become a therapist would not know better than to judge all lesbians by the actions of one lesbian. Chris, our lesbian panel member, joked, “She’s probably single!” which broke the ice and stirred some laughter. The student continued, “But seeing you here tonight, listening to you talk about being with your partner of 16 years, and how you are both so close to your families, I understand now that not every lesbian is like my neighbor, that there are lesbians out there who want a lifelong relationship and a family.” At this comment, my mood lifted, and so did my heart.
Panel discussions are a great time to further open the minds of those who already consider themselves open-minded. One student bravely asked, to the groans of some students who recognize how divisive the issue can be, “How does religion figure into all of this? Do you often get people who criticize your lifestyle or orientation based upon religion?” After an intriguing discussion on religion and sexuality, with viewpoints ranging from the atheist to the devout, the same student interjected: “Well, I consider myself a Christian. I know that I’m saved. I have gay friends, and I don’t judge them. The Bible says that you should not judge, lest you be judged. I mean, I’ve lied, and committed other sins, and it’s no better or worse than someone being gay.”
Some people nodded in agreement. Others—including me—shuddered a little. I responded, “I appreciate your honesty, and that you support your gay friends. However—and this may simply be a matter of language, it may not be what you intended—but I often hear people say something similar, that everyone sins, so we shouldn’t judge gay people. But by saying that, you’re equating sexual orientation with sin. You’re putting lying and other ‘sins’ on the same plane as being gay. Do you think that being gay is a sin?” The proverbial light bulb appeared immediately over her head, and this lead to a short but fascinating discussion about the power of words, and the importance of choosing language carefully as a therapist.
At the end of the almost three-hour discussion, several students congratulated the panel members on our courage for telling our stories, and thanked us for helping them achieve a better understanding of how to assist their LGBT clients. It was really a case of warm, gay fuzzies for everyone. While it’s discouraging to think that a current or future therapist believed that all lesbians like to party and sleep around just because one lesbian does, it’s encouraging to know that she no longer holds that opinion. While it’s discouraging to think that LGBT people are still a mystery to some people, it’s encouraging to think that many people want to learn more about our lives, our loves, our struggles, and our successes. While it’s discouraging to think that some people will continue to have devastating experiences with therapists, like my experience years ago when a therapist announced during our first session that I am gay because of a distant father and a domineering mother, it’s encouraging to think that I can do something to make a future LGBT person’s counseling experience a better one than I had.
Just before class was dismissed, one student posed a final, poignant question: “What one single piece of advice would you offer therapists to better assist their LGBT clients?” After pausing in contemplation for a few moments, I replied: “Above all else, not to judge, and to do everything you can to help that person. And to realize that in the end, when you get beyond gender, race, age, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, and any other incidental attributes, you’re simply one human being trying to help another human being. We all share the same basic human needs and desires.”
Eric Morrison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.