As far as queer people go, I have been pretty lucky. I came out at Grinnell, where my identity has always been accepted and respected, and my family has only ever been supportive, or at the very least wellmeaning, in the case of a comment from my grandmother about how I probably wouldn’t have wanted a ruffled miniskirt for Hanukkah (I did not).
But I also knew that outside of my sheltered world, a lot of people have it a lot worse, and it terrified me. Even among my peers, people swapped stories of slurs and bullying. And seeing pictures of signs reading “God hates f*gs” in the news made me want to curl up in a ball and never leave my room. Overt homophobia, in some form, was inevitably in my future, and I dreaded the day when it would occur.
This summer, my fear finally came true. I was traveling with a friend, and we were staying in the home of an older couple in New Zealand, helping around the house in exchange for room and board. We were watching an evening news segment about the United States Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, when one of my hosts declared something along the lines of, “I think homosexuality is unnatural. The next thing you know, mothers and sons will be sleeping together.” Rather than retorting with the sort of snappy comeback that I like to think I am capable of, I completely shut down, barely speaking to her (or anyone else) for the rest of the evening.
Part of what silenced me was the power dynamic. If I had confessed to being queer, my host might have been condescending to the point that living with them was unbearable. But I was also shocked. Here I was in a country where same-sex marriage had been legal for almost two years. In fact, this was one of the reasons I had chosen to study abroad in New Zealand — I thought it would be one less thing to worry about while adjusting to a new culture. And yet, this kindly Labrador breeder who had welcomed my friend and me into her home was unable to accept the reality of an unfamiliar lifestyle.
I didn’t think I would be able to live out my last few days in this household comfortably, in such close proximity to someone who would automatically view me as lesser because of an innate part of myself. But I got through it. I was in the closet, and it sucked, but I got through it.
I honestly don’t know if I regret the way I dealt with the situation. Which is more important, individual self-preservation, or standing up for what you know is right?
Maybe I was being a coward, but maybe I was also protecting myself from harassment. And anyway, my host probably wouldn’t have changed her mind based on the preachings of an idealistic American backpacker. (This sounds a lot like justification, though, doesn’t it?)
But now, looking back, I regard the whole episode with a feeling of relief. I endured my first brush with homophobia, and I know that it’s still out there waiting for me, possibly in more painful forms. That, unfortunately, is the truth of our current world.
But I got through it once, and it didn’t change who I am as a person, regardless of my sexual orientation. I can probably deal with it again. And next time, I’ll be ready to speak my mind. I will not silence myself anymore.