The local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) maintains an information table at the weekly Farmers Market downtown. They have literature and brochures and typically have two volunteers sit at the table to greet people, give out free stickers and rainbow ribbons, and to talk and answer questions. Today my partner, Brian, and I volunteered to watch the table. PFLAG and our group, Proud Theater, have had a good working relationship over the years so we were happy to give of our time.
Most of the day was a delight, with children happily taking free stickers, queer people and allies taking the rainbow ribbons and pinning them to their clothes, and several people stopping by to chat, take some literature, or ask questions. One young boy’s parents allowed him to take both a sticker and a pin. I had turned away to talk with someone when I heard him say, “Look at this!” I turned and he puffed his little chest out to proudly show me the ribbon and sticker. A couple families stopped by and many, many people simply thanked us for being there as they passed the table.
Toward the end of the day, though, there were a couple instances that put a bit of a damper on an otherwise good day, and made me realize that despite the progress we’ve made in the last fifty years or so there is still a hell of a lot of work to do. A man and his boy were walking by when the boy noticed the stickers and came toward the table to get one. I could see his father surveying the situation, apparently noticing the rainbow flag and maybe the word “gay” on the PFLAG sign. All of a sudden he said, “No, no! Don’t stop there. No. Come on. Let’s go.” He reached out and grabbed the little boy’s arm and yanked him away from the table and back into the crowd of shoppers looking for deals on pumpkins and other market items.
Brian and I couldn’t help but think how horrible it will be for that boy if he proves to be gay, bi, trans, or anything but an overly masculinized straight man. We have often seen and heard stories from friends and some of the youth in Proud Theater about parents who are not supportive of their child’s identity and in some cases actively hostile to their own children, people who try to force their children into a mold in which they don’t fit, and it is never good for any of those involved. I hope for that boy’s sake that if his identity is something other than what his father demands of him that he finds a group like PFLAG or Proud Theater with understanding people and unconditional acceptance.
The other thought was how insecure that the father must have been in his own identity to be so afraid of two gay men sitting at a table in the public square. Those who are secure in their masculinity and sexuality don’t typically become so frightened of the sight of someone different from them. We laughed about the idea of having the power to instill such fear in a man, sort of like the power that evangelical Christians bestow upon us when they lay the blame for hurricanes, floods, and other devastation from Mother Nature on queer folks.
As we were finally letting that one go an old woman approached the table. She had very white hair, wrinkles, and was somewhat bent over, clearly having lived a long, long life. She looked at me and Brian and the table several times before she looked me in the eye and with venom dripped out the word, “fags”, drawn out almost as if it were a two-syllable word. It was so weird and so unexpected that I didn’t really hear or understand what she said, so I just smiled as I often do when I don’t hear something fully. She turned away and headed toward a table of vegetables and I turned to Brian and asked what she said. When he told me, I started going after her to tell her what a rude, unhappy, and hateful person she was, but Brian made sure I didn’t get too far.
Of course, that would have been the wrong thing to do, to return her hatred with anger. I was just so shocked that an old woman like that would have that kind of vitriol in her and it’s actually been so long since I’ve had anyone use that word directly at me that it sort of surprised me and I wasn’t thinking straight (no pun intended).
The thing is, this is 2017. It continues to amaze me that there are people who use the “F” word and the “N” word and who still hold that kind of fear and hatred in their hearts toward people they just don’t understand. We are definitely not in a post-racist, post-misogynistic, post-homophobic (or post-anything that people hate) society and sometimes it seems impossible that we ever will be. We clearly do still have people who hate Muslims, Jews, gays, and every other possible minority group there is.
The two instances today tell me that we still need to have tables set up so people can learn something that may help them move past their fear of “other”. It tells me that we have a lot of work still to do, though I do take some comfort in all of those today who smiled or said thanks, or the PFLAG member who told me that the two instances we witnessed today were the standard twenty years ago. Little by little love, compassion, and understanding continue to change hearts and minds. Some people will hold onto their ignorance and hatred until they die, but they will die, and the younger people coming up who have more open hearts will take their places at the table. The rest of us will continue working toward a more accepting and loving world.