It was bound to happen eventually. But I thought the irony was rich- and so was the timing.
I was giving a presentation entitled “Guilt, Confusion, Reality” at the Montana LGBT Summit in Bozeman over the weekend, explaining the experience of people in my care, the experience of people I know well, and drawing heavily from my own life. I spoke of the effects of shame and internalized shame on LGBT persons which come at us directly and indirectly from people, structures and institutions in our world. Barely beginning to warm up to my topic, a person near the back of the room spoke up, loudly saying, “Why are you lying?”
I admit, I was flummoxed. In the space of four seconds, several things happened.
Thought one: “Who are you, and what rock do you live under?”
Thought two: “This is probably the most significantly rude thing to ever happen to me.”
Thought three: “I think he really believes what he’s saying”
Thought four: “How do I keep this civil?”
Thought five: “Don’t mention Joe Wilson, or Serena Williams, or Town Hall meetings.”
Thought six: “Be kind, Greg. Be kind.”
Fortunately, I have given some thought to being disagreed with. I knew there were going to be people at the Summit who have taken issue with me for one reason or another in the past- and some without any reason that I can determine. I had prepared myself with a response, I just figured it would come at the end of my presentation during question-and-answer time. In that vein, I asked him if I could finish before he criticized me- to let him hear all the information I had to present before he made a judgment.
No such luck.
” No I won’t let you finish”,he said, “not as long as you continue to lie.” I remember that clearly. I took a breath and let him continue. The dissenter basically said (I don’t remember that as clearly) that kids today don’t have that shame, they have no reason to be afraid, and that he works with kids and tells them the only thing they have to fear is staying hidden. It’s different now.
The room was clearly shocked and nervous. I heard a few people talking to their neighbors. I saw friends and strangers looking at me, waiting for my response.
I made an effort to be respectful and honest. “Maybe you see it differently and that’s fine. I guess I understand how you could see it that way, but that’s not my experience.”
I could have said a lot of things, but that’s what came out. I could have quoted statistics that I know, like LGBT teens are four times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. That 26 percent of LGBT youth become homeless after coming out to their families. I could have shared stories of unnecessary pain and suffering, very recent and from students in Montana schools. I could have shared stories of violence related to me by friends and the media. I could have shared my own stories of discrimination and violence. I could have used the very near example of Matthew Shephard, or Lawrence King, or Angie Zapata. I could have come down hard.
Part of the reason was personal. I don’t believe that anger and hatred should be met with anger and hatred. That just escalates the conflict. I also feel that I need to respect someone who disagrees with me, at least in some way, because they are probably threatened and scared and in a place familiar to me if I take the time to look. I also know that I don’t want to be a person who becomes ugly and defensive in the face of another’s opinion- nothing saps credibility faster, and I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the material that I present in public, I believe in what I say, and I want to give the audience an opportunity to honestly consider my views.
The other part was that my presentation was about confusion in the LGBT community. I said we confuse sex and intimacy; tolerance and success; safety and secrecy; youth and vitality; chronic illness and health; intoxication and happiness; abuse and affection. We have few role models or examples to teach us about these things, and we’ve learned not to trust the world’s wisdom with our health, safety and well-being. We need people with experience and knowledge to help move beyond these confusions.
To conclude, I had asked over 100 Montanans to answer a couple of questions: “What is your perception of the LGBT community in Montana?” and, “What do we need?” The answers were varied, but mostly critical. They included the perceptions that “there is no community here”; that we are “cliquish”; we drink too much; “People in Montana have guns-I can’t be myself”; my friends are wonderful;”we don’t take care of each other, just our friends”; we’re competitive and mean to each other; we don’t respect the coming out process; “we are not all white with perfect bodies”; “we don’t look at the full spectrum of masculinity and femininity and accept it.” And probably most telling, “I’m more afraid of my LGBT peers than the rest of society- they can hurt me more.”
I had hope that these words from real people would help everyone, including the vocal dissenter, see others reality and respect it, after all, these were not my words, they belonged to our peers- and many of the ideas were repeated over and over, mostly involving safety and the need for a unified community spirit.
I was finally able to continue, although I admit, I wasn’t as calm and collected as I would have liked.
I concluded with the statement, “Our job is to steadily conquer fear by gently and firmly speaking the truth, both to ourselves and to the world- the truth of who we really are.”
And in the end, I have become grateful for my dissenter. I believe that angry, rude voice made my point more eloquently than I ever could have.