Nov 29, 2014

Fall 2005: Gay People Absolutely Do Not Exist

Heterosexual Soldier
In the spring of 2005, after twenty years in the gay neighborhoods of California, New York, and Florida, the only academic job I could find was in Dayton, Ohio, an hour's drive from the nearest gay neighborhood.  Too far to come home to every night.

So, for the first time in twenty years, the first time in my adult life, I would be living and working, buying groceries and going to the gym, finding friends and lovers, falling asleep every night and waking up every morning in the Straight World.

My friends advised me to stay home, find another temporary position at a college in Florida, or give up academe altogether.  I had forgotten what the Straight World was like, they said.  The heterosexuals who lived among us had learned to be civil, so they merely asked “Are you the boy or the girl?” instead of screaming “Got AIDS yet?”  But in the factory towns and farming villages of the Straight World, they were all screamers.

I would be spat on, called names, harassed by the police, refused medical care, kicked out of my apartment. My car’s tires would be slashed. Rocks would be hurled through my kitchen window.  One day I would be murdered, no doubt about it, and my assassin would get the lightest possible sentence, as the judge declared, “It’s a pity that ridding the world of an abomination must be punished at all.” Why did we all flee from our birth towns in the first place?  To stay alive.

Heterosexual Bear
I thought my friends were exaggerating.  An entire generation had grown up since Stonewall.  Surely some heterosexuals were gay-friendly, even in the Straight World, and most of the rest were simply polite bigots, keeping their hatred well concealed.  Surely screamers were rare, even in the Straight World, and actual murders rarer still, occurring only when a preacher incited bloodlust with a cry of “God wills it!”

Besides, the Straight World could not possibly be empty of gay people.  Not everyone moved to a gay neighborhood.  10% of the population would never fit.  Not even 5%.  For every gay person who fled to gay neighborhoods, there must be a dozen who stayed home, and now flew rainbow flags from their porches, strolled down the street hand-in-hand with their partners, created spaces of freedom in spite of the screams.

So I loaded my car with suitcases and books and left the Gay World for the first time in my adult life, to go into exile in western Ohio.

After checking into my hotel, I made my way up the hill to the campus, to a flat brick building with a cornerstone stating that it was constructed in 1969, the year of Stonewall.  A good sign, I thought. Maybe the Straight World wasn’t so dark and savage after all.  

When I arrived at my new office, its former occupant, a fat, sweating political scientist named Dr. Dean, was busily clearing out so I could move in.  We chatted while he knelt on the floor, taping up the last of his boxes.  He asked how I liked Ohio.  I liked it fine so far, I said.  Then, preoccupied with masking tape, not looking up, he asked: “Did your wife come with you?”

Heterosexual Captain Crunch
My wife?  Gay men had partners, spouses, lovers, never wives. Why would Dr. Dean think that I was heterosexual?  I hadn’t mentioned a woman.  I hadn’t kissed a woman in his presence.  I wasn’t wearing a wedding ring.  But Dr. Dean showed no sign of looking for evidence.  He asked  by rote, with utter nonchalance, as if “Did your wife come with you?” was small talk, the precise equivalent of “How do you like Ohio?"

 I had quick, witty, withering responses prepared for the polite bigot who asked “Why are gay men so obsessed with fashion?” and for the screamer who ranted “Why do you molest little boys?”, but I had no response prepared for this nonchalance, this blithe confidence that every man has a wife, and presumably every woman a husband, that heterosexual experience is undoubtedly universal human experience.

“Uh. . .I’m not. . .I don’t. . . .”  I stammered.

Dr. Dean looked up, frowning, surprised at my hesitation.  “Or haven’t you met the right woman yet?” he offered in a kindly tone.

Finally collecting my wits, I said, “There is no right woman. I am not interested in women. I haven’t been on a date with a girl since high school.”

He stared, mouth gaping, utterly taken aback.  Was he so surprised to discover that gay people existed?  "Don’t give up,” he said after a long moment.  He returned in embarrassment to the box that he was taping. “Everyone has a soulmate somewhere.  I didn’t get married until I was thirty-six.”

Now it was my turn to stare.  Dr. Dean was not shocked about meeting a gay person  – he still thought I was heterosexual.  Saying I was not interested in women did not tell him that I was interested in men, but that I had given up on finding the “right” woman!  Saying that I hadn’t dated a girl since high school did not tell him that I dated boys, but that I never dated at all!

I stood upright and turned back toward the bright wood-framed hall where the doorways of heterosexual professors were marked with office hours from semesters past and yellowing Dilbert comics.  I wanted to scream “I exist!”  I wanted to drag Dr. Dean up by his shirt collar and force him to wake up from his smug heterosexual fantasy.  But instead I asked: “Is there a soda machine nearby?”  My first encounter with a resident of the Straight World ended in ignominious defeat.

Heterosexual Supermarket
Dr. Dean was not unique. During my first weeks in Ohio, I heard about “my wife” and “my girlfriend” constantly.  The assistant manager who signed me up for a membership at the Better Bodies Fitness Center said that she could work out with me for free.

A parishioner at Unitarian Church mentioned the Women’s Breakfast she might be interested in.

The clerk who gave me a Super Value Discount Card at Kroger's Supermarket offered me a second card to take home for her.

The DMV employee who issued my new driver’s license asked how she liked Ohio.

One professor who asked about my wife ironically had a “LGBT Safe Space” sticker affixed to her office door.

Colleagues, student assistants, new neighbors, church parishioners, and random strangers always asked about my wife within a sentence or two of “Hello.”  It was simply how one made conversation in the Straight World,

18 Heterosexuals
No one in the Straight World ever asked, “How does your partner like it here?”  No assistant manager who signed me up for a gym membership told me that “my girlfriend or boyfriend” could work out for free, no church parishioner mentioned the clubs “my significant other” might be interested in, and no grocery store clerk gave me a second Super Value Discount Card for my “spouse.”

Regardless of whether they were young or old, uneducated or educated, screamer or polite bigot or gay-friendly, they were absolutely certain, without the slightest doubt, that gay people did not exist.

See also: Straight Guys Never Figure It Out