Monday, July 27, 2009

This is how heterosexism works

We had not seen each other in 30 years. Several years ago she had located me via the University of Florida alumni directory and emailed me. We’ve been in regular contact for the last six or seven years. Recently she said she was coming to Florida to visit her ailing Dad in the next county over.

This was the same county where we had attended community college together and run all over G-d’s little acre in rumbling junker cars and discovered booze and written poems protesting Vietnam, taping them to the local veterans memorial. Our friendship had continued at the University of Florida where we went dancing on Oldie Goldie (and Nickel Beer!) Night at the old Rathskellar on campus which burned down years ago. It was out of her car that a fraternity brother and I had emerged in a haze of intoxication to strip off our clothes in the headlights and streak the three miles across the University of Florida campus (pursued by campus cops the last half mile) in 1975. When she called and invited us to dinner, Andy and I gladly drove the hour over to the next county to meet our old friend and catch up on 30 years of life.

We had lots to talk about when we got together for dinner. She had driven down to Florida with a friend from home and invited another old friend of ours who had remained in the area and came with her husband and daughter. Over passable food preparatory theater at the local Japanese steakhouse we recounted our stories of fraternity parties, of surviving frigid nights at football games, of moving from place to place as undergraduate students are prone to do. We laughed a lot and we paused in silent moments of loss when we remembered parents, teachers and friends who had died.

After dinner we returned to the house where my friend was staying. In that sort of awkward period between the last funny story and the goodbyes, somehow the question rose of how she had met her husband. A long, poignant story ensued complete with photos. It was followed in turn by the story of how our local friend had met her husband. (They had met in church, no less).

A long silence followed, a silence in which no one dared mention the elephant in the room. Andy and I have been together 34 years now. My friend had met Andy about the same time I met him. Our relationship was longer than either of the two histories we had just heard recounted. But no one asked to hear our story. No one even looked at us. There was just…dead…silence. And then the goodbyes.

This is how heterosexism works. It is the presumption that heterosexual relationships are normative for everyone, whether they are heterosexual or not. It is a way of constructing human relationships so that heterosexual relationships are considered real – complete with socially constructed legal benefits – and all other relationships are considered invalid at best, impossible at worst, and inevitably rendered invisible, but not worth talking about either way.

I do not think either of my friends intended to hurt our feelings. If I were giving them the benefit of the doubt I might surmise that perhaps they did not know better. One of the pernicious aspects of heterosexism is its ability to exercise hegemony on the public imagination. Moreover, long time affiliation with the Southern Baptist Church tends to insulate one from a lot of reality while teaching attitudes of judgmental parochialism.

But, even if I give it the best spin and choose to believe it was unintentional, at a very basic level, it still hurt. It hurt to have to remain silent or risk ruining an otherwise tolerable evening with confrontation. It hurt to be forced to be invisible again, a silent reminder of many years spent in fearful closets. It hurt not to be treated as the equals we are and to be unable to recount the joys of the relationship we share.

My friend is not a homophobe and I doubt she’d vote in favor of amendments to strip people like Andy and me of the same rights that she already enjoys as a married woman and first class citizen. But the silent tiptoeing around the elephant in the room that night is a reminder of how far we have to go as a people and a culture before we can say with any integrity that we are a people who believe that all human beings are created equal, that all human faces bear the image of G-d worthy of respect and dignity.

I suspect that will not come in my lifetime. But I pray that one day the third couple in the room, couples like Harry and Andy, will be able to tell their story and show their photos in that awkward period between the last laugh and the goodbyes. More importantly, I pray that the other two couples will be conscious and considerate enough to invite them to share it.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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