Monday, January 21, 2008

The company we keep


I was reading a post over at Java's blog and got to thinking about how we choose and are chosen by the people we call our friends. An acquaintance once remarked to me that she wished she had more gay friends. I was surprised because I just kind of assumed that any open-minded person would have a percentage of gay friends that reflected, at least, the percentage in the population around them. I'd assumed this because I've always had a lot of gay and lesbian friends. But as I thought about it more, I realized that, for me at least, there's more active choosing than I'd realized. For example:
1. When I was five my best friend was a boy named Kieth (I called him Keithy) who loved to go out in the field near our house and pick flowers with me. Hmmm.....
2. When I was a sweet young college drop out, leaving behind the frigid wasteland of the Ivy Leagues (and the weather sucked too!) I moved to San Francisco. I wandered over to the nearest commercial district, which was Castro Street. I had no idea that Castro Street was a gay mecca, but I knew it felt comfortable to me, so I got a job at Cliff's Variety store and proceeded to learn all about "screws" and "nuts."
3. When my relationship with The Lying Cheating Scumbag ended I found comfort in the metaphorical embrace of a large group of gay men, and was inducted officially into the order of the "hag." (There's a secret initiation rite and it's kind of like the Mormons, but the underpants are less magic and more fabulous. I can't say more because I'm sworn to secrecy!)

So the question is, why? Why was little Keithy my best friend? Why did Castro Street feel like home? Why did my broken heart lead me straight to hagdom? I think the answer, for me at least, is that I've always been an outsider. I grew up largely in Asia, where I was often the only white person for miles. I was stared at of course. But people would also walk up to me and finger my curly brown hair, stroke my pale skin. Hi, my name's Elizabeth and I'll be your sideshow freak today! It bothered me some, but it was just also part of my life.

It was actually much harder when I moved to the U.S. and looked like everyone else, but wasn't actually like them. All my cultural references were different; I hadn't grown up watching TV for instance, and missed a lot of the shorthand references kids used. (Always the eager student, I studied hard, though, and caught up quickly!) As kids do, I worked hard at trying to fit in and be like the kids around me, and I ended up doing a passable imitation of a "regular" American kid. But I wasn't really. Because I knew what it was like to wander around the dirt roads of Laos and Cambodia, to be the only white kid in a tiny village where the houses were on stilts and the pigs slept under the house. I knew what it was like to play in the dirt with kids whose only toys were sticks and stones and farm animals. I hid it, but it was always there.

So I think that when I met my first openly gay man,* it was like a brisk and sweet-scented wind blowing away all those layers covering my own difference. If they could "say it loud, say it proud" then so could I. I see now that I gravitated to people who had felt within them some deep difference growing up and had learned to embrace it, so that I could learn to embrace mine. I still do.

(*Footnote for Sageweb: I did hang out at SF dyke bars too, and admire the Dykes on Bikes. But I'm such a femme that I felt more naturally at home with my boys, picking flowers and trading fashion tips.)

34 comments:

The Scott Blog said...

There's something to be said about the relationship between gay men and women. There's a protection that both factions feel for one another, a level of nurturing mixed with a much needed sense of pride in who you (and they) are. Gay men love Streisand, Midler, Minelli all for one core reason, they're outsiders who don't care that their outsiders. No matter what, they will shine, with no shame. That vibe has thankfully worked it's way into the core of the gay community, and hopefully is seeping into the women of all stripes in America. Hopefully that vibe is smacking every woman in the face saying, "Wake up, you're fantastic, own it!"

Thanks for the kinds word on my site, I appreciate that. :-)

sageweb said...

I love having a footnote..I am almost famous.
So I am actually right there with you. I have a lot of gay men friends. They are my comfy guys to be around. I am not as fancy as they are but I love them all for who they are able to be. I am a middle of the line girl..My best friend is a butch, I look like a raving lipstick lesbian next to her. I also love her for who she is able to be. Most of her friends are straight men, I identify much easier with straight women. I am in no way fem and in no way butch..in the middle...that is what I like.

I wish more people could be like you where it isnt a big thing to have gays as friends... I was once invited to a straight party as a token lesbian...I thought it was funny at the time, then later I was sorta bummed.

SubtleKnife said...

I am immensely grateful that K is gay, because he is my soulmate, my twin brother (who was born two years before me, but don't tell him I told you that). We are very different in many ways, but we seem to agree on just about everything - and when we don't, it doesn't matter.

It has been suggested that I'm in love with him, and that we act like a married couple when we're around each other. And yes! I have to admit I love him very deeply. But my mind won't let me fall in love with him.

But even in general, I just get along SO much better with gay men. Thinking back, I used to be a tom boy, I never really got along with girls my age... Does that have any significance?

yellowdog granny said...

for some reason I was born with a strong 'give a shit' gene...I didn't care if sone one was black, brown, gay,ugly, fat,or what ever..as long as you were my friend and i was your friend...all that other stuff wasn't important..judging people because they might be different always seemed like a shitty job...so I just didn't care..now stupid people..that's an intirely different subject...

more cowbell said...

"It was actually much harder when I moved to the U.S. and looked like everyone else, but wasn't actually like them."
I liked that line a lot.

It's interesting, who we feel comfortable with, and where that comes from. Nice post.

Elizabeth said...

Scott: Yes. The safety and nurturing is a huge part of the relationship for me. When I was an actively working fag hag, my friends and I were very much refuges for each other. And I do think that the crossover success of, say Bette Midler or the others, as well as Queer Eye, Ellen, and Rosie, etc., is moving us toward that "No shame" effect. And at least there are open, successful gays and lesbians in the media for kids to see as they grow up.

Sageweb: Honestly, I'm more of a middle of the road girl myself. Having grown up with brothers, I'm pretty scrappy and fearless, and I'm handier around the house than my husband. But I do remember being at that bar when a platoon of motorcycle ridin' wymyn walked in and feeling like such a piddling little girlie girl. I had to run back to the Castro to feel like my rough-and-tumble self again! Loving people for who they're able to be, and helping them toward that, while they help you... that's the whole thing, isn't it?

So, at the party, how did they introduce you? This is Sageweb, my LESBIAN friend! See how cool I am? I have a LESBIAN friend!!!! It pretty much sucks to be a token anything, doesn't it?

Subtle knife: I think love, like everything else, is a continuum, really. I've had friends I loved with deep emotional passion similar to romantic love. And I've been in a relationship with the same man for 25 years, and that one "love" encompasses every kind of love (and a healthy dose of annoyance!) there is. Love, in any form it comes to you in, is a blessing.

Granny: "judging people because they might be different always seemed like a shitty job..." Amen to that, sister! I wish more people thought that way!!1

Java said...

Great post, Elizabeth. I struggled as a young teen with feeling so different. When I was 17 I quit struggling and started celebrating. It felt so much better! I relate to what Granny said, I can accept lots of various kinds of people, but stupid ones (who have no excuse for their stupidity) are very hard to deal with.
I'm actually a lot more comfortable in the company of men. (most men. Scumbags are an exception) There are few women I can really relate to as friends. And most of them are fairly butch!

thombeau said...

What a wonderful post!

XOXOXOXOX

~T~

Elizabeth said...

cowbell: It is interesting, because I think initially we all sort of assume that our choices are the "normal" and common ones, but really, there's no such thing. Each of us makes choices that are as individual as our backgrounds.

Java: Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for getting me thinking in the first place. I wouldn't be a teenager again for all the gold in Fort Knox (do they even keep gold in Fort Knox anymore?).

Thom: Thanks dear. xoxo back atcha.

pat said...

I once had a girlfriend who was baffled as to how she, an Ivy League New York academic, could have got involved with me, a Texan slacker boy who still believed in the Soul. After a while, she started to explain this by saying, "Ehh, you fall in love with who you fall in love with." I thought that was an astute observation. (Then she left me for a woman.)
I think the same can be said for the people we choose as our friends. It's not always purely logical, but what are you gonna do, hang out with people just like you?

Elizabeth said...

From way over here, across time and the cyber-ether, I'd much rather hang out with a nice Texan slacker who believes in the Soul than an academic who implies that she's possibly too good for said slacker. And if my Ivy-league academic husband ever so much as hinted at such a thing, I'd whoop his ass with my granddaddy's large stash of useless Confederate war bonds, my good-ol-boy cousin's NASCAR beer mugs, and my TV remote! (I have a touch of the Southern Slacker gene myself.)

Anyway, I agree. Ultimately what cements us to one another is a mystery. But I do think the things that draw us over and over again in certain directions are worth examining. And hanging out with a roomful of me? Eeek!

jason said...

"but the underpants are less magic and more fabulous. "

lol

Wonderful post, Elizabeth! Thank you.

Elizabeth said...

Jason: My pleasure sweetie.

Boy About Town LB said...

Elizabeth!
This was the best way to wake up! I just got outta bed, got some smart start in a bowl, and then sat down and read your blog!! I was always the "keithy" in the story. When I went out to BadLands in the Castro I also had my "Hag" on my arm like some kinda big, tacky handbag! All my life choices were made with my Hag in mind. And when the boyfriends left, the parents did not send money or the day was just crap in general that "Hag" was always there! Does not matter what you call them..Hags, Fruit Fly's, Fairy Queens the point is We Gays Need Them! On behalf of all the fabulous faggy men in the world thanks to you Elizabeth and all the Hags!

Elizabeth said...

Boy: You, me, and a bowl of Smart Start! Sounds like a lovely morning. When you're done, let's go pick flowers together!

I was always the smaller, tasteful model of handbag, kind of like a little black Chanel evening clutch. After all, a good hag never outshines her boy. xoxo

SubtleKnife said...

And when the boyfriends left, the parents did not send money or the day was just crap in general that "Hag" was always there!

My best friend's boyfriend is still not convinced that hag trumps bf. Poor kid.

Doralong said...

Boy about Town, that's "Estrogen Accessory", thank you very much.. Well, sounds like we had a very similar life once we dropped out Miss Elizabeth. Sometime we'll get a bottle of wine or two and you tell me your SF stories and I'll tell you my NYC tales.

sageweb said...

Ha how did they introduce me? THey would just say my name but I heard the whispers to her single men friends....But BOY introduces me as Sageweb the lesbian...when you wrote that it cracked me up. He even uses my blogger name. He wonders why he will never meet my parents.

SubtleKnife said...

Alternative lifestyle companion, please.

As for swapping stories, I've already blogged about my experiences standing in line for the STD clinic, in plain view of passers-by, what else is there?

Red7Eric said...

Elizabeth: Have you read a book called Third Culture Kids by David Pollock and (my friend) Ruth Van Reken? It's all about the cultural imprints that an international upbringing leaves on you. I think you'd find it fascinating. I'm a TCK, and a big 'mo -- no wonder we like each other.

Elizabeth said...

Doralong: Oooh, estrogen accessory! I like that. A bottle of wine and a looong night to get all those stories out. It would be a hoot!

Sageweb: re the party behind-the-back whispering, how rude!!! I can see why you hang out with Boy. I'd much rather people say things right to me.

S.knife: STD clinic? I'll have to go back and check out that post.

Red: I haven't read it, but it sounds perfect for me. I'll order it from the library tonight! Thanks.

Auld Hat said...

Ah, the order of the Hag. (begins sequence of secret handshakes) Hagshakes?

Elizabeth said...

Hat: Hagshakes sounds slightly unsavory, but I'm too slow witted today to think of anything better. I do recall it being more a series of air kisses and outfit compliments. But that was with the boys too....

SubtleKnife said...

Here you go
Part 1
Part 2

I never finished it, but there wasn't much more to tell. I just sat in the waiting room... He went inside without me, then we had to wait some more, he went back in and got a shot in the ass and that was it.

And here is my eight levels of fag-haggery post. It seems we have quite a collection of hags here, maybe we should work on it together... Suggestions anyone?

SubtleKnife said...

Fags may also comment, of course. ;)

Tater said...

Elizabeth,
I keep passing you in the hallway of bloggerdom, and thought it was time for me to stop in and say hello. Excellent post. The feeling of otherness you so richly describe fits me like a well worn shirt, and was always a source of both pain and pride. You have a rich history, one I could almost envy if I wasn't so busy with my own. Love your writing. I'll drop in more often to listen to what you have to tell.

Elizabeth said...

Tater, thanks for dropping by! I'll look forward to having you around.

Jef said...

Looking back, I should have realized my best friend was gay. But it never occurred to me that anyone I knew could be gay; all the homosexuals were in San Francisco, riding on floats in gay pride parades with fruit on their head. When my friend showed me "his sister's" copy of Playgirl, I flipped through and saw pretty much what I expected. I thought to myself, what an open-minded individual my friend. I must strive to be more like him. In the end, I guess I did because I came out about a year after he did. I wish he was still here with me.

mumbliss said...

I have had my estrogen ornament times, many in high school because I was the chaperone for my good friend. I didn't want to know too much though. I was squeamish about the details. Also, in my more manic phases, I was a toy myself so it was fun and safe. More often, I found myself with the serious and sincere lesbians. (YIKES, I NEED AIR!) I am more comfortable with the femmes. I do have to stretch a little to embrace the dykey testosterone element, because I have a testosterone love/hate loose wire. Be that as it is. I remember an uncomfortable experience at a party for one of my wonderful creative amazing friends and realized with creeping discomfort that of 50 or so people, that I was the only straight person there. I was not at ease. I was uncomfortable and self-conscious and felt like an outsider. I had to struggle to not hide in my wallflower suit. This happened again when I went to a party at the house of an indian friend and was the only white person. I felt a similar disassociation when I moved to suburbia too, although turning 50 has eased things some. I am what I am.... sort of. I know that I won't be a real grown-up, that I will never have a proper schedule, and that now that the children are almost all out of the house, that the mess is probably mine, and that I may not read all the books about raising healthy, happy, well-adjusted babies, children, sons, and daughters. I will save all the books for my grandchilren so that they can raise healthy, happy children....now, for a box.
As you know, we share time in the same boat, mixed waters, mixed cultures, mixed media, rules, and secret differences. I am going to look for the book on third culture kids too. thank you e-beth. love to all in your nest

Elizabeth said...

mumbliss: one of the odd things I've realized about myself over the years is that I actually don't notice when I'm the only white/female/straight/liberal/whatever in the room. Maybe because I'm so used to it.... It's not because I'm especially wonderful, it's more that I'm kind of oblivious (remember me in high school and college? Dreamy, flakey, sweetly in need of a clue or three?). I once went to a party with a black friend and, after about an hour, I noticed I was the only white person there. So I ran over to him excitedly,and said, "Hey Terry! Guess what, I'm the only white person here!" He retorted bitterly, "Now you know how I feel." I was taken aback and said, "But Terry, this is how I always feel. That's why it took me so long to notice...."

maybe it's just me, or maybe it's a third-culture kid thing. Who knows? But I do think that "third culture" is a term that should include anyone, whatever their background, who feels a great difference (whether hidden because you're gay, or obvious because you're a person of color) from the larger culture.

mumbliss said...

Sometimes, I still suffer from the bent Super-reactive tentacles of a child who needs to know the shape and texture of their social environment, desperate for a safe handhold. I am happy to report, that it is much better now that I am mostly a mother, profoundly clueless, annoyingly forgetful, less dependent and much less interested in being perfect. It is a good side-effect of what seems a disappointing fall from great ambitions. I am also entrenched/stubborn in my right to do it my own way. This is quite helpful as well.
I am what I am, and you all are what you are. I am much better at starting there. We'll see how it goes from here. I hope you feel better and your virus expires. We all need you to be well. I do hope you can enjoy your sick break though. Love to each of your chickadees.

Elizabeth said...

Oh dear one, I wish you could come over for tea. I'll email you privately. Love, love, love

D-Man said...

Oh Elizabeth, if I were straight I'd ask you to marry me.

"...frigid wasteland of the Ivy Leagues (and the weather sucked too!)" - heheh

And the 'screws&nuts' comment made me spit out my drink, dear.

And I think you are selling yourself a bit short. If only empathy were enough to describe your accepting attitude. You're just a good egg, sweetie. Plain and simple.

Elizabeth said...

d-man: And if I weren't married and you weren't married and gay and living in Idaho.... Well, anyway, thanks, and I'm glad I made you laugh!