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.)