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When Your Best Friend Tells You He's Gay

The Education of a Straight Person

By Nathan S. Szanton

Gay people are engaged in an ongoing struggle to have their rights recognized and respected. As a straight person talking primarily to other straights. I hope to support all who are oppressed because of their sexual orientation. The focus on gay men as opposed to lesbians is only a reflection of my personal knowledge.

A year ago, no one I knew was openly gay. My contact with homosexuality until then was probably quite standard. When I was seven, my mother talked to me about people called "fairies." She warned me to watch out for them, explaining that their existence was a pity for them and a nuisance for the rest of us. From then on, the issue was absent from conversation at home, except when something about Anita Bryant came on the news. We all regarded Anita as somewhat off the wall, but not out of any deeply felt views on homosexuality. At school, the words "gay" and "fag" were used only as insults to students so awkward or unpopular that the term "wimp" would not do. Homosexuality was spotlighted only once: when the women's studies class invited a lesbian to speak and half the parents called up to complain.

These influences helped to shape my view of homosexuality. Like the rest of society, I viewed them as unnatural and disgusting. I saw homosexuality as corruption of "real" sexuality, an unfortunate element to be restricted or supressed where possible. And despite the standard jokes, deep down homosexuality made me very uncomfortable.

* * *

One morning last spring, a poster on my door said "Do you know that someone you care about is gay?" As I walked to breakfast, I ran my mind over people I cared about. Concluding positively that not one was gay. I dismissed the sign as propaganda for the coming Gay/Lesbian Awareness Day (GLAD).

That night, one of my closest friends sat me down to talk. This itself was strange, because we usually talked quite naturally on any subject. The situation became more peculiar as I watched him. I had never seen him so nervous. He couldn't stick to one topic of conversation. Finally, after a very long and pained introduction, he told me he was gay. He had known this throughout our friendship.

I did my best to seem collected, but inside I was a mass of shock and confusion. I tried to appear cool and then took the first opportunity to leave I needed time to think about this alone. As I sat on a bench and tried to relax, I began to think coherently: "This is an enormous thing; how could I not have known it?" "Why didn't he tell me before?" "How much does this affect his thoughts and actions?" "How does this mean he sees me?" "I find homosexuality repulsive; how can a close friend be homosexual?" "I know what gays are like: how can he be one?"

My friend's face suddenly came into focus. I could still see him right in front of race. I could see him quiver as he braced for me to react. There was my own friend, waiting for me to reject him. Reject... This made me think of our friendship. I remembered times we had spent together; tastes we had shared, needs we had filled for each other. And he had been gay all the while... But hadn't these times been just as good? It didn't take long to realize they had. And couldn't they be equally good in the future? Why not? The only difference now was that I knew something that had always been true.

My thoughts turned to his point of view. I grimaced, remembering times that homosexuality had come up in conversation. What an actor he had been! He had laughed at the same jokes and professed the same attitudes as I had. In groups of guys he had rated the girls along with everyone else.

I realized how alone he often must feel. Unable to be his true self, indeed conditioned to hate that true self, he has to deal constantly in pretenses. Suddenly, I wanted to talk to him.

When I went to see him that night, I knew the issue would affect me from then on. I had taken a strong first step by working through most of my feelings about his homosexuality. Yet I still felt threatened myself. Something nagged deep inside that if I thought or talked about it too much, this gayness might spread to me too, or scarier, expose something already there. But if I wanted to keep my friend, however nervous I was. I had to face such possibilities.

I am lucky that I did. Learning about this issue changed and enriched me in ways that I could not have imagined. My friend, delighted not only that we were as close as before, but that I was interested in understanding homosexuality better, introduced me to his gay friends. With this new awareness, I discovered that several high school friends were also gay and had known it all through high school. This flood of new knowledge destroyed most of my misconceptions about homosexuality. Fears and prejudices, however, took longer; dispelling them requires a courage and effort beyond simply acquiring knowledge. This whole process of education has led me to the following conclusions about homosexuality.

Hostility to homosexuality stems largely from insecurity and ignorance. Like all prejudice, ours against gays is not based on rational reasoning. I believe it stems largely from insecurity, from a deep fear that we may be or become gay ourselves. For some, great affection for a friend of the same sex may cause this worry. For others, it may be less conscious. But, social attitudes toward homosexuality magnify this worry into a horror. Some respond to it with derision or hostility to gays, hoping this will reaffirm their heterosexuality. But most simply try to crowd any thought of homosexuality out of their heads. That creates another source of hostility to gays: ignorance. Shutting homosexuality out of our world fosters the same fear and mistrust of the alien that has always led people to hate each other. Our prejudice against gay people will linger as long as they are unfamiliar. Only free interaction with them will show us that they are people just like ourselves.

Homosexuality is not contagious. Associating with gay people will not make you gay; it can only bring out homosexual tendencies if they already exist. For me, learning about homosexuality strengthened rather than confused my sexual identity. Because I underwent such an intense examination of this subject and my feelings about it. I had little doubt once I had finished. Had I been gay, such hard thinking would only have helped me understand myself. So contact with homosexuality will not change our sexual identity, only clarify it.

Homosexuality is a valid form of love. What struck me most in learning about homosexual relationship is the amazing similarity to straight ones in the feelings and emotions they involve. Without the names and pronouns, a description of a gay affair is literally indistinguishable from that of a straight one. Advice I might give to a gay man about a romance is equally applicable to a straight woman. Seeing how natural and beautiful a gay relationship can be has convinced me that it is not in any way a perversion, corruption or misuse of sexuality. It is simply an alternative. There is a capacity to love in all people, and a standard limiting sexual contact to opposite sexes is at best artificial, at worst very cruel to those who are not part of the norm that created it. Especially in the pressured and sometimes lonely atmosphere of college, any kind of real affection is valuable. We should care more that it exists than between whom.

Critics of homosexuality admit it may be as personally fulfilling as heterosexuality. But they claim it is socially undesirable because the gay lifestyle precludes the joy of the family and undermines a social structure based on the family unit. Homosexuality should thus be discouraged lest it entice any honest heterosexuals. There are two problems with this argument. First, if family life really is preferable, most people will choose it. Oppressing someone into an unwanted lifestyle because he will enjoy it more is illogical. Second, many of today's heterosexual couples decide not to have families. Although they are as guilty as gays of threatening the family lifestyle, we do not persecute them.

Homosexuality is not a phase. Many heterosexuals believe that gay people choose their sexual orientation or are simply "going through a phase." This is often used to justify discrimination, hoping it will "bring them around" to heterosexuality. It won't. All the gay people I have questioned on this knew they were gay at quite a young age and expect always to remain so. Though none can say it is biologically determined, they all regard their homosexuality as much more than a state of mind. It is an essential part of them. Clearly, persecuting them will not induce them to change, only cause them to suffer.

Gay people do not place undo emphasis on sex. Homosexuals are differentiated as a group by their sexual habits. Unfortunately, this fosters the impression that they are oversexed or sexually perverted, sado-masochists, or child molesters.

This notion is as unfounded as it is harmful. Gay people have been found statistically less likely to molest children than straight people, and no more violent or unbalanced than anyone else. Nor is sex the focus of most gays' lives. For the ones I know, it has its place among academics, extra-curricular activities and friendships. Once we identify people by their personalities and interests instead of their private lives, we will put this issue in proper perspective.

The gay stereotype is damaging. The greatest shock to my naivete about homosexuality was finding out how common it is. Studies to determine exactly how many people are gay consistently settle around 10 per cent of the population. This means there are 20 to 25 million gay Americans. The 10-per-cent figure at first seemed to me impossible because so few people. I knew fit the image I had of a gay person. I have since realized that the vast majority of gay people do not fit this image. These are the gays we do not perceive. They come from all sectors of society and have absolutely nothing in common except..their sexual preference. Only a small percentage feel comfortable enough to be open about their homosexuality. It is essential to realize how large and various a group these people are, and how many of our friends are among them. Otherwise we will not understand whom our prejudice strikes.

The religious argument against homosexuality is hypocritical. Among the thousands of rules and laws in the Old Testament is found, "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination." (Leviticus 18:22). For some, this statement is sufficient to invoke the moral authority of God against homosexuality But this is clearly a case of selective use of His word. The same book of the Bible also teaches men not to harvest the corners of their fields and not to touch a woman for eight days after she menstruates. Yet we consider these laws "outdated" and ignore them--for good reason. Rules against homosexuality and masturbation also played an important role in preserving the species. But now that we have the opposite population problem, these rules should be considered as obsolete as the others.

The issue of birth control is instructive here. Its practice is also forbidden by a literal interpretation of the Bible, yet we do not persecute those who use it. In fact, many users are the same ones who condemn homosexuality as ungodly. This selective piety is the basest hypocrisy.

Gays are oppressed. The early life of every gay is filled with taunts of "fag" and "queer." These teach him to hate what he is. They make admission of his homosexuality to himself a crushing blow. The gay with enough courage to step out of his closet is also oppressed. He is ostracized by many of his friends, often completely rejected by his friends, often completely rejected by his family, regarded as misguided or demented by the rest of society, harassed, ridiculed, and sometimes even physically attacked. Even if a gay is accepted by his family and friends, he still faces devastating social discrimination. He can legally be excluded from any kind of employment, public or private, barred by labor unions, denied housing, mortgage, credit insurance, even public accomodations. In all 50 states he is deemed unfit to teach school. In each case, he is judged as a worker, tenant or customer not by his credentials for such activities, but by how he conducts his private life.

The situation at Harvard is no better. The motion passed in CHUL this week recommending an official non-discrimination clause in University policy is an important step forward. But we still have far to go. The episode this fall in which the Gay Students Association was denied access to student registration packets dramatized the reality of institutional discrimination.

The administration is not the only problem. Students customarily deface and rip down posters for gay and lesbian events. Last spring they hurled taunts, insults and even food at other students announcing glad Day in the dining halls. One student was even attacked--for no other reason than his homosexuality--while cleaning up after a gay/lesbian dance last April. In a community as educated as ours is, this kind of abuse is hard to understand. For a leading university in the United States and in the world, it is unacceptable. It is time for straight people to realize that we must change. It is we who cause the suffering of gay people. Our attitudes cause guilt, shame, and loneliness, and our actions cause fear and alienation. As the majority, we can change the situation. Publicly, we must support gay rights. Privately, we must realize that we know gay people. Revising our attitudes, even in such small ways as how we refer to gays, will make them feel better about themselves and about us. As such change occurs, not only will the gay people in our midst become unburdened, but the rest of us will freely enjoy the energy and talents of a tremendous group of people.

Nathan S. Szanton '83 lives in South House.

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