(By Kailyn Allen)
I love people. Contrary to what I teach my young children, I always talk to strangers. I’ve learned about other countries, social movements, community groups, and personal experiences that I wouldn’t have known existed, simply by striking up conversations in waiting rooms, playgrounds, and shop isles.
It’s surprisingly easy to do, just find something you like about a stranger and say so. It should be a genuine, and not creepy, observation about something related to the person, but NOT about the person themself.
For example: “I LOVE your style.” –Yes. “I love your muffin tops!” –NO.
(Notice people’s attempts to express themselves rather than their physical traits.)
If people know you are approaching them with a spirit of approval they rarely reject your friendly advances. Even when they do, the sting of rejection from a total stranger is fairly mild.Most of the time this is a harmless, if not enriching experience. Every once in a while, however, talking to strangers doesn’t go well for me.
It’s our natural instinct to assume that if we like one thing about someone they must agree with us on all counts. I have a neighbor, who I adore, who brings over the occasional plate of cookies, for my kids. She’s seen my equal sign. She’s seen my rainbow wind chime, and before I was single, she had even met a girlfriend or two. She still treated me kindly so I assumed she was “cool”.
Until she put up a giant “Vote Yes! Marriage = a man and a woman” sign in her front yard, for me to see every morning as I walked my children to school.
Sometimes I find myself in far worse situations than that. I present as a rather “straight looking” person, apparently; because I can’t tell you how many people in my life have said horribly homophobic, sometimes even violently hateful, comments about lgbts, to me, with the assumption that we shared the sentiments.
Awkward to say the least.
Whenever that happens I get this sinking feeling that I accidentally wandered into a clan meeting, thinking it was a knitting circle. It’s really confusing and I usually walk away wondering “Did someone slap a “ Straight Close-Minded Bigot” sign to my back without my noticing?”
Sometimes I feel like a sheep in wolves’ clothing.
People who judge and hate often assume I do too. People who are gay often assume I’m not, and by extension, that I’m not ‘safe’.
Don’t ever assume that because an lgbt person is “passable” that they have it easy.
I may look like one of the “wolves”; but that doesn’t mean I’m not afraid of getting eaten alive. I’ve gotten a lot of verbal rape threats this way. It’s, at times, actually quite terrifying. Maybe I should stop talking to strangers.
But I’m not going to.
One of the most frequently forgotten rules of the universe is this:
Your greatest weakness is merely your greatest strength,
waiting to be recognized.
It feels like a huge vulnerability to pass as straight, when you aren’t trying to pass as straight. It gets you admission into places you don’t necessarily want to be, and often without realizing it until it’s too late.
Now let’s talk about herpes.
We all know that ideas spread like viruses these days. It’s neither good or bad, it’s just the way it is. Recent studies, (specifically on herpes simplex 1), have shown that one of the key factors in a virus successfully reproducing, is that it imitates signals of it’s target hosts. In other words, it avoids setting off alarms and being ambushed by guards because it learns the local language and acts like it’s just “one of the guys”.
Then it takes over.
I’m not suggesting that any of us ‘infiltrate the enemy’ and ‘take over’; but maybe the method is worth considering. It works on a cellular level, and I’ve seen it work with humans too.
I’ve had friends and relatives who have taken years to stop saying things like “I mean, YOU’RE cool, but I just believe gay marriage is wrong.” And start saying things like “I can’t believe people can be so ignorant.” About someone who says the same crap they used to say.
I’m also DEFINITELY NOT suggesting, even a little bit, that if you aren’t one of these “passable for straight/cissgendered persons” that you should be. You just have a different (equally important) set of vulnerabilities and strengths to use.
I used to hate being seen as a straight ignorant bigot. For a while I tried keeping my hair short and wearing lots of flannel, but that doesn’t fit any better than a glam gown on a stone butchie. We have to be ourselves.
Now I see what I once thought of as a huge inconvenient weakness, as a powerful tool for helping people cross a barrier of misconception…if they want to.
The thing we need to remember is that neither the ‘wolves’, nor the ‘sheep’, are the enemy. It’s the idea that we’re so different, that one of us is ‘less than’ or one of us is ‘dangerous’. It’s not the person, it’s the wrong thinking that needs to be attacked.
To be clear, I’m not talking about trying to convert true haters. I’m talking about being true to yourself and (when it’s safe) being honest about what you know.
More often than not, people truly don’t realize they are acting like a hatemonger. They frequently assume they’re simply reflecting the general consensus and avoiding judgment themselves. I have seen far more people make remarks out of the basic elementary need to ‘fit in’, or common limited exposure to different types of people, more often than out of genuine deep rooted hatred.
Instead of just running away from the ignorant, hear them, and respond with respect and dignity. It might sound like this:
“I love your shirt.”
“It’s my favorite band.”
“I like them too!”
“…although I heard the drummer is gay.”
“I don’t think it matters.”
You have to be yourself, but, if that means you blend in with people who may have dismissed or avoided you if they’d pegged you as lgbt, you don’t have to be quiet.
It’s not evangelism to just be who you are.
To sum up, I hope you talk to strangers, focus on your weaknesses, and imitate herpes. These small steps can help create a better world for all of us.
(Further reading on herpes simplex 1: