Impromptu Activism

I tend to take taxicabs if it is bitterly cold, late at night, or my destination is some distance away. And I will chat with the driver if he seems open to it—that is, not talking continuously on his cell phone. One day, I was chatting with the driver, and he asked if I was married. I could have given the short answer, and let it go, but I ventured, “I can’t get married. Gays can’t marry in Illinois. We can only get married in Massachusetts.”No pause at all. “What makes people gay?” the driver asked. It was as if it were a question he had wondered about before. “Is it genetic, or do you choose it, or what?” he continued.

Now, I have a kind of complicated phenomenological explanation, but no time to try to explain that, so I said, “No one knows for sure what makes some of us gay. Many of us would like to know that ourselves. Certainly, none of us chooses to be gay. It is just something we discover about ourselves. But it seems to involve a combination of genetic and constitutional factors, and individual personality development.” It would have to do.

But this led into questions from the driver about how I lived my life, how did I meet men, did I have a partner, do my friends know I’m gay, was I happy with the life, and so forth. The questions poured forth until we reached my destination.

Thinking about it later, I realized that I was engaging in a bit of impromptu gay activism. Here was a man who seemed genuinely interested, so it was worthwhile trying to answer his questions. I may have been the first openly gay person of whom he could ask these questions. I firmly believe that the most effective activism is individual, person-to-person encounters like this.

You can’t plan these sudden opportunities, but you can prepare for them by deciding to give the information in passing that you are gay, and deciding to be totally honest. It also helps to have an idea about answers you might give to some of the obvious questions. Like everything else, this requires a certain amount of tact and prudence—don’t press information on people who seem hostile, etc. The idea is to make a connection and a favorable impression.

And you can look for opportunities to mention being gay. A driver once asked what I did for a living. I could have said, “I’m a writer,” and left it at that. But I ventured ahead, “I write for the local gay
newspaper.” That led to a few questions about gays.

If the driver criticizes President George W. Bush, regardless of your personal politics, you certainly can say, “He sure doesn’t seem to like gay people like me very much. He doesn’t want us to be able to get married.”
Nor need this tactic be limited to cabdrivers. Waiting in a group for a bus, one youth—girlfriend in hand—commented, “Nice shirt.” Because I was bigger than he was (a factor to consider with regard to safety), I answered, “Thanks. My lover, he gave it to me”—pointedly slipping in the gender identifier. “Oh, ‘he,’ huh?” the young man replied.

A friend summoned for standby jury duty told me he left blank the questions about marital status, and said he was prepared to point out to the judge or questioning attorney that he found the question offensive, because he was not allowed to get married. Good for him. Would that more people made an issue of the constant “heterosexual assumption.”

But sometimes, these conversations can take an odd turn. A correspondent wrote recently that when he mentioned gays to his cabdriver, the driver replied, “In my country, they kill gays.” I’m not sure what the right response to that is.

Do you say that’s barbaric and uncivilized? Do you mention the great Western writers who were gay, and wonder what literary losses his country sustained? Do you admit that gays used to be executed in the West until the 18th Century, too? Do you say, “Well, we are a democracy, not a theocracy run by religious fanatics?” I don’t know.

Once, I hailed a cab as I was leaving the local bathhouse. “What kind of place is that?” the driver asked. “It’s a gay bathhouse,” I said, feeling my way cautiously. “What goes on in there?” he continued. “It’s sort of a do-it-yourself bordello. You rent a room, shuck off your clothes, and walk around to see if you can find mutual interest with another person. If you do, you retire together to your room,” I explained. “Can anyone go there?” he asked. “Well, it wouldn’t be very interesting unless they were gay,” I said.

Then, the driver wondered if I could take him there sometime. I declined, and suggested he start with the bars instead.

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