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My awkward, uncomfortable gay moment

From a piece in The Daily Beast:

Eric Dondero, a former longtime aide to the representative, has written a post at Rightwing News defending Ron Paul against charges of racism and anti-Semitism but also acknowledging that the congressman is “personally uncomfortable” around gay people.

My first reaction upon reading the piece was to laugh out loud at the thought that anyone could be uncomfortable around gay people. Especially a physician and a congressman with more than twenty years in office.

You’d think that at some point, professionalism, education, experience, and maturity would supersede any unfounded prejudice or juvenile discomfort.

Why sexual orientation would even be in the forefront of another person’s mind is beyond me. I have gay friends, but their homosexuality is not the single most defining aspect of their character.

Yes, they are gay, but they are also fathers, husbands, golfers, designers, builders, attorneys, and friends. Their sexual orientation is just one small part of who they are as human beings.

The thought that anyone might be uncomfortable around them for one small aspect of their character is ludicrous.

But then I was reminded of a time when I was younger and found myself feeling especially uncomfortable in the company of a gay friend.

Not the personal discomfort that Ron Paul allegedly feels, but discomfort just the same.

For the story, I’ll call my friend John. John and I were managing a McDonald’s restaurant in Massachusetts at the time. I was about 22 years old, and John was about ten years older than me. I knew that John was gay and lived with his boyfriend, but we had never spoken about his sexual orientation, nor had he spoken about it with any other employee in the restaurant as far as I knew.

John was still in the closet, but his closet had a transparent door. His sexuality wasn’t exactly a secret. It was more of an elephant in the room. No one was going to mention it unless he mentioned it first, and during the first year we spent working together, he never did.

Then John and I were sent to a conference in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, a town on the tip of Cape Cod. What was supposed to be a three hour drive turned into five thanks to summertime traffic.

About an hour into the drive, John and I were listening to music on the radio. I was driving, and we had been sitting in a comfortable silence for quite a while, lost in our own thoughts. As we crossed over the Bourne bridge, John reached over and switched off the radio, took a deep breath, and said, “I know you know that I’m gay.”

bourne bridge

The statement took me by surprise, but after overcoming the initial shock, I remember feeling immensely relieved that John’s homosexuality was no longer an unspoken fact hanging between us.

“Okay,” I said.

“Okay what?” John said.

I told John that it was fine by me if he was gay. I told him that I has suspected as much.

“And I know you know that I like you,” John said.

To say that this took me by surprise would be an understatement.

“No,” I said, measuring my words carefully. “Actually, I didn’t know that. I thought you had a boyfriend.”

He said that he thought that Kelly, a mutual friend, had told me.

I told him she had not. “But it’s fine,” I said. “No big deal.” I wanted to change the subject as quickly as possible, for both John’s sake as well as my own.

“But I really like you,” John said and proceeded to spend the next fifteen minutes telling me why he liked me so much.

And that was the moment, the only moment in my life, that I felt uncomfortable around a gay person. My age probably played a big role. Being young (and much younger than John), I wasn’t equipped to deflect his amorous declarations with humor and empathy.

It was also 1993. Even in Massachusetts, it was uncommon to meet a gay person who so openly stepped out of the closet. The subject of gay rights was not exactly a part of the national conversation at the time. Gay characters has not yet broken onto the television landscape.  Yes, Massachusetts had Barney Frank, but this was still new ground for me.

Having John tell me that he was gay was a relief.

Listening to him explain why he was willing to leave his boyfriend for me was another story.

I also suspect that our physical setting played a role in my discomfort. We were trapped in a car together for the next three hours, and we would then be spending the next two days at a conference, sharing a hotel room and almost every minute together. As John continued to list my positive attributes, I had no way of extricating myself from the scene. Collecting my thoughts. Seeking counsel from a friend.

For the next two days, it would just be John and me.

John, a man ten years my senior, who was suddenly eager to profess his love and ready to dump his live-in boyfriend of two years for me.

At that point, I was uncomfortable.

Probably not the kind of uncomfortable that Ron Paul allegedly feels around gay people, but the kind of discomfort that I might have also felt had John been a girl who I was not interested in dating.

Though I have to admit that had John been a girl, my level of discomfort would not have been so great. Perhaps because I had been hit on by girls I did not like before and had learned to handle those situations, but also because I was 22 and had never had an openly gay friend before.

Suddenly this friend and colleague was speaking to me in a way that no man had ever spoken to me before, so yes, I was uncomfortable.

Eventually we returned to our restaurant and settled into our familiar routines. John never spoke openly about his sexuality to me again, and though I would occasionally ask how his boyfriend was doing, I never spoke about it either.

But that makes sense. Right? I don’t talk about my sexuality with my straight friends, so why would John’s homosexuality ever become a source of continued conversation? John was gay, but that was only one aspect of his character. In my world, it was more important that he was an effective manager, a responsible person, and a trustworthy friend.

Still, at the time, it felt as if the elephant had returned to the room, and I felt bad about it. John had shared something very personal with me, and as far as I knew, he had only shared that information with one other person in our restaurant. In failing to ever speak about it again, I suspect that John’s embarrassment over our conversation in the car never completely went away.

That conversation had become a second elephant in the room, and in many ways, a much larger elephant.

Had I met John later in life, and had that conversation taken place ten years later, I suspect that I my level of discomfort would have been minimal.

Perhaps nonexistent.

I also suspect that I would have handled it in such a way as to strengthen our friendship rather than hinder it. John needed someone much smarter and much wiser than me that day. He needed someone who could’ve recognized his vulnerability in that moment and said something to lighten his load and somehow transform his declarations of love into something more positive.

Because of my discomfort, I just wanted it to end as quickly as possible.

I’ve always regretted not handling it better.