This past June 5-7 promised to be a special weekend. In particular the sixth of June would be a red-letter day for me and my partner. On that day he would celebrate his 59th birthday and we, as a couple, would observe the 33rd anniversary of our relationship, having met more than three decades earlier in Southeast Asia where he is from.
I had planned our celebration with care. We were going to Miami Beach and I had booked an accommodation in the Deauville Hotel, an elegant and historic place that had hosted the Beatles in the ‘60s when the Fab Four landed in Miami, making their American debut. Another special touch for the celebration was a birthday dinner being hosted by our old friend, Mark, a successful Miami businessman whom we had known for over 30 years. I had been Mark’s boss when we both worked in Indonesia, and we had kept in touch through the years.
Mark was also a friend of my partner and our getting together in Miami was a long-awaited reunion that would give us a chance not only to see Mark but also to meet his family, his wife, and three sons. Mark had always been aware we were a gay couple and always seemed comfortable with that. On many occasions, he had assured me he had nothing against homosexuality, that his wife’s best friend had been gay, and that it wouldn’t bother him in the least if one or more of his sons turned out to be gay.
Looking forward to the birthday dinner with our old friend, I reflected on the hardships I experienced in the past due to my sexual orientation. The sadness when I was teased in elementary school and nicknamed Pretty Flowers because I brought a bouquet of roses to my first grade teacher. The humiliation and sorrow that occurred when my classmates wrote derogatory comments in my high school year book saying I was sissy and a freak. The professional blow I received when I was fired from an important government post that I had worked so hard to achieve.
With the passage of time, these ugly events had receded to the memory dust bin and were almost forgotten. I was proud that I had overcome what at the time seemed like insurmountable obstacles and achieved professional success and personal happiness. Not only was I happy and satisfied with my own life, but I also felt we were all in a better place as a country and a society. Gay marriage had become legal in most of the US and was about to become the law of the land with a much anticipated Supreme Court decision I felt would certainly be a favorable one. And we had a wonderful president who often spoke favorably of the LGBT cause and the right of gay people to full equality.
As we readied ourselves for the much-anticipated get-together with our friends, I felt the celebration was a cap to happy, positive events in my private life and our nation’s public life. It seemed to me that we had begun a new chapter, a freer, happier time when people were not judged by things like sexual orientation, but by how they behaved as human beings.
The meeting with our friend Mark and his family unfolded as the best of happy reunions. In spite of the passage of years and our not having seen each other for a long time, conversation was free and easy. Perhaps the nicest surprise, aside from our discovering what a wonderful wife he had, was the delightful personality of each of his three sons. Aged 17, 15, and 11, they were bright boys with lively personalities and, unlike many American children who seem bored with the company of older people, these kids were actually interested in what my partner and I had to say. Our personal rapport was excellent as we covered the whole spectrum of topics that could be discussed, both serious and humorous, and I found myself wishing I had such children, too.
After numerous courses of food and many bottles of fine wine which culminated in a happy birthday toast and the presentation of a gift, I asked to be excused, wondering where the restroom was. Whereupon my friend Mark’s 11-year-old son piped up saying, “I know where the men’s room is. I’ll take you there.” Sitting next to Mark, I could not help but notice what I can only describe as a look of parental concern registering on his face. As his son and I got up from the table, Mark also arose, mumbling, “Maybe I’d better come, too.”
After my initial shock at his action, I tried to dismiss Mark's comment, telling myself that he maybe he really did have to go to the bathroom. I also tried to understand the overly protective parental instinct that often causes parents to hover over their progeny. But my gut told me otherwise. Knowing my friend, seeing his face, hearing his voice, it was plain to me what was going through his mind : “I am NOT comfortable with my 11-year-old son accompanying a gay man to the bathroom.” With a sinking feeling, I realized that contrary to his many statements to the contrary, my old friend was, indeed, homophobic and that the persistence of his homophobia was aided by the mistaken belief that being anti-gay is a conscious hate or dislike. That if we are well-intentioned and don’t actively despise homosexuals that we cannot be homophobic. That when some of our best friends are gay, how could we be classed as fearing them and what they stand for? There was also the ugly, poisonous misconception that I couldn't entirely dismiss –– the view that gay people are inherently pedophiles.
After this experience, I can only conclude, sadly, that much of the anti-gay bias that exists is unconscious, that my friend’s “unintentional homophobia” was a visceral, emotional reaction, and that there is no easy way to “cure” such feelings.
At first, I contemplated confronting Mark and asking him for an explanation, but then I thought better of it. Even though the birthday dinner had been ruined for me, why should I spoil it for everybody else?
Sam Oglesby is a New York-based writer who won the 2013 New York Press Association Award for Best Feature article.