This past week I did a presentation at the annual GLSEN Hudson Valley PrideWorks conference on how to answer the questions we all wind up getting asked by parents, friends, strangers, and colleagues (and often get asked over and over again until we want to scream!). For example:
• How did you know you were gay?
• Who plays the husband, who plays the wife?
• Why do gay people want to get married?
• How did your parents react?
• Don't gay people already have rights?
In preparing for the workshop (which was attended by about 50 people--mostly middle- and high-school students and a handful of educators and parents) I came up with a set of rules about how to most effectively answer the questions GLBT people are likely to be asked (like the ones I've been asked and answered over the past thirty years both personally and as an author).
It turns out that my list of rules was hardly complete. The attendees had a long list of additional suggested rules based on their own experiences. There was little time for the attendees to take notes, so I said that I'd write up a summary for this week's blog post so they could refer to "The Rules" whenever they needed to. So the following is the complete list (absent your suggestions). I hope "The Rules" come in handy for you, too!
• Be Prepared
Your reaction and demeanor will indicate to the person asking the question how you expect to be treated. If you're hesitant, nervous, or embarrassed, they will respond in kind. So by being prepared, by anticipating that you're going to get questions and then by responding in a self-assured, unembarrassed, and respectful way, that will indicate to the person asking the question that you expect to be treated seriously and with respect.
• Know Your Facts
Facts are your friends and your weapons. You don't want to be left sputtering like a fool because you don't know your facts. Think of yourself as a roving ambassador. So that means you need to know the basics. When did the gay rights movement begin? How many gay people are there? Can gay people get married? Where and since when? When were gay people first protected by law? What is the Defense of Marriage Act?
• Keep It Simple
You're not giving a seminar or presenting your dissertation. Make your point, back it up, maybe tell a personal story and get out. Then ask if they've got another question.
• Always Say It With A Smile and Use Humor When Appropriate
A smile is always disarming. Getting angry or impatient will get you nowhere. Use humor when you can, but don't make jokes where you put down yourself or other gay people.
• Make it Personal
This is your life. This is your experience. Talk about yourself and your experiences. People are moved by personal stories, not slogans and legal arguments. Talk about your hopes and dreams. These are the things people relate to. For example:
- Did you get your ass kicked because some jock decided he didn't like you?
- Did your parents flip out when you told them you were gay?
- Did your grandma tell you she loved you and then ask if you wanted a glass of milk?
- Did your best straight friend try to fix you up on a date with another gay person?
- Do you hope to get married one day?
• Put The Other Person in Your Shoes
Turn the question around. So if someone asks who plays the husband and who plays the wife in your relationship (not the most thoughtful question in the first place), ask that person who plays the husband and who plays the wife in their relationship. And then watch them think about it.
A mom who attended my workshop said that when her twelve-year-old son came out to her she asked him how he knew for sure. He turned the question around and asked her how she knew she was straight and when she had her first crush. That made her think about her own experience of her sexuality and sexual development and helped her understand that her son was not going through a phase and meant what he said.
• Be Honest If You Don't Know the Answer
It never hurts to say, "I don't know." You can always do a little research and get back to the questioner with an answer later.
• You Don't Have to Answer
If you're asked a question that's too personal or makes you uncomfortable, you can always say, "I'm not comfortable answering that question." Instead of answering directly, you can recommend a web site or book or other resource that provides the information that you're not comfortable conveying.
• Be Patient and Open Minded
It can be annoying when people ask what feel like obvious or stupid questions. But the person wouldn't be asking the questions if he or she thought they were obvious or stupid. So it's important to be patient and open minded because losing your temper will only mean a lost opportunity to be informative.
• Remember Who You're Talking To
You can't talk to your grandparents the same way you would talk to your ten-year-old nephew. So make your answers age-appropriate and use language that the questioner can understand.
• Be Understanding of Where They're Coming From
Everyone comes to this subject with a different perspective based on his or her relationship to you and his or her past experience and beliefs. So you need to consider that when crafting an answer. For example, if the questioner is traditionally and deeply religious you may want to answer a religious quesiton in a way that will avoid a confrontational back and forth over the Bible (unless you're a Bible authority and enjoy that kind of discussion).
• Be Respectful
Not everyone will agree with what you have to say so be as respectful as you can when there's a difference of opinion. In my own experience, it's never terribly effective to call someone a f#*%ing idiot no matter how tempting it may be.
Just a final thought for when you think you're sick of answering questions. Keep in mind that by answering questions knowledgably and persuasively, each and everyone one of us can help in his or her own way to make the world a better place for GLBT people. Each of us is a mini-ambassador who can help spread the truth and promote understanding. It starts by simply being yourself and answering questions about your life as honestly and openly as you can--when you can.