A few months ago, I launched a little feature on my personal blog that I call "LGBTQ&A" - my intent was to learn more about the idea that actually knowing an LGBT person has an impact on people.
I've been sending the questionnaire to LGBT folks and allies, too. I'm willing to print anyone's response barring inclusion of hateful content or libel. To date, I've had more than a dozen responses, mostly from allies.
The responses to this question in particular have been pretty amazing: Tell us about the very first LGBTQ person you met and what that meant for you.
Some of the responses are after the break.
The funniest moment was when he came out to us. Not about being gay, we knew that. Everyone at our table was a Star Wars fan, he came out as a Trekkie. It didn't matter he was still one of us! (and frankly I am a bit of Trekkie too, I just kept it quiet!)
-- Joe Wos, Executive Director of The Toonseum talking about his 9th grade friend Brandon.
Like others in my generation, I grew up with friends and relatives who I now know were LGBTQ; but for the most part, no one acknowledged anything. What I learned in those early years was how bigotry and hate flourished when no one spoke out. I believe the first LGBTQ person who came out to me was a wonderful college roommate. She very patiently educated me about her life and her decision to come out.
-- Jeanne Clark, candidate for City Council (& one of the cofounders of Pittsburgh's ACT!UP)
But juxtapose that with the era, 1970's, unfortunately, the young man took a fair amount of verbal abuse from others.. me included unfortunately. I think back on that often and how my views have broadened and how now, I would be scolding/educating my own child for doing that.
-- Blogger John describing the 8th grade boy in his school.
It absolutely floored me. Somewhere in a place called "Greenwich Village" (which I'm sure I must have pronounced in my head as Green-Witch) there were people who were just like me and they were very mad and fighting back. I bet my face turned about 30 different shades of red and I was so terrified that someone in my family might have seen me looking at it that I immediately threw the magazine under the coffee table ... and throughout the day kept sneaking back to take a peak at that picture.
-- Ted Hoover, coordinator with Persad Center discussing his first realization that other gay people existed.
The first LGBTQ person that I ever met was my cousin, Darrin. We were the same age and we were very close. We grew up in the 70's, so people would refer to him as a sissy and would often treat him badly. I was Darrin's protector. I would not let people tease or bully him.
-- Tonya Payne, candidate for Pittsburgh City Council.
But I think one of the most profound comments was the closing paragraph from Joe Wos' response, describing an encounter he had after work one day.
Not long ago I was leaving a bar on Liberty Avenue close to the ToonSeum. A few days later someone came up to me concerned and said "Joe, I saw you leaving that gay bar on Liberty... Are you gay?" I looked at him and said "You seem concerned that it was a 'Gay' bar. It was a bar maybe I am just an alcoholic" and I walked away.
Liberty Avenue was once the home of most of the "gay bars" in Pittsburgh and the setting for "Queer as Folk." The Toonseum is located next to one of the remaining bars. Liberty Avenue had a bit of a seedy reputation, but is now being a bit gentrified and connected to Pittsbugh's Cultural District.
A few "trends" I've noticed include a generational shift - adults over 35 tend to have a more specific memory of their first encounter with a person who is LGBT whereas several of the younger respondents simply always knew someone. There's also this bullying theme - some respondents were protectors, others look back with regret at their actions or their lack of information. And a few admit to being bullies.
I've found that this little feature has moved me on a much deeper level than I anticipated; it is an opportunity to get to know allies and learn what resonated with them to make a cultural shift to that role. And in each case, it is about relationships.
This is why it really matters that NBA player Jason Collins has come out as the first openly gay man active in professional sports. Collins made a humorous reference to "Three Degrees of Jason Collins" to emphasize that everyone knows someone who is LGBT - and that's perhaps the most hopeful takeaway.
LGBTQ&A focuses on LGBTQA folks in Western Pennsylvania, but I think the stories resonated anywhere.