SEATTLE, (U-Wire) — Human nature is a funny thing. You can make a new acquaintance and comfortably discuss common interests — work, school, music, TV, sports or how “The Blair Witch Project” scared the hell out of you last weekend. And though it’s not the most important topic of conversation, curiosity over one’s sexual orientation creeps up in conversation more and more these days.
Recently, I started working with a new employee and after a while I told him I was gay. He had suspected this. Soon after, I was bombarded with comments such as: “Oh, I know lots of gay people!” Or, “My nephew’s gay.” Or, “You like Cher? Isn’t she an icon for the gay community?”
Though comments like this aren’t harmful, it does reveal a certain discomfort surrounding the issue of homosexuality. This doesn’t necessarily stem from homophobia. But more or less, an awkwardness permeates the interaction between the straight and the gay folk.
Perhaps it’s because straight people are more accepting of gay people and they’re unsure of how to express it. But making conversation with someone who is living a “taboo” lifestyle is an opportunity to discuss that difference.
Their intentions are good — trying to find common ground in conversation or trying to understand something about someone that you don’t understand very well. None of us want to be ignorant or uninformed. However, what a lot of people fail to realize is that being gay is not one’s sole identity. Sexual orientation is an aspect of a person, but not the defining aspect. And conversation shouldn’t revolve around one’s sexual orientation.
Reverse the roles. Say one day you discover one of your new acquaintances is straight. You bombard him with comments about his sexual orientation: “I know someone I can set you up with! She’s straight!” Or, “My boyfriend works with a lot of straight people! They come over for dinner all the time!” Or, “You’re a good lookin’ guy, but don’t take that the wrong way! I’m gay! You’re not my type.”
It’s a little awkward and even ridiculous. Who cares, right? Being heterosexual is not the defining aspect of a straight person. A breeder’s heterosexuality doesn’t need to be acknowledged incessantly. They don’t need anyone to reaffirm their heterosexuality. It is the “norm.” There are gay people who make their sexual orientation their whole reason and purpose for existing. They live, breathe, eat and sleep being gay. It is their topic of discussion for anyone willing to lend an ear.
And this has a huge effect on the way other groups of people look at (and stereotype) gay people. Their behavior could be because they are looking for affirmation from their own community or from others outside their community. (Most people who are comfortable in their own skin don’t feel the need for others’ approval.)
Unfortunately, a person like this comes across as being one-dimensional. And though it might not be true, everything in their life sounds like it revolves around their sexuality.
Human nature is funny because there is discomfort when dealing with someone who is from a different background than you. The discomfort can be resolved through open conversation, thereby alleviating the pressures of difference; you discover the person you are interacting with may be similar to you in more ways than you imagined. Commonalities strengthen relationships. Curiosity is natural. But for most of us, sexual orientation is only one part of who we are, and no one’s sexual orientation should be the key factor in how people see them. Sure, it is an important part of who we are — and how we’re gonna get laid. But for most, sexual identity does not equal personal identity. People are multi-dimensional, and there are so many things that make up our individual personalities. It’s simply a part of who we are.
Kevin Schattenkirk’s column originally appeared in Wednesday’s University of Washington paper, The Daily.