Thursday, May 10, 2012

Dave Unplugged

Yesterday I spoke at the "Sexuality Unplugged" conference near home in Oshawa. I arrived fairly early and sat up front watching people file in. The room slowly filled and there was that 'buzz' in the air as people settled. It struck me how young so many of those queuing and registering were. Very, very, young. I don't like remembering being that young very much. I push some of my past out of my mind in order to be able to do things in the present. But, I couldn't help but remember ...

Learning the art of speaking without mentioning gender. Those were dangerous times, being hidden in plain view takes work, takes a degree of vigilance that is horribly tiring, takes the kind of courage that no one should ever have to have. Working with others, also young, chattering about their lives and their relationships in the blissful ignorance that their blissful ignorance kept me in silence, turned me into a listener, into a passive participant in conversations about the weekend. My life looked colourless to them, I'm sure. My life looked anything but it was - gay. But the illusion was important, I needed work. I loved doing what I was doing, being with and working for people with intellectual disabilities was becoming what it finally became - a passion. To do what I wanted to do, I had to learn to step carefully through a landscape of attitudes that had been littered with landmines. It could all blow up in my face in a moment.

Learning that friendly co-workers wanted deception, not truth. The massive amounts of reinforcement that came my way when showing up at a work function with a woman, a kind friend who would come on these occasions, was astonishing to me. The sheer volume of the approval took me aback. I didn't realize that the heterosexual 'team' cheered and applauded each other so often and so loudly. From dating to marriage and every tiny step in between, the break ups and the make ups, all are fodder for such long and such deep and such constant constant constant constant  constant constant chatter. I'd sometimes dive deep back into the darkness of the closet just for some silence. It was a shock, a bucket of ice cold water thrown on me the first time I showed at a party with a woman friend, to be the recipient of that vast amount of social approval and personal interest that goes with being 'mainstream,' I guess that's why they call it the 'party' line.

Learning silence. No, not total silence. That breeds suspicion and curiosity. But learning the ability to have a conversation that makes 'life' silent and 'artiface' interesting. Being a conversationalist about movies and books ... turning interests into passions. Always having something to say about cooking, or about restaurants, or about funny things that happened in the day. That's a terrific way to hide - be a conversationalist without ever really conversing. Hiding in volumes of words is a trick that serves well.

Yes, I learned how to be 'gay' in a world that used different words to describe me. Hurtful words. Words that come with violence intended. I learned that.

And yet I was in 'human' services. I was in a place where 'humanity' was supposed to be honoured. It wasn't. Gay people were routinely fired from their jobs, not for performance, but because of discovery. Someone seen coming out of a place 'haunted' by gay people - could lose their job in days, days! And we, the rest of us would stay silent, would crawl back further into hiding, would become so familiar with fear that it became like an invisible friend.

Over time, I would come to write one of the first articles ever published about supporting people with intellectual disabilities who were lesbian or gay, I would come to give one of the first presentations in Ontario at a major conference on Lesbian and Gay issues in supporting people. (We were at a time in history that the BT part of LGBT was simply not acknowledged. as to all the letters yet to come - miles and miles away.) The reaction was swift. I was speaking at small conferences by then. Much of my opportunities were taken from me. Invitations were rescinded. Friendships ended. People didn't want to know me, be associated with me, didn't want to be 'tarred by the same brush'. And I was OK with that.

Years and years and years passed. The world began to change. My career, in the end, wasn't hurt by the stands that I took and the battles that I fought. And then, I was asked to speak at this conference and they sent me the flyer with the rainbow flag on it. I saw that I would open the conference and sprOUT, a group supporting people with intellectual disabilities who are LGBTQ ... astonishingly supported by agencies such as Griffin Center, Community Living Toronto and Vita Community Living Services, would close it. It amazed me.

So, I sat watching people coming in and wondered what they understood about 'coming out'. It was interesting to look at these people, from the community of my work, taking their seats and feeling, no fear. To be a gay man, at work, without concerns about being 'discovered'. To have Joe at the back of the room, setting up a book table and chatting with people who knew him and me - to have friends in the room, women who weren't part of pretense, just friends. Living honestly, living freely, shouldn't feel like a privilege but it did right then.

So I began the conference by mentioning this, or a little bit of this, and thanked them for allowing me to have the experience of speaking out, as an openly gay man, without fear.


John R. said...

Such a great set of reflections here. I am commenting here on the public speaking part of the post. I am inspired to know that you stayed the course, continued to promote what you believe in and never lost integrity in your speaking career. As a public speaker, I know how easy it is to pander and to "speak to the audience where they are at". This is all good as long as one does not lose the substance of WHO they are and as long as they continue to focus on the MESSAGE of whatever it is being presented, NOT the MESSENGER. Regardless of a messenger's personal life (short of axe murdering) the message is what matters. THanks Dave.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

My heart was breaking as I read this post. I am so glad that you found the strength to survive the oppression. There are many who didn't, as you know.

I had some friends in high school - we were the nerdy smart kids. When we started university some of them came out to the rest of the "gang". It really didn't make a difference to our friendship. In fact, I was one of those women who went to parties with my gay friends as a kind of camoflage. The point here though is that I saw the kind of devastation caused by the fear of discovery. Out of a group of 4 men who came out as gay to our group of friends in 1970 one went on to have a long term open relationship with a partner and a career. One died of AIDS. One suffered mental health problems and died of cancer. And one lived a very lonely life. These were my friends, people who I loved. I know the gifts that were lost because they were afraid of letting people know who they really were. And that fear was grounded in reality - people could not only lose their jobs, their homes, be rejected by family and friends but they could be beaten and even killed - all because the rest of us could not tolerate something we thought of as different. When my friends came out to me I had no idea of the courage it must have taken them to risk letting me know that about them. I think I get it now. And in part this has fuelled my passion for working with marginalized people. I keep asking the same question - what makes us think it is okay to cause this much pain to other human beings?

I'm glad you found the strength Dave. I'm glad your message wasn't lost. I'm glad we get the benefit of your gifts.


Andrea S. said...

For me, I am in a kind of "in between" generation. GLBT people my age in many cases were very closeted in high school because, even in a liberal town like the one where I went to school, basically NO one was out even in the 1980s (Back then, it was very slowly becoming safer for adults to do so, though the AIDS epidemic pushed many out of the closet faster than they would have chosen. My high school was liberal enough that it did invite a gay man as a speaker on "GL" issues for a diversity event, and there was at least one teen GL/Questioning teen support group I knew of, but teens still just weren't out at school). The first openly gay person I met as a peer (not counting the guest lecturer) was in college in 1989.

I myself did not realize my own sexual orientation (as bisexual) until after I had already graduated from college. I was in a context where I felt safe coming out, so I did so--in the early 1990s when many of my peers were half-in, half-out of the closet (for example, some were out on campus but not to their own families, some were out only to a certain circle of contacts but not at work, etc.). Being openly GLBT was still so unheard of that, when my first woman partner and I hyphenated our names, one confused person who knew both of us asked if we were long-lost sisters!

I know there is still a long way to go. There are still many rural, conservative places in the US where many GLBT people (particularly teens) still don't feel safe coming out and often think they are basically alone. I'm guessing it's the same in Canada? But we've also come a long way as well ... at least, in some countries. Other countries still have it as bad or even worse than the times Dave remembers. In 10 countries, being GLBT is literally, legally, a death sentence. If you want to get involved in GLBT human rights advocacy at an international level, visit

Anonymous said...

Oh man, this post really affected me. I'm too young to remember the days where being gay could easily get you fired, so I know I have it really good. But when you talked about the overwhelming positive reinforcement that heterosexual couples get -- that really hit me. My sister is planning to bring her new boyfriend to a family event, and I know the whole extended family is going to be falling all over themselves to welcome him and congratulate them. And I've been dreading the event just because it's hurtful to me that they don't treat me (the lesbian sister) like that. For a long time, they didn't know about my relationships at all. It makes me feel weird and alone.

Anonymous said...

Oh Dave,

thank you for this post!!!

In 1999 at the party we celebrated after finishing ou studies as social-teachers and social-workers I was the second person my friend at univeristy came officially out to me and told me he was gay. I was the second person he told after he had told his mother about it. And I didnt know how to respond honestly. Not because he was gay but because of the fact that his behaviour (very feminine behaviour and clothes and talkting very softly) had made is obvious to everyone else all the time. (Even my Dad asked if the young man was gay after talking to our answering-machine for the first time.)

I just told him that it was no problem for me and I loved and liked him the same as always. It was not as big a deal for me as it was for him. 12 years later we are still very good friends. Now he is living with his partner in the next town. They bought a house together and they are a nice couple just like hererosexuell couples I have a friends.

I am glad it was not a big deal back then and now becomes a concept that ist not that unusual today, to live the life you want to in whatever linfingconcept you wish to.

But the third and second paragraph in your post spoke to me. It is like I myself feel very much nowadays. Nope, I have no homosexual orientation. But I can not tell stories or mingle with the people at my work place or at family parties as much as I want to.

A lot of my lifetime I just try to do my work every day and the other time I am just tired and often very depressed. My chronic illness makes it difficult to date or have a partnership and I envy all the people who have children and a "normal" family-life. I often feel left out and have become a very good actor and social-gatherings so nobody notices how lonely or sad and sick and left out I often feel.

Maybe if I go on tryiing that will change one day too.

You taught me not to give up just by telling things like they are.

Thank you

Anonymous said...

sorry, I am tired today...

I was talking about the third and fourth paragraph!


Colleen said...

Dear Anonymous:

I don't know you - just want to reach out to you. Feeling weird and alone when everyone in your family is celebrating your sister's relationship is really hard. I can't change that but I hope it helps a little to know that there is someone out here in blogland who wishes you well.


wendy said...

Oh Dave...the chord this strikes. I remember the deft avoidance of pronouns, the fine line between omission and lie, the anxiety when a trusted co-worker suddenly turned on me...would she out me to families? Like you, I had a loving partner at home. I had joy that I kept neatly tucked out of sight.
And way back in those less friendly days I heard about you...a man who talked about the sexuality of the people we served, who dared to talk about two men in an institution, discovered to be lovers and ripped apart. I was stunned at your talk about those with developmental disabilities being sexual beings at all but even more to talk about such homophobia and the harm it did.
I honestly thought, "He must be straight because it would be too huge a risk for a gay man to say such things!" Clearly, I hadn't met you yet!

ivanova said...

Awesome post. I think a job where I couldn't be out at work is not a job worth having (although I know life forces people into all kinds of things.) I think sometimes also the messenger can BE the message. It may be very inspiring for some people in the audience to see an out gay disabled person.

CL said...

Thanks, Colleen. I wrote the comment -- I don't know why I clicked Anonymous instead of the initials I normally use on Dave's blog. I really appreciate what you said.

Anonymous said...

I guess I want to "cheer and applaud" anyone in a relationship - straight or otherwise. It is hard work - and the work is not limited to those making other choices than heterosexual. Let us not scorn the partnerships that we fought so hard to be recognized as equal. Yes - there are deep and long converstions - as I am sure you have with Joe. All relationships - family, friends, partners, lovers require a part of us.

Dave Hingsburger said...

CT, several months ago I was in the audience when a speaker mentioned that she and her husband had just celebrated their 4 month anniversary and people applauded warmly. So did I, I get it. However, weeks later, when Joe was assisting me in a lecture, I mentioned, in passing that we are approaching our 44th anniversary, the announcment was greeted with silence. It pissed me off! So, I said, you can applaud - you applaud heterosexuals who go on a second date for gods sake. They applauded, but only dutifully. They didn't 'get it'. I'm sorry you are going through what you are going through with your family - those who love you should, in the end, love you.

CL said...

Thanks Dave -- I'm sorry you have experienced so much of this in your life, too.

Anonymous said...

Oof. I am in a job and a context in which a degree of 'caution' and 'discretion' are still advisable for religious and social reasons, so I know the silence well. I also think your comment 'they just don't get it' hits the nail on the head. I've found that even when people's words say that they get it, their actions and assumptions show that they don't. For example, people commonly assume that my partner and I will be happy to put up with things (e.g. living apart, not mentioning each other in public) that either wouldn't be asked of a straight couple, or would be thought to be a terrible burden.

Commenting anonymously for discretion, but I'm a regular reader.

Baba Yaga said...

> I mentioned, in passing that we are approaching our 44th anniversary, the announcement was greeted with silence.

Dave, I'm gobsmacked. Consider yourselves applauded.

& anonymous (today's obviously my day for minor disagreement with anonymouses), "applauding people in relationships" sounds to me (I freely admit to a chip on my shoulder) just a continuation of the same.

Some relationships are toxic. Some people out of connubial relationships never had the option, and manage to live well and maintain the web of a hundred other, equally real and significant, relationships anyway; or live diminished lives because of it, but carry the pain of exclusion with dignity; or, reject the safety of dignity for honesty, and risk the pain and exclusion which go with that.

Some did have the chance, and chose to be single, rather than add to sum of toxic relationships. Just 'being in a relationship' hardly confers worth, even though the world really does react as though it does, and as though not being so betrays unworthiness. Dave's right about the "vast amount of social approval and personal interest that goes with being 'mainstream'", and not with being outside the mainstream.

Redefining the mainstream just to include any one particular group, to mean anything less than "everyone", tends just to leave a smaller group washed up on the banks.

Sorry, you got on the receiving end of a rant.