Years ago I had a very odd conversation with a fellow I met in university. We were both young men. He impressed me because he was one of the first people I ever told about my sexuality, this would have been in the late seventies, and he simply didn't care. He came from a very religious family and I sort of expected him to at least be a bit upset, but he wasn't. He just made it clear, in the way straight men feel they need to do when a male friend tells them that they are gay, that he was one hundred percent Canadian STRAIGHT male. Once that was out of the way, we were good.
I had begun to work with people with intellectual disabilities and, once, when talking about my work, he noticed that most of my co-workers had women's names. I smiled and said that I worked in a profession that was peopled primarily with women. Most of my coworkers were women, my supervisor was a woman and my supervisor's supervisor was a woman. I expected him to say that my working closely with women was an experience wasted on me, as a gay man, but instead he said something strange.
"I don't know how you can stand to be surrounded by women all day."
I said, "I thought that as a guy into women, this would be your dream job."
Then he said, jokingly, "I wouldn't mind being in a roomful of naked women, but to have to work with women all day, to report to a woman, that would drive me crazy."
So women were to be objects of lust and longing, of touch and access, of submission and nakedness but not people to be respected, to be colleagues, to be leaders, to be decision makers. He saw the strange look on my face and asked, "What?"
I said, "I thought you liked women? When I told you I liked men, you made it clear that you liked women."
He said, and I remember this clearly, "I LIKE women but I don't like women. There's a difference."
I explained to him that I enjoyed working with women, that I'd always been comfortable with women in my life. I didn't think that came from being gay, that just came from having met and been influenced by some astonishing women in my life. A teacher at school, Miss Bunting, had changed my life. Dr. Pam Duncan, a professor at university had inspired me with her passion for psychology. Miss Jean MacQueen my landlady who had carved away a life for herself as a single working woman. These were just a few women who I had known to be people of deep talent and integrity.
He was having none of that. "I couldn't cope with all that emotion and all that silliness."
I remember thinking at the time, "Liking women should mean liking women."
It wasn't long after that when I pulled up stakes to move out east to meet up with Joe who had taken a job in Quebec right out of school. I continued to work in the field, continued to work with and for remarkable women. And over the years I have had a few similar conversations with men who don't understand how I can work with women and not 'pull my hair out' in frustration, or bristle at corrective supervision as given by a woman.
What's even odder is that there are women who have remarked to me about how difficult it is to work with women, saying 'women are petty' or 'women are mean' or 'women can't handle power.' These are women talking about women. I said to one woman that I was surprised because I have found that working for and with women has been one of the things that I most like about my job. The women I have had the privilege to meet! The women I have had the honour to work for! The women whose leadership and courage have made a difference. Winifred Kemption cut a path for us to follow, I was lucky enough to have met her, to have spoken with her, and to tell her how much I admired the work she had undertaken. Manuela Dalla Nora, Susan Tough and Marsha Forest were women of vision and passion, all gone now, who are remembered, not as people who lived in the past, but as people whose lives continue to affect the future. These are the names of only a very few of the women who's work has informed me, inspired me and motivated me.
I continue to work closely with remarkable women now. I work on a leadership team headed by a woman and primarily composed of women, these are people who give me guidance and support and directioni. These are women who make my work possible. The five women who work with me in the clinical department are amazing people. Not just gifted clinicians, which they are, but to a one, they are also passionate, caring, powerful, women. They are compassionate and wise and all have independent minds, and while the structure says they report to me, we really just work together with leadership flowing back and forth between people's strengths and interests.
Every day at work I meet with women who work throughout Vita Community Living Services. Women who work within all parts of the agency. They bring into my office such an array of talent but to a one they also bring in passion and caring and deep commitment to the work that they do. These women make the world different and better every day. That's EVERY DAY. Throughout the world, women, like these women, make EVERY DAY DIFFERENT. Every day.
So, on International Women's Day I want to acknowledge that my heterosexual friend was quite wrong, so too were the women who sang soprano in the sexist chorus.
Working with women, taking leadership from women, being in active partnerships with women has enriched me.
To my friend from all those years ago ... a twitter update from Dave:
I may love men but I tell you I really like women.