The presentation was over. It had gone well. I'd enjoyed the audience and the audience had seemed to enjoy my presentation style. I was packing up, getting things ready to go back into my wheelchair bag or into my briefcase, a few people had asked questions afterwards but the room was nearly empty now.
Then, she came in. She was a young woman, I had noticed her right from the start. She had a unique and quite beautiful tattoo wrapped around her upper arm. I also noticed that she was one of the people who had reacted emotionally to a lot of the stories I told and was also one of the few who had the daring to ask a question. I say daring because, the larger the group, the fewer the questions. There are risks in asking any question, but those risks increase where there are more there to hear the question and then judge you for asking. It's odd that those who come to an event to learn can be very judgemental about those who participate in their own learning process.
All that to say, I recognized her. Joe tells me that I sometimes explain too much, I tell him, "yeah but it's interesting right"? Joe gives me a look that I've yet to really be able to interpret.
She approached me at the table and I could tell, which surprised me, that she was quite nervous. She'd seemed so confident during the lecture itself. When she got to the table she put her hand out for me to shake, which I did and she introduced herself. She didn't introduce herself by name, or by occupation, as most do, she introduced herself by gender. "Hello, I am a woman," she said. I was nonplussed because, though I am a gay man I recognize women with a fair degree of accuracy. I said, "Clearly, you're going to say something to me that makes that introduction necessary." She nodded, gravely, without a smile.
I had told the story of Ruby in Florida when she was 3 as the closing story in the lecture. She said she liked the story and asked, "Am I correct in assuming that you love that little girl?" I said that I did and that I had mentioned that fact in the story.
"Well, then, she said, this total stranger, "I noticed that you used the word "B*tch" in your lecture a couple of times. I nodded, that I had.
"I have a question, how are you going to feel the first time Ruby is called that as a name simply because she's a woman?"
I didn't have to think.
"I'll be angry."
"Then why, during lectures to make it an OK word for people to say? Why do you make it easier for a little girl that you love to be hurt by such an ugly word. You recognize it's an ugly word right?"
I was standing there stunned. To be honest, I'd not thought about the word anywhere near as deeply as I was being challenged to think about it. My first response, as it always is, was defensiveness. But I got over that fairly quickly, I think, primarily, because I really love Ruby and Sadie, who came along a little later. I said "I'll think about what you've said."
She nodded, a bit of disappointment on her face, she didn't understand that when I say, 'I'll think about it' I really will.
As she reached the door I called to her. "OK, I've thought about it." She smiled, surprised. "I won't use that word ever again in a lecture and I will take it out of my speech and out of my writing. You're right, I love those girls, I love my women friends, I respect the women I work with, I need my language to show which side I'm on."
I've kept to my word. I've slipped a couple of times, and I've apologized when I've done so. Further, it's out of my spoken language now, pretty much for good and I haven't written the word since.
A stranger, with courage in her heart, came and challenged me.
And I was made different.
She may never understand how deeply that confrontation changed me, how it made me think about the simple things we can do to make the world safe for women. I learned to be intentional in interacting with the world that those two girls are growing up in.
Love, isn't just an emotion, it's a responsibility.