A couple of semesters ago I decided to man up and present my writing for judgement. I entered an interview paper I had written into a campus wide non-fiction essay contest. The interview was to serve as a counter opinion to an essay we read in class about Social Masking. Social Masking is where someone decides to make a conscious effort to hide certain characteristics and traits in hopes of fitting in t better with their peers.
The writer of the essay we read class is an English professor at a respected university. He, at the time, was not open about his homosexuality with his students. In his first year as a professor he was warned by another professor (also Homosexual) about the importance of being a "Gay Professional" as opposed to "Professional Gay". He decided to take his co-workers advice and did his best to hide anything people might pick up on as being "gay" and focus on exhibiting more "straight" tendencies.
I was never a fan of this piece and decided I wanted to see if I could find someone in the same position as the writer and see if I could get a different opinion. Lucky for me I was able to.
Now, let me get this out of the way. Donnie is one of my oldest and dearest friends. For the sake of the paper I pretended that I didn't know Donnie very well. The guidelines for the paper said we were not allowed to interview someone we knew. I was super excited about the premise and direction of the paper so I lied.
I did not win the contest. I came in second. I lost to a kid who wrote about how awkward funerals are. I can only assume that the judges were not big stand up fans as the topics of funerals is about as new as any jokes dealing with airline food. It's OK. That guy was in my math class last semester and he is kind of a moron.
When I was given the task of conducting an interview with someone from a different social group, I did not think that finding a person willing to let me drill them with questions would be as daunting of a task as it was. We as humans have a need to feel at ease with our surroundings. We associate with people we share mutual interests with and very rarely venture too far outside of our comfort zones. Being that I have a tight circle of life long friends, we all know entirely too much about each other. An interview with one of my cohorts would quickly turn into an conversation about “that one time” and would defeat the purpose of the assignment all together. Had I not found a picture of myself in my awful Carmike Theaters uniform, this paper would have been on someone I found at the last minute and all the questions would have been a mediocre attempt at getting a C, at best.
Donnie Sackey is a person I have known for a while but have spent little time with. We met when I was 16 and we worked opposite shifts at the local theater. We never exchanged much more than a few nods even though we shared multiple mutual friends. We would always find ourselves running into each other at work related functions, parties, and I have seen him at a few shows I attended. It never really crossed my mind how strange it was that I knew next to nothing of a person so many of my close friends were close friends with. Part of it might be contributed to our obvious differences. I am white, and Donnie is not. I am straight and Donnie is not. I guess when you’re seventeen and you’ve never had much exposure to something outside of your comfort zone, you shy away from it without even noticing.
I was able to get in touch with one of these mutual friend and get Donnie's contact information. I approached him through a text message, gave him the rundown of the assignment and assured him that I would do my best to avoid asking stereotypical questions that I felt would have been a waste of both of our time. He was able to find a break in his schedule on a trip home and I was able to have a sit down with him and one of our mutual friends and conduct the interview.
I wanted to make sure that I did my best to ease the rails and allow Donnie to see that I wasn't taking the easy way out. Donnie is gay. Donnie is of Western Pacific descent. I didn't want to come across like a jerk and spout out, “So what's it like being a Black Gay in America.” That would be insanely insulting. I would have outed myself as someone with no respect for a person who was going out of their way to help me. I also didn't want to appear to be a stereotypical white alpha male who was there to force my beliefs on the subject matter. Although I did have an angle, it wasn't to be an ass. I knew that Donnie was a teacher and because I had recently read an essay in class written by a gay professor, I wanted to field him some of the same questions my teacher fielded me. Being openly gay, his perspective might or might not differ from mine. I figured this would be a unique and different take on what maybe my teacher had in mind.
I was seated already (I'm insane about being on time) when Donnie and Jeremy arrived. We had both known Donnie around the same time but Jeremy and Donnie had become very close and had maintained their friendship long after we all eventually moved on from the Theater biz. I shook Donnie's hand, slapped Jeremy a high five, and made fun of Jeremy's choice in open toe sandals. It was cold outside. Jeremy retorted with a comment on the length of my beard and I assured him his Mother was yet to complain. This was my sad attempt at breaking the ice. Here I was, wanting this near stranger to help with a class assignment, and I am cracking jokes about peoples’ mothers. Thankfully Donnie DID laugh and if any ice was there it was at least a little more melted than before.
Before we started, I promised Donnie that if at any point he did not want to answer a question or stop the interview entirely, he was more than welcome and I would not take offense. I assured him that I was thankful for his time and I began my interview. I wanted to make good with my promise and avoid any obvious questions. I guess I wanted to impress him. I wanted to maybe catch him off guard a little bit.
“Ok. So; In class we read an article where an openly Gay professor was instructed by a coworker that he should focus on being a Gay Professional, rather than a Professional Gay.” I could tell by the way Donnie put down his drink that he was eager to interject, but he allowed me to finish. “Would you find offense in being told something like that?”
“Do I find the remark of being a “gay professional” as opposed to being a “professional gay” offensive. In short, yes. Usually when people make remarks like that it is because they have problems valuing difference. They enjoy the fact that they can have Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, and Transgender people or other minorities around for diversity sake without ever having to really value their presence within a workplace environment. You could take any identity category and substitute it for “gay” and this critique would still fit. Think about this scenario. You’re gay and your co-workers make a light-hearted joke directed at your sexuality. You remark that you’re offended and you explain to them why it’s inappropriate. It is not unlikely that you will be immediately marked as being a “professional gay” and leaving the “acceptable” position of “gay professional.” You’re likely to hear remarks about pushing a particular agenda on people or how you're just too sensitive to deal with “light-hearted” humor. In my opinion those two categories are really categories created by heterosexuals, I would venture to say white heterosexual males in positions of power, as a means of controlling people from a different race or sexuality.”
“Warning someone against being a “professional gay” is a way of telling them that it’s okay to be gay, but just don’t be gay. Like I said, this is a means of controlling certain bodies so that other bodies can feel more comfortable. Do you think that a gay person could go to a straight person and say, ‘Excuse me, sir. Could you please stop talking about the girl that you met at the bar last night.’ Or ‘Excuse me, sir. Could you please not kiss your girlfriend in the office? It’s kind of gross.’”
He said all of this is what seemed like one breath. He took small pauses only to separate sentences, not to wait for his words to come to him. He made no verbal missteps. I think I remember him pausing a little more than a second, but only to take a drink.
I was floored. There was no way I was going to catch this guy off guard. I told Donnie that he was obviously well versed in this area, or had run across something like this before. He assured me that he hadn't himself, but had seen it happen to people he had previously worked with. I could tell by his response to my first question that I had definitely taken the right approach with my interview and that he was not going to by shy about answering any of my questions.
“The writer also went on to talk about how we as members inadvertently cover certain aspects of life. Whether it be your religious views, political affiliation, or sexual orientation. Do you agree with that?” Surely he would scratch his chin or take his glasses to his shirt and clean them. Something to stall while he found an answer worthy enough to stand up to his first. Nope.
“Can people hide aspects of their identities and keep them out of the public sphere? Yes. Is it easier for some people to hide aspects of their identities than others? Yes. I guess I’m arguing that some people can’t hide their sexual orientation. There are often visible rhetorical markers that facilitate labeling who is gay and who is not. No matter what you may think, you can’t control how people will read you. I personally don’t hide my sexuality. I just don’t think that it is the most important thing about me.”
Donnie 2, Patrick 0.
“I know that you are teaching at a college level. That's primarily why I decided to ask you your view on the article we had read in class. You obviously make no effort to hide your sexuality. Are you as open with your students as you are other people? Or do you even feel as if your sexual orientation is any of your students business?”
“I think that this is a wonderful question to ask. For me, I don’t tell my students that I’m gay, because there are so many other things that we need to focus on in class. Now, I think that better questions to ask is ‘whether I perform in specific ways in order to hide or reveal my sexuality to students’ or ‘whether I am preoccupied by with the fear that my students will find out that I’m gay.’”
I showed Donnie the next question on the paper and we both laughed. I was in fact planning on asking him if he thought or even feared that maybe his students would think of less of him he they were to find out he was homosexual.
“It would be disingenuous for me to sit here and say that I’m not worried that my students would find out that I’m gay and treat me differently in class. This is something that I worry about a lot and it has a lot to do with my experiences in high school. I’m not sure about what markers that I exhibit that allow people to mark me as being gay. Therefore, when I stand in front of the classroom, I can’t help but wonder how students are reading my body. I have fear that they might not respect me if they knew that I was gay. Yet, I also realize that if I treat them with respect then they’ll return in kind. One thing that I’ve had to force myself to think about is the fact that my students , and most students in general, aren’t thinking about whether their professors are gay or even important aspects of assignments. They are more preoccupied with other more important things in their lives that don’t matter immediately to their classroom experience.”
Donnie then went on to tell me how he is actually friends with many of his students on the social networking site Facebook. He said, “So, even if my students don’t read me as gay in the classroom, there are a few indicators on Facebook that would indicate that I’m gay. I will say that I’ve had the opportunity where I’m become close friends with some of my former students. They have all individually told me that they never knew or even thought that I was gay. Actually, I went to a gay club for a friend’s birthday party and I ran into one of my students (a heterosexual female) who was quite surprised to see me there.”
I immediately asked a question I had not written down.
“Do you feel as if younger people are more educated on what it means to be homosexual, and maybe more accepting of lifestyles not their own?”
“First, I’m not sure what being a “homosexual means” any more than I really know what being “straight means.” I’m not really sure that your sexual orientation means anything more than you’re attracted to one or multiple sex or gender categorical distinctions opposed to others. Moreover, I take offense to labeling orientation as “lifestyle.” Drinking champagne in your houseboat on the French Riviera is a lifestyle. I think that “lifestyle” is a convenient way for marking same-sex attraction as being a choice. Like race, class, and disability, sexuality is not a choice. Heterosexuality is almost never referred in mainstream discourse as being a “lifestyle.” I think treating things as “lifestyles” are ways of marginalizing certain “behaviors” that don’t necessarily fit into what some may see as normalized mainstream everyday practices. It marks queer sexualities as being mere popularized fads that don’t have the same staying power as normalized heterosexual practices.” Oh no. I had done it. I was certain that I had offended him. My face blushed and I got that weird sweat you get when you don't know the answer to a question your teacher asks you but you’re certain every one else in the room knows it and they are thinking about how big of a dummy the guy with the gross beard in the back of class is.
I was quick to apologize and before I could he stopped me. He told me there was no reason to and that up until this point he was very glad I hadn't asked him, “So how old were you came out?” or “So like, are your parents mad you're gay?” We both laughed. Me in an overcompensating manner as I was still certain he was actually very offended and was just being nice.
“I can tell you that the general trend that I know from statistics is that younger people are more educated about identity and issues. Yet, I also realize that that claim depends upon location. For example, would you say that younger people in Smyrna, Tennessee are more accepting of homosexuality than young people who live in Los Angeles? I think that you can say the same about older people. I don’t think that age is really an important indication for determining to what extent someone is more accepting of gay people. What I think matters is the exposure that people have to them and the extent to which they value their presence within their lives. I have friends that are young who know that I am gay and make no qualms about telling me that they have problems with it. Some of my friends actually say that it is an issue that they struggle to not talk about with me because it makes them consider not being friends with an “immoral person.” I, however, have friends that are middle-aged and older who are incredibly supportive of homosexual people and are generally concerned about issues that affect these communities. Like I said, what really matters is whether people value the people in their lives and to what extent they choose to learn from these people as a way of changing and structuring their practices so that they can serve as affective allies. And I want to note that this could easily be applied to issues of racism or issues dealing with class.”
Point. Match. Donnie. I knew from these few questions and his eagerness to answer thoroughly, that I certainly had enough to fill the requirements of the assignment. I was also working on a tight time frame as we were trying to finish up the interview so that Donnie and Jeremy could catch a movie, but he made it very clear that he was more than willing to stay and answer anymore questions I had. He stressed how he appreciated my take on the interview and was glad I avoided asking the easy questions. Questions I'm sure he answers way more times that he would like. I could tell Jeremy, however, was in a rush to leave as he had taken two straws and was now insisting that he was a walrus.
Donnie insisted we had time for at least one more question.
I paused. Shuffled my papers. “So, How mad were your parents when you told them you were gay?” Donnie laughed hard enough to draw the attention of everyone around us causing Jeremy to slowly remove his new tusks.
Donnie 6, Patrick 1.
I just re-read this for the first time in a long time and I'm still very proud of it.