BY CINDY ZELMAN
In the year 2000, I stood in the windowless basement of a friend’s house listening to music on a new online system called “iTunes.” This was Gloria’s house. She had become one of my closest friends, and I was visiting her with my other best friend, Laura. Both of these women were straight. I don’t recall how the subject of my photograph came up that day. Perhaps because I was in between girlfriends and venturing into the land of online dating, and such a venture required photographs. I take horrible pics, but that weekend, Laura actually took a great photo of me.
“That picture would get me a date!” I spun around on my heels and laughed.
“Ssssssshhhhhhhhh!” Gloria hissed. I looked at her. My eyes squinched with confusion. She shook her head no, as if I’d done something perverse. She pointed at her two young children playing with dolls and puzzles on a card table.
For two days anger mounted inside me as the confusion cleared. By Monday, I was livid.
“I need to ask you something,” I said into the phone as I drove home from work. “If Laura had made that same statement about a photo getting her a date, would you have silenced her?”“No,” Gloria said, “I wouldn’t have.”
I breathed deeply and finally said it, “Do you realize what a homophobic act that was?”
At which point, readers, she became self-righteous and huffy.
“I am not homophobic!”
I didn’t even say the words “a date with a woman” just “a date.” I pointed that out to her.
“They know you’re a lesbian. I didn’t want them to hear you use the word ‘date’ because I don’t want them to think about what that means.”
“You can’t see how homophobic that is?”
“You are my best friend,” Gloria responded. “So how can I be homophobic?”
I had met Gloria at work a year before, and we’d hit it off immediately in the way that you do when you meet someone with whom you share so much chemistry. She was funny, fun and lively. She was also a big flirt, despite being straight and having narrow religious views that defined homosexuality as a sin. We flirted, albeit in a harmless way, but still, she enjoyed it. It got to the point where she would joke that she was my wife. We became best friends despite our differences. It appeared for a long time that we would overcome these differences because of the love we had for one another.
She explained to me that in her religion — which I won’t name so I don’t offend others who may not think as she does — homosexuals are sinners.
I said to her, “Your religion believes that homosexuality is a sin, but billions of people around the world do not follow your religion.” She ignored the statement.
Sometimes it was hard to be her friend, but it was as if there were two sides to her — the very cool woman, Gloria, who could make jokes like, “Why are penises always attached to a**holes?” Such a joke was usually made after she’d had a fight with her husband. And there was the other side to her who was convinced she knew what God wanted and she knew God did not want gay people.
Although her homophobia was quiet — and became quieter as the years went by — it never truly left her.
Her sister met a woman at their church and ended up in a life-long relationship with her. Prior to any state making same-sex marriage legal, her sister and her partner went to Vermont for a Civil Union. Gloria did not attend the ceremony, but would not admit it was because she disapproved.
“It’s too far and I have the kids,” was an excuse she used.
I had discovered the lesbian folk singer Lucie Blue Tremblay long ago, who has one of the purest and most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard. More recently, I’d discovered Eva Cassidy, straight, I believe, but also with a beautiful voice equal to none. I gave Gloria homemade CDs of each at the same time. After she had listened, she said, “Eva Cassidy is amazing, what a voice!” She never mentioned Lucie Blue Tremblay, the lesbian who sang love songs to other women. Homophobia by way of omission.
Prior to my graduation from an MFA program in writing, I did a public reading of my work, as was required. I read on the same day as a very talented classmate. My classmate’s essay was a strong statement about her experience as a black woman and very beautifully written. My essay was a story about having thought I’d met the love of my life and getting dumped. In other words, I read a story about a lesbian relationship.
At the end of the reading, Gloria said to me and my other friends who’d come to listen, “Kerry’s essay was amazing!” Gloria had nothing to say about my reading. She told my friends how great someone else’s reading was. WTF? I looked at her and said, “I guess mine sucked, huh?”
She hesitated and said, “No, yours was good, too.” That was it.
I tolerated Gloria’s homophobia, as she tolerated my lesbianism, for many years, because so many aspects of our friendship were so strong. But these incidents kept coming up. To give Gloria credit, she relaxed on some of her hangups — I could say date in her house by the time her kids were teenagers. She finally was able to introduce her sister’s wife as her “partner,” and not as her “friend.” But the homophobia, though quiet, persisted. As our society has grown more intolerant of bigotry against the LBGTQ community, so have I.
Although Gloria would never hold a sign saying “God hates f*gs,” she would always vote against same sex marriage, she would always see my lesbianism as a sin. She would never be able to make a compliment about a lesbian singer or about an essay about a lesbian love relationship. She was one of those “love the sinner, hate the sin,” quiet type of bigots. We never had a fight, but we no longer speak. It makes me sad, but I see no other solution.
Recently, I wrote about the loud bigotry of Michelle Shocked at a concert in San Francisco where she made several anti-gay statements, and about the Westboro Baptist Church which makes no bones about its hatred of the queer community.
Some people who read that post felt the “love the sinner, hate the sin” type of bigotry was worse than the straightforward bigotry of the Fred Phelps’s of the world. One person felt however, that the movement away from tolerance of outright hate speech and the expression of this quiet type of homophobia was a step along the evolution of the church (whatever church) in finally accepting the LGBTQ community.
What do you think? Do you feel more endangered by the loud bigots carrying “I hate f*g signs?” or by that friend of yours who loves you so much, but who would never allow you to marry? I’d be interested in hearing your point of view.
Please note: I have changed the names of the parties involved to protect privacy; however, the the story and incidents are true.
Cindy Zelman is a writer based in Boston, whose blog, “The Early Draft,” explores a variety of topics, including lesbianism, writing, agoraphobia and humor.