I don’t think gay people have all that much in common, but we do share the particular experience of abruptly slipping out of a present moment into a heightened state of self-consciousness when being out. It happens while having a conversation with a stranger on an airplane, shopping as a family at the grocery store, or finding ourselves in a hospital with an emergency. There comes a moment when gayness is revealed to the people around us, and we can’t help but look around, waiting for possible consequences.
Since moving to a new town about a year and a half ago, I’ve had lots of these moments. If I lived somewhere with out, gay people all around, I wouldn’t be nearly so self-conscious. But here, in this small city in a very conservative rural county, I can’t help but pay close attention. I’m still gauging what it means to be a gay, multiracial family here where we’re something of pioneers.
Our time in the hospital was the most high stakes of these experiences so far.
I had been preoccupied with worst-case scenarios for my son’s health, but upon entering the hospital, it struck me that I might also need to worry about how we’d be treated as a gay family. Would we encounter attitude problems that got in the way of Miles’s recovery?
It was the first time we’d ever stepped foot in our small-town hospital.
A staff person was just leaving her post at the registration desk as we approached. She told me to sit down and then directed another person at the neighboring window to help us. A flat voice said, “Can’t they move over to my window?”
Uh-oh, I thought. Not a good start.
“He has a sick kid. Could you please move over to help them?”
An older woman with a pursed mouth appeared and sat down across from us. She didn’t look up as she followed her screen prompts.
“What’s his name? What’s your name? What is his mother’s name?”
“He has two dads.”
She paused and looked confused.
“We’re a gay couple.”
And fuck it, I got a lump in my throat as I said “gay”! Just like how it used to happen years ago when I first started coming out on a regular basis.
The woman looked at me for the first time and said sternly and emphatically, “I understood.” She meant: “You don’t have to say that word! It makes us uncomfortable around here! Put that back in your mouth!”
She looked back at her computer, mouth still tightly pursed, “What is the name of the other person?”
Who really knows what she was thinking. Maybe she just couldn’t figure out how to manipulate the fields on her screen to accommodate two male parents. I didn’t want to care, so long as Miles got help as soon as possible. But there she sat, blocking our way.
Her very next question was, “What is your religion?”
There was no lump in my throat now. I was getting pissed off and moving past self-consciousness.
“None,” I said aggressively and glared at her.
Miles had been whimpering and wheezing but was now more alert. “Papa, that bed has wheels!” “Does that man have a broken leg?”
The woman took notice of him.
Her mouth softened, and when she finished her battery of questions, she announced that she’d walk us to our room. This didn’t sound that great to me.
As we made our way across the empty Saturday-night, small-town-hospital hallways, Miles informed me he would not be getting any shots or X-rays. The woman kept peering at him.
“Your little boy is very bright, isn’t he? I can tell he has good parents who teach him well.”
I did not suddenly feel grateful for her approval, but I felt my shoulders begin to relax a little. She delivered us to our room and was gone.
The rest of the time in the hospital was much less charged, although we had to go through the exact same battery of questions when the first nurse visited us. They helped get Miles’s breathing under control, and most of the hospital staff were somewhat cold, impersonal, and inexpressive (not unusual here in this Midwestern community).
Since moving to this town, I’ve struggled a lot with how to negotiate these kinds of experiences. Self-consciousness can easily dip into narcissism (of course they’re paying attention to me!) or paranoia (everyone hates me because I’m gay!). I want to be myself (for example, not feel compelled to perform extra good parenting in order to prove we can be parents too). I don’t want to make too many assumptions about the people I come across, but I also want to be realistic about the fact that I live in a place where most people are not comfortable saying the word gay, let alone the rest of it.
I often think we’re probably making some kind of difference. Maybe that bull-dog at the hospital gate softened because we changed her mind a little. Then again, maybe she was just really grumpy and couldn’t have cared less about us being gay.
The point is I don’t feel like I have the luxury of not paying attention, especially when I’m worried about how it affects Miles.
It’s not always tense and negative, though. Just a few days ago, I was in line at the grocery store when the woman in front of me turned and looked closely at Miles and me.
She smiled and said, “Is he yours?”
She looked at me, almost with a wink and said, “My brother is that way too.”
Well, not always tense and negative. But still weird.