07/07/2014 11:24 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Plane Encounters...and Freedom Summers

A little over a week ago, I was coming home to North Carolina from the West Coast where a documentary short I wrote and co-directed screened at Frameline38: San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.

I was catching up on a recent issue of The Sun magazine when a man, who was waiting in line to use the airplane restroom, leaned over my shoulder and said, "Do you mind if I ask what you're reading?" He was drawn to the page by a photo of Pete Seeger.

This is the only time I recall sitting next to the bathroom on an airplane being a good thing.

Turns out that my new friend went to Mississippi 50 years ago to join the Freedom Fighters, worked for many years as chief of staff for a member of Congress and worked in higher education after leaving Capital Hill.

He was happy to learn that I'm a professor at Wake Forest University where Melissa Harris Perry will soon return as a faculty member -- I say return because both she and I are alumna of Wake Forest, and I was happy to learn that he knows all about Moral Mondays and the political battles being waged in North Carolina, which was once the most progressive of southern states.

The word is spreading.

He returned later on in the flight and brought me his card saying, "Let me know if you get back this way, I can get some people together." I took his card with a smile and he added, "Republican-voter registration is 12 percent in Berkeley."

I thought about his courage and commitment 50 years ago, the life of service he's lived since then, and I wondered if I would have had the awareness and strength of character to head south for Freedom Summer if I had been old enough in 1964.

Who knows, but I'm older and wiser now. At that moment, I was about to get a lesson in the danger of harboring preconceptions.

I'm a straight ally actively working to advance equality issues through my films and scholarly work. The subjects of Living in the Overlap have even taken a vote among their friends and named me an "Honorary Lesbian," which is indeed an honor.

So, how could I have been so wrong about the two guys sitting next to me on the plane?

When they came onboard, I took one look at their shorts, t-shirts, baseball caps, and sleepy expressions and thought, "I bet they're going home from the NASCAR race at Sonoma."

Then I proceeded to do what I always do on flights; I alternated between reading and napping.

About a half hour from Charlotte, I got a feeling. When the two men changed seats, there was a little ineffable something, a level of comfort and familiarity, just enough intimacy to make me think... could they be partners?

I asked the man sitting next to me if they had been on vacation, and he answered yes. I then asked what they did during their time in San Francisco. He mentioned several popular tourist attractions but nothing about the race. It was at this point that I told him that I had been in town for a film festival.

He hesitated. "Was it at The Castro Theatre?" I smiled and handed him a postcard promoting my film that features an image of Lennie Gerber and Pearl Berlin.

He flipped it over and read the description on the back: "Living in the Overlap is the improbably true story of two girls growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940s, falling in love in the midwest and making a life together in North Carolina. Lennie Gerber, retired attorney, and Pearl Berlin, retired professor, still have an indelible spark after 47 years."

He then grinned at me and reached out to the man next to him, "My partner and I have been together 15 years." I learned a few more things about Michael and Mike -- their friends call them M & M -- before the wheels touched down, and I learned something about myself.

No matter how in touch we believe ourselves to be, we all need to check our preconceptions from time to time.

You might be able to surmise something about a person happily reading a "Personal. Political. Provocative. Ad-free." magazine like The Sun, but it's dangerous to think you can tell very much about people by a couple of t-shirts, innocuous baseball caps, and mild cases of sunburn.

We are individuals. Let Freedom Summer ring. And let's work for equality for all...