On February 19, 2013, I waited to be interviewed in a CBS 7 News television studio in Odessa, Texas, the city where I live and serve as president of the local PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). I listened as Robin, the other guest to be videotaped, told her story of being insulted and disrespected solely for her sexuality. She was the reason I was there, although I had never met her.
Odessa is a city of about 100,000 people, located in the very conservative area of West Texas. There was a time when I, as an Evangelical Christian, was counted among the "very conservative," but that was before July of 2002, when my 37-year-old daughter told me she was gay. I'm ashamed that it took that "wake-up call" to spotlight my lack of love, but I will always be thankful for it.
Earlier that day, I had received a call from reporter Tatum Guinn, asking me if I were willing to be interviewed on behalf of PFLAG concerning an incident of gay-bashing (my words, not hers). And so I was in the studio as Robin, a delightful woman who has been out for over 14 years, told her story: Robin had her oil changed at a local lube franchise. When her car was finished and she went to the counter to pay out, she was asked her name. Instead of typing in her name on the receipt, the clerk typed "Joto!" (Complete with exclamation point.) This is a nasty Spanish slur for homosexual. Robin was taken aback at such blatant bigotry. She left, hardly believing what had just happened. She couldn't stop thinking about it. She then called and asked to speak to the manager, who treated it as no big deal. He told her that the employees often joke with each other, calling each other names, and there was nothing to it. This was a customer, not one of the employees, and this was neither humorous nor friendly. Robin requested that the owner call her. In the conversation with the owner, she was told that it was hard to get good help, and that the employee in question would not be fired.
Robin has let other things slide since she has come out, but she thought about those who weren't out and couldn't speak up for themselves. West Texas is an area where people can lose their jobs (or are unable to get a job) if it is "discovered" that they are gay. There could be personal safety issues as well. Robin is no activist, and it wasn't easy for her to go public with this. She is not one who seeks the limelight. I saw the receipt, and couldn't help but think about the possibility of my daughter being treated like this.
When the reporter tried to interview the owner, she was told that CBS 7 News would be sued -- a typical response from guilty parties. (No one was quaking in their boots at CBS 7.) That night as I watched the interview, it was announced that the employee had been fired. Apparently the possible loss of revenue caused the owner to reconsider.
When I talk with people in some other parts of the U.S., they are incredulous that this type of thing goes on here. At our first meeting of PFLAG Odessa, I wasn't sure we would be safe. This is a terrible blight on an area that is so proud of its "friendliness."
When is enough, enough? And what can we do about it? Robin has been an example to me that one person can make a difference; that it isn't necessary to get into a nasty confrontation (although we might like to); that we can stand up for what is right with dignity. Personally, as a small start, I will no longer use this oil change company's service, and I have been a customer for years. Coincidentally, I received a form letter and a certificate shortly after this incident for a free oil change, because I had been a loyal customer. This gave me the opportunity to return the certificate with a letter explaining why I would no longer be a customer.
I'm sure that West Texas isn't the only place in our nation where this type of bigotry takes place. Whether we are a part of the LGBT community or the parent, family or friend of someone who is -- what are we personally going to do to let people know that this type of behavior is unacceptable?
I received an e-mail from Jerome Valadez, the son of a dear friend of mine. The following was his response to the CBS 7 News report on Robin's story:
I cannot say how important it was that Robin and you not let this go. It is mindless, little acts like this that force us as a people to decide whether to say ... "It's okay, they don't know me" or to say ... "I am a human being and not a slur." PFLAG and people like Robin are doing the real advocacy in this country. Life for me as a gay man in a big city is effortless. I ran from Odessa as soon as I could, but I was lucky and had the opportunity and support to leave. Some people may not have the support or means to be able to just pick up and leave. The bottom line is people should not have to leave Odessa to expect to be treated with dignity.
Jerome's last line says it all -- people should not have to leave Odessa (or any city, town or country) to expect to be treated with dignity.
In the past, when I have heard someone making a joke or using a slur (in any language), I have done one of two things. I have either kept my mouth shut so as not to make waves, thus giving the impression that I agree with what they are saying, or I have used sarcasm -- a "gift" of mine -- such as when I told a Christian friend who was proud of needling a fellow teacher into admitting that she was a lesbian: "Did you then give her one of those little tracts that tell her how much Jesus loves her?" Neither of these tactics have been particularly successful.
I recently read Margaret J. Wheatley's book, Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope in the Future. She makes the point that although it takes courage to start a conversation, if we don't start talking go one another, nothing will change. "... the only way the world will change is if many more of us step forward, let go of our judgments, become curious about each other, and take the risk to begin a conversation." ... "It's not differences that divide us. It's our judgments about each other that do. "
Her words rang true -- I have often said that hearts won't change through legislation, force, or confrontation. But if we can start a conversation with each other -- if I had gone to that young man at the oil change place and asked him why he would do something like that, asked him what is important to him and told him what is important to me, perhaps we could have started a conversation and gotten past the labels of "Joto!" and "Bigot!"
Many people are parroting what they have heard about the LGBT community and have no idea what they are talking about. I was one of those people. They also tend to fear what they don't understand.
Our goal in PFLAG has to do with education, advocacy and support. But even as individuals--as straight allies, we have the opportunity to educate those who make slurs or jokes about the LGBT community -- first by letting them know that it isn't okay with us and why. Now, thanks to Wheatley's book, I will ask these people why they feel the way they do. If we can start talking with one another about this, perhaps we can stop screaming at each other.
Shari Johnson, author of Above All Things: The Journey of an Evangelical Mother and Her Gay Daughter