Two weeks ago, my straight neighbor Janet and I attended a gardening seminar at a Northern Virginia nursery. The speaker passed out PowerPoint slides of her presentation and began her demonstration. Slide 3 was the photo of a garden in a D.C. nightclub. As she began discussing it, the speaker dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “This was a gay bar,” she hissed. Continuing sotto voce, “Now I don’t want you to think I work in a gay bar.”
“What was that about?” I wondered. Was it a feeble attempt at a joke at my expense? I was more than mildly annoyed, knowing that I had just experienced homophobia in suburban Fairfax County.
Slide 33 was the photo of yet another nightclub garden she had landscaped. There was no mention of clientele or ownership. “So why had she singled out the gay nightclub,” I continued to wonder. “Why did she have to label it? Did she have a problem with working for a gay clientele?” There were no answers – yet.
On the drive home, Janet could not understand why I was offended. I had to explain that she chose to drop her voice when discussing her work at a gay nightclub; that she made some feeble attempt at humor by adding that she didn’t want us to think she worked at a gay club and that only the gay bar had been mentioned as having a specific clientele. Why single out just one club among the several where she had worked? Slowly Janet started to get it. She was having a teachable moment about having just witnessed homophobia in action.
That evening I e-mailed the managers of the nightclub and the garden center repeating the speaker’s comments, stating I was offended by the latent homophobia on display that day. And then I slept soundly, the matter forgotten.
The nightclub manager e-mailed me the next morning. He was equally surprised by the comments and thanked me for letting him know. From the garden center, silence.
That evening the phone rang. It was a Fairfax number. A representative from the garden center was on the line. He apologized profusely that I had been offended and stated that the garden was supportive of gay causes, and on and on. The only comment that missed when trying to establish his gay-friendly bona fides was, “And some of my best friends are gay.”
I cut to the chase, explaining that what I wanted was not an apology but for this woman to have a teachable moment, to ask herself why she had singled out the gay nightclub with a specific label but not the other establishments where she designed gardens. The garden center representative assured me that she had learned that lesson – and had had a sleepless night, to boot, for the nightclub manager had phoned her to repeat her offensive remarks to her. Smug that I had struck a blow for gay consciousness, I forgot all about the matter.
One week later, Janet and I were driving through Wardensville, a town on the cusp of being trendy and chic in West Virginia’s Lost River Valley.
“What’s with all the rainbow flags” she asked? “Why do people fly them in front of their homes and stores?” I was stumped and mumbled something about signifying they were LGBT-friendly establishments.
The question remained in my mind, as did my poor answer. My father flew an American flag on the front of our family home as he was proud of being an American. Some in West Virginia fly Confederate battle flags on their homes because they are proud of their heritage. (That’s the way I rationalize it to myself, anyway.) When I walked across the road to Janet’s house the next day, I had my answer. We LGBT people are proud of who we are. The flag is a visible symbol of our pride. It’s just as simple as that. And that was my very own teachable moment.
Herb Treger is a retired Foreign Service Officer who divides his time between Alexandria and Lost River, W.Va.