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Some things I don't know

I teach writing courses for first-year students, and we stress knowing who our readers are. One place I teach this is during classroom discussions. Often, I try to frame a point like this: “Let’s say you’re at a party and you’re talking to some hot guy or girl, and she or he says … ” This forces students to see they’re not always dealing with people (thus readers) who are the same as they are.

I choose such wording because it doesn’t frame the discussion in heterosexual terms. A guy could be talking to a hot guy, a girl could be talking to a hot girl, etc. (This approach doesn’t address all LBGTQ relationships, and I need to work on it.)

Despite working to keep my mind open, two students have made me uncomfortable by mentioning that friends of theirs (fellow students) are gay. In my friendships with adults, this is a “so?” matter. I have worked with gays and lesbians and have friends who are. The virus has killed three of my friends, and another friend is dying. They are/have been colleagues. They are/have been friends. Period.

I don’t think a person’s private life is part of the public record, though, especially in a student/professor situation. I have terrific relationships with more students than I can count, but after all, I am not their friend. There are boundaries.

I haven’t developed an instinctive way to react to what students tell me about their friends. I don’t have a ready verbal response. I don’t know what my body language should be. I worry that if I react neutrally, it may be seen as a sign of disapproval. On the flip side, I don’t want to appear interested for fear of being seen as too interested (if that makes any sense). What to do? What to say? I have no idea.

A former colleague, who remains a good friend, was like James Brown: “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.” When we met, our conversation drifted toward diversity in the classroom. I can’t recall exactly how the topic came up, but clearly, we were like-minded. She became, and still is, a mentor in matters of race and the many, many topics that branch out from those roots. I have learned a great deal from her.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned from her was to not be afraid to ask questions when the situation seems right. That is true for all people who are “the other”—people who are different from us in race, ethnicity, sexual preferences, gender, body shape, physical abilities, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, age—the list goes on and on.

These discussions don’t always have to be uncomfortable, a feeling many people default to. My friend and I team-taught a kind of "college life for freshmen" course one semester, and the first time we discussed the idea of “the other” with the class, we stood side-by-side and noted that I was tall and she was short, I was a man and she was a woman, she was young and I was much older, she had a full head of hair and I was bald, she was from a big city and I am from a small town—but other than that, we were exactly alike. Once the students realized that we were saying it's OK to acknowledge differences, it set the tone for the semester. They laughed at our humorous example. Much of their anxiety vanished.

One of the advantages about being writers is that we often can sit down and write our way to answers. The situation I’ve outlined about students’ disclosures asks questions I can’t answer, though, despite this post.

I would very much appreciate hearing your thoughts, ideas, suggestions, counter-arguments and the like. And if you think all or parts of my thinking is/are flawed, please say so.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 6th, 2015 12:36 pm (UTC)
What about something basic and true: "I have friends who are gay, too." followed by an open-ended question: "Is that/this/there something you'd like to talk about?"
Apr. 6th, 2015 02:26 pm (UTC)
I like your initial response a lot, and I like the idea of an open-ended question something along the line you've proposed. Thanks.
Apr. 6th, 2015 06:20 pm (UTC)
two students have made me uncomfortable by mentioning that friends of theirs (fellow students) are gay

I'm a little confused. How are they working this into the conversation?
Apr. 6th, 2015 10:10 pm (UTC)
One of the students was in my office on academic business when she went on an extended conversational riff that eventually came to a point that went something like "My parents asked if I have any friends who aren't gay. Most of them are. (Student X, someone we both know) is gay."

Another student was in my freshman writing class, and she wrote an essay about two female students she knew who had, ah, strong feelings for each other. I ran into her in the bar where the Blues Ensemble class I take performs a concert at the end of the semester. She was a little tipsy and started talking about her essay and asked, "You know who it's about, don't you?" and before I could answer, she told me. I knew both students.

I'm in the Seinfeld-ian "not that there's anything wrong with it" camp, but I thought the students were telling me Too Much Information—and that reaction is what has me puzzled. I mean, when I see students in boy-girl relationships, I don't give it a second thought. And I really don't give a second thought to guy-guy or girl-girl relationships. Whatever makes someone happy is all that matters. My discomfort with these student revelations, though, makes me wonder if my mind is as open as I like to think it is.

Apr. 6th, 2015 10:26 pm (UTC)
I think in the first case, the student may be trying to tell someone that she herself is gay and she is testing the waters to see what kind of reaction she gets.... Possibly in the second case as well.
Apr. 6th, 2015 10:35 pm (UTC)
Could be. I've been working with college students (almost exclusively freshmen) for almost 14 years now, and each year, one way or another, I'm reminded of how little I know about how they think.

The more I think about it, nodressrehersal has a good response: "I have friends who are gay, too." It's a positive, non-judgmental message that doesn't bring the person being outed into the discussion.
Apr. 6th, 2015 10:37 pm (UTC)
Oh, I agree.
Apr. 6th, 2015 11:16 pm (UTC)
There is one simple truth that is so often forgotten. Regardless of race, creed, religion, gender identification, sexual orientation...etc, every human being wants to love and be loved, validated and be able to validate others, and most of all feel a sense of worth as not anyone of the aforementioned list above, but for all of them as a complete human being. Holiday
Apr. 6th, 2015 11:34 pm (UTC)
Apr. 8th, 2015 05:41 pm (UTC)
Maybe what makes you uncomfortable, or what would me, is that this information isn't necessarily theirs to share. Not everyone who is gay wants others to know that, despite the fact that it is becoming more acceptable. If they were talking about themselves, I have a feeling it would have been a much less uneasy conversation for you. I think what I would be asking them about is why are you talking to me about those people? Even if it puts them on the spot it is a legitimate question.
Apr. 8th, 2015 10:31 pm (UTC)
Exactly: It's not their information to pass along. That's a good question to respond with. Thanks for the suggestion.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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