The story that went along with the photo Lisa took on Tuesday appeared, hugely, on the front page of the LIFE section of the News & Observer.
I am so misrepresented in this article. What's said in the caption, I never said it: "...some people are stunned into silence." That's so ludicrous, if you know me. Unless someone is blind or deaf they are not stunned into anything when they "learn" that I'm gay. Good lord.
How it really went down: The writer sent out an email request to local GLBT listerves for people to share their experiences with "the awkward silence," and I responded that I don't experience that... that my experience is that the more comfortable I am with matter-of-factly mentioning my boyfriend or partner in a conversation, the more comfortably the information is received. (I told her this by replying to her email.)
She called me on the phone to follow-up on my email, and said, "But what if there was some reaction, if someone got fidgety, what would you do then?" And that's when I said what she quoted me on at the beginning of the article.
What I don't like is that "stunned" comment in the caption, which I never said, and the fact that she alludes to "this is John's technique to handle it" as if it happens all the time, when I specifically told her that it doesn't happen to me. And that bit about, "John Martin has endured his share over the years..." obviously I never said that since I said it doesn't happen.
Plus, last night the writer called me, "Just wanted to check, about Robert, do you call him your boyfriend or your partner?" "My boyfriend," I said. The caption says partner and the article says boyfriend.
I got the distinct impression she had a story already written and was bound and determined to "fill it in her way." Oh well.
That uneasy silence
When homosexuality comes up, discomfort still follows
John Martin, left, with his partner, Robert Shumaker, at home in Raleigh, says that when he mentions he is gay some people are stunned into silence. Other gay people say they get that same reaction sometimes. 'I just move on,' Martin says. Staff Photo by Lisa Lauck
By KAREN GUZMAN, Staff Writer
It lasts only a few seconds, but the signs are unmistakable. Eyes avert. Mouths settle into tense lines. Conversation skips a beat.
It's another awkward silence as someone hears -- right out loud -- that a friend, colleague or relative is gay.
John Martin has endured his share over the years, as people learned he is a gay man with a boyfriend.
Martin, 47, of Raleigh, has a simple technique for handling these awkward lulls.
"I just move on," he said. "They can fidget, and they can take it home and fidget some more. It's out of me and on them."
Experiences such as Martin's have been part of a national conversation since the final presidential debate, when Sen. John Kerry mentioned Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter, Mary, is a lesbian. Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards, also referred to Mary Cheney's sexual orientation in the vice presidential debate a week earlier. Charges and countercharges flew -- nearly 64 percent of people polled by The Washington Post after the debate called Kerry's comment "inappropriate."
Lynne Cheney, the vice president's wife, accused Kerry of violating her family's privacy, describing herself as "a pretty indignant mom." Kerry's camp told The New York Times he was not trying to score political points, just showing "respect for what strong families do with this issue."
For gay and lesbian people interviewed for this story, the fallout from Kerry's comment brought out complex emotions and questions: Hasn't society moved beyond this? Why is it so hard to talk about it?
Chris Berggren, 43, of Durham, said he need only go home to California to encounter the awkward silence.
"It's a very uncomfortable subject in my father's house," said Berggren, who is gay.
"Mostly I just don't talk about it, but fortunately in the last 11 months I've had a few openings because of the events around the country.
"We're still a little bit in the deer-in-the-headlights stage ... but I think we might be going somewhere if we can get past this awkward silence stage that we're in right now."
What can you say?
The ongoing political aftermath of Kerry's remark -- columnist William Safire accused the Kerry camp of trying to "confuse and dismay Bush supporters who believe that same-sex marriage is wrong" -- underscored public discomfort with discussing homosexuality, said Ron Schlittler, interim national executive director of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
"We're coming out of what I would call a very dark time for GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender] people, a time when shame and silences were so much the norm," Schlittler said.
"We're seeing a real struggle even to figure out how to have a conversation."
Said Vernelle Long of Raleigh, who has a lesbian daughter: "There is so much negativity in society. It's a hot issue still even with as much openness as we have."
Uneasiness over learning someone is gay can arise from homophobia or from simple inexperience in dealing with gay people, according to Pamela Johnston Conover, a UNC-Chapel Hill political science professor who teaches the politics of sexuality.
"There is a sort of awareness of not wanting to offend, not wanting to say the wrong thing," Conover said.
In the case of Kerry's comments, semantics played a role.
"Part of the public reaction was the term 'lesbian' as opposed to 'gay,' " Conover said.
"Gay," which Edwards used, is more common, and "people are desensitized to it," she said.
"Lesbian" sounds more threatening to the general public, she said.
Ian Palmquist, executive director for programs of Equality N.C., a statewide advocacy group, said Kerry's comments didn't trouble the gay community. Palmquist generally expressed the same sentiment as Elizabeth Edwards, the vice presidential candidate's wife, who stirred more debate when she said of Lynne Cheney's remark, "I think that it indicates a certain degree of shame with respect to her daughter's sexual preferences."
In any case, Conover said, it's important to note that discomfort over gay issues varies widely.
"I don't think the awkward silence is pervasive in society," she said. "It matters a lot what age, religion and region of the country you're in."
Go for the humor
Dave Lohse can vouch for this.
As a gay man and communications director in UNC-Chapel Hill's athletics department, he has found it's mostly older people who stumble over his sexual orientation.
"Students are much more tuned in, and their minds are more open to different people and different kinds of things in our society," said Lohse, 49.
As for his own awkward silences, Lohse handles them with an openness and a sense of humor.
"If they're really looking bewildered, I will say is there something I can answer or help with? I usually can put them at ease," he said.
Some other gays employ similar tactics.
"Most of the time people don't blink, but if they do, I just continue on. My attitude is, 'Act like it's normal because it is to me,' " said Lorraine Johnson, 42, of Apex.
Johnson is open about her sexual orientation at her job as a financial planner, and said she has never lost a client because of it.
Jane Kenan, 51, of Raleigh, is straight and has a gay brother.
She's a little more circumspect, but when the subject of homosexuality comes up, she sees it as a teaching opportunity.
"I usually try to educate people. A lot of folks don't know anybody gay or they didn't used to," she said.
For Ron Hudson, of Durham, being direct makes sense. Hudson is HIV-positive and says the gay struggle to be genuine is something he notices in every culture.
"Facing death as I am with my illness, I realize if you're holding back, you're not going to have a genuine relationship with people. And if it's not going to be genuine, why even try?" he said.
Staff writer Karen Guzman can be reached at 829-4752 J or firstname.lastname@example.org.