My encounter with Gator.
In my life and line of work, I see it happen so often: preconceived notions about what kind of person someone is based on their looks, orientation or race. The truth is, we are all guilty of judging to some degree. I know it happens all the time, but I always thought I held myself to a higher standard: accept everyone as they are. After all, it’s what we do at Compass and it’s part of our mission: Compass aims to diminish stereotypes by challenging long-standing misconceptions about the character of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
We are quick to “school” people when they judge our community, we hardly remember it also goes the other way around. I got caught up in it last week when decorating for the World AIDS Day fundraiser and White Party. I was standing on a ladder, balancing myself in flip flops and maneuvering scissors, fishing line and white paper lanterns when I hear a man’s voice.
“You’re doing it wrong,” he said.
“Excuse me?” I say, without even glancing down
“You’re doing it wrong. You should check the balance of the ladder before you even step on it. You’re gonna fall off, just get down.”
He introduced himself as Gator, that’s right, Gator. He identified as a true “Florida Cracker,” dressed in head-to toe camouflage, and spoke with a thick southern drawl with a dialect of someone who grew up in the Everglades. I cringed when he asked me “just what exactly is a white party?” Here it comes, I thought.
“White parties original goal was always intended to be HIV/AIDS fundraisers, named after Ryan White.” I stared at him while he paused for a moment, and then he said “oh yeah, the young kid who died 20 years ago from a blood transfusion, right? Terrible situation that was, I remember that.”
(Insert my raised eyebrow with a hint of surprise.) As we continued to talk and decorate, we asked each other many questions, including if I had a husband or boyfriend. Again I thought, here it comes. As we told each other our life stories all afternoon, we continued to surprise each other and things were going quite smooth. Well, they were going smooth until Gator spoke up that he had some better ideas than I did about decorating and “foofing” the tulle.
I laughed out loud when I asked, “seriously, what do you know about foofing the tulle?“
“Everything, I decorated my back yard for a wedding” he said.
“Yours?” I asked.
“No, my daughter married her partner after being together for 20 years,” he responded quite proud.
“Wait, her partner?“ the words came out of my mouth without even thinking.
“Yes,” he proclaimed. “And now I have two wonderful daughters in my life.”
And there I was, caught red-handed and guilty of the very thing our community fights for every single day. I had stereotyped this guy based solely on his looks and the way he spoke, and he knew it too. As he quietly helped me pick up the ladder, I shook his hand and thanked him. And as he walked out the door, Gator said goodbye and told me the next time we decide to throw a party, he would be happy to help and call me out on my lousy decorating skills.
Julie Seaver is Compass’ Center Director, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.