On a flight from Tampa to Chicago in 2011, the Complimentary Spouse and I sat in front of two men lamenting political correctness and the decline of religion in public life.
One said he hoped Michelle Bachman would enter the presidential race soon to put an end to this nonsense.
“Yeah, it’s getting bad,” the other guy agreed. “Kids can’t even play ‘smear the queer’ on the playground anymore.”
I snapped. I stood up (as much as one can stand up in seat 3E), turned around, and let them know in no uncertain terms that their bigotry robbed people of their dignity and deprived them of equal rights.
I also told them they were complicit in creating an environment so toxic that kids would rather kill themselves than endure the pain and humiliation. I quoted suicide statistics as proof.
Addressing the lack of religion, I said the man sitting next to me was raised in a Southern Baptist household in a religious community and knew more about the Bible than both of them combined.1 And he is my husband.
They shut up. I sat down. They didn’t say a word for the rest of the flight and wouldn’t make eye contact with us as we deplaned.2
I don’t know if Dr. Betty Berzon would applaud my behavior or be aghast at it.
Dr. Betty Berzon was a lesbian psychotherapist and activist who began fighting against discrimination and stigmatization in the medical community when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. She’s also the author of “Setting Them Straight,” a handbook for confronting bigots and homophobes in personal and public interactions.3
“Setting Them Straight” was published in 1996, when discourse about LGBTQ issues was shifting away from the AIDS crisis and toward social issues like marriage equality and the military. In the ’90s:
- We got DOMA and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Boo!
- People like Melissa Etheridge, Ellen DeGeneres, Elton John, and Greg Louganis came out of the closet.
- LGBTQ representation in entertainment improved — sometimes problematically — with movies and TV shows like “Ellen,” “The Birdcage,” “Will & Grace,” and the absolutely delightful “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”
I read “Setting Them Straight” in 1996. Berzon said the best way to confront bigots is not to try to reply tit-for-tat with whatever points they make. Instead, ask them why they feel that way. When you do that:
- You get to the root of their hatred: It’s probably based on things like myths, misinformation, discomfort, or religious indoctrination.
- It puts the burden of proof on them: You’re no longer on the defense. They are the ones that need to justify their beliefs, statements, and actions.
A Pro-LGBTQ Force in an Anti-LGBTQ World
Berzon, a psychotherapist, came out in 1968 and began working with LGBTQ clients. She told people to be proud of their identity — nothing was wrong with them. It was a revolutionary message at the time. She pushed for the American Psychological Association to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness — and, in 1973, they did.
I care about who you are, who you have been, who you want to be. I open myself to you to listen and learn about you. I cherish you, not just my fantasy of who you are, not just who I need you to be, but who you really are…
So, let’s return to that encounter on the plane. If Berzon were there, I think she’d be proud that I called out bigotry but unhappy that I took a confrontational approach.
The next time I’m in 3E — or anywhere else I hear bigotry — I’ll remember to do better. Thanks, Betty.
1 This is an exaggeration. I know many LGBTQ people who had to overcome strict religious backgrounds, but they weren’t on the flight, so I used their experiences to pump up Britt’s religious resume. It’s easier to hit a point home when you have a living, breathing example of it sitting next to you.
2 Britt remembers this differently. He says:
- I didn’t say anything until the flight was over.
- I was more reserved in my comments than I recall.
Britt’s memory tends to be better than mine, but I’ll stick with my story because it makes me feel like more of a superhero. But Britt also takes poetic license in his retelling — he says it happened in 2008 as we were flying to San Francisco to get married.
3 This is actually one of her lesser-known books. She’s best known for “Positively Gay” (1979), “Permanent Partners” (1988), “The Intimacy Dance” (1996), and her autobiography, “Surviving Madness, a Therapist’s Own Story” (2002).4
4 So, why am I writing a whole blog post about this book and not one of the more famous ones? Well, it’s the only one I’ve read. I haven’t written about books I’ve not read since middle school.5
5 OK, high school.6
6 Fine, college. Are you happy now?