SINCE I CAME OUT roughly eight years ago, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel throughout the US, Latin America, Europe, and India. I’ve spent a bit of time in Africa and I’ve lived in the Midwest, Buenos Aires, London, New York, and Mumbai. I’ve also met and befriended people from all corners of the earth. I’ve met locals, backpackers and expats, as well as people traveling on all sorts of business, from attorneys and chefs to professors and artists.
At the same time, I’ve also met a lot of members of the LGBTQ family (by the way, when I say “homosexual” I’m using that as a blanket term for all people who identify as LGBTQ etc.). These homos that I’ve met have come from all different walks of life. I’ve met Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Atheists. I’ve met Europeans, Latinos, Asians, Arabs, Africans, and people of wildly mixed ancestral backgrounds. Rich people? Yes. Poor people? You betcha. Highly educated people and people without a high school degree? I’ve met them too. I’ve even met conservatives, liberals, extremists, and moderates. Some poor souls were still deeply closeted and were trying to come to terms with themselves. And I’ve met a hell of a lot of people that, on first pass, I thought I had absolutely nothing in common with.
I was raised extremely Christian and am now probably best classified as a Deist bordering on Atheist (so I’m conflicted, aren’t we all?). I’m from the Midwest — the oldest of five boys. I was raised on a farm in the middle of nowhere. By all conventional Western measures, my family was only a notch or two above dirt poor when I was a kid. As a kid I was taught that queers were going to hell along with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Pentecostals, a good portion of Catholics, and every single liberal in the country. Oh, and Clinton was probably the anti-Christ. Politically, I’m socially liberal and fiscally conservative. I went to a Podunk elementary school and was homeschooled from age 15 until I took the GED at 18. I went to a small university near my hometown, though I did go on to study all over the world, becoming “highly educated,” and I’ve got the student loans to prove it too. I became an attorney and a stressed out, overworked, underpaid operations manager crisscrossing the globe.
Why is who I am so important? Because I want to demonstrate to you how utterly different I am from some of the locals, backpackers, expats, and business travelers I’ve met. Why? So you understand just how awesome what I’m about to tell you really is.
Remember all those people I told you I’ve met during my post-coming-out travels? Pretty diverse crowd, right? Well, I was able to befriend nearly all of them – 9 out of 10. I’m not talking just about gay guys here, I’m talking about lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals, transgenders, queers, and people who definitely weren’t straight but didn’t feel comfortable with any of the labels that LGBTQ offers. And they’ve befriended me right back.
I’ve dated a Hindu from northeast India, a transgender guy from the northeastern US, a hippie from the Midwest, a somewhat conservative Muslim living in the UK, and a first generation Asian-American. I’ve had more casual relationships with an illegal immigrant (Latino), a nearly “fresh of the boat” legal immigrant (Black), and an uneducated ex-con (White). Not to mention the few weekend flings I’ve had with Republicans, staunch Catholics, and so on.
In this way, homosexuality is a great equalizer. Here’s a few more examples:
1. I recently met a 20-year-old Muslim guy living in one of the many slums that can be found in Mumbai. His father is dead. He hasn’t been educated beyond probably the 8th grade level and he’s been working since he was about 12. We met on a local train going into south Mumbai. I was on the train purely for the sake of novelty, I was in Mumbai for business — my company provides a car and driver for me. He was on the train out of necessity, he couldn’t afford a tuk-tuk let alone a proper taxi. The fare I normally pay without thinking twice about is probably more than he earns in several days.
We ended up sitting next to each other because, well, those trains are ridiculously crowded. We started talking because he was curious and wanted to practice his English. Also because he had more balls than any of the other people who were all staring at me in shock — a white guy on these trains is not a common sight.
He started pelting me with the same questions I get every time I go to India. Where are you from? What do you do? How long in India? Married? Family? Girlfriend? No wife / girlfriend? Why not? I have a sister. After several more questions, he stopped to check his phone — I quickly did the same. Suddenly, he tapped my shoulder and, lowering his head, whispered to me, Are you gay? I didn’t want to answer — it is illegal in India, after all, and this guy was a complete stranger — until he discreetly showed me an app on his phone. Planet Romeo — a gay dating app that I also happen have on my phone. In fact, when we paused to check our phones I logged on to read a new message on said app, and popped up in the “nearby” section of his app. I couldn’t help laughing and did so out loud, gaining me even more weird looks from my fellow passengers.
Now this was a guy that right up until that second I had absolutely nothing in common with. I have no idea what it must be like to be a young, fatherless, Muslim boy growing up in the slums of Mumbai, without much of an education and working 7 days a week since the age of 12. Sure, I’ve read some stories. I could feel sorry for him maybe, but there was no real connection until I discovered he was gay too.
Suddenly all of those differences, all of those barriers vanished. They became irrelevant. No, not because suddenly he was a potential date or one-night stand. Not because I was attracted to him (I wasn’t, not my type). But now, now I could relate. I could sympathize. I could empathize. I may not know what it’s like to be discriminated against because you’re a Muslim in a very anti-Muslim world. I don’t know what it’s like to be discriminated against because you live in a tin shack in a sprawling, sweltering, festering slum. But I do know what it’s like to be discriminated against because you’re gay — even if you’re not openly gay or “obviously” gay.
I know what it’s like to be afraid of coming out. I know what it’s like to be afraid of getting caught doing, saying, or having something that would mark you as gay. I know what it’s like to worry if people can tell and what your family and friends will think. And I also know what it’s like to fear for your physical safety as a result of something that you cannot control, something you were born with.
2. One of my ex-boyfriends is black, born in Honduras, brought to the US legally as a child and raised in the Bronx. Did I understand what it was like to grow up in the Bronx? No, I grew up on a farm in Missouri. Could I relate to being an immigrant of color in the US? Nope. Could I then and can I now relate to the discrimination and racism issues black people are facing in the US? No. Could I relate to the issues and feelings and struggles he had when coming to terms with being gay and coming out to his family and friends? Absolutely.
3. Last year I dated a transguy (male born in a female body) in the middle of his transition. To be perfectly honest, we didn’t have a ton in common — just a crazy, inexplicable attraction to one another. I listened whenever he talked about the issues he faced growing up. I listened when he talked about the issues he still faces when his grandmother refuses to call him by anything other than the name he was given at birth (a very feminine name) or when co-workers did stupid and offensive things. Again, I’ve got no idea what that’s like. I’ve never faced those issues. But I could relate to the basics of discrimination, family not accepting you for who you really are, and the inherent anti-LGBTQ crap built into our society.
That’s the thing about being a member of the LGBTQ family. Sure, we have our differences, just like anyone else. But at the most basic level we can relate to each other, we know without needing details the struggles the person we’ve just met has been through. We open up to our fellow comrades, wrap ourselves up in the rainbow flag and talk about what it was like growing up as a gay guy, lesbian, queen, bisexual, or transgender in whatever city / state / country / religion etc. that we happen to be from. At the same time that we’re showing our compatriots that we face the same / similar issues as they do, we’re giving each other a glimpse into the real society and fabric of a place.
Each time this happens (and there have been several times), I walk away moved and humbled. I also walk away realizing yet again how fortunate I am that my family changed and that things are slowly changing in the west. Here in India, with the recent re-criminalization of homosexual acts, what’s happening in the West is unimaginable.
In a few weeks time, I’ll be heading to Bangkok to begin four months of backpacking all over Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. I’m good at networking, so I’ve already started putting the contacts and social media to work, lining up people to meet — so far mainly LGBTQ people. The response so far has been amazing. Yet again, people from all walks of life are inviting me into their cities, their circles of friends, and even into their homes. They are providing advice, local insight, loopholes, and will be showing me their favorite spots — without ever having met me. Why? Because I’m a homosexual.