SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2003        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Amy Rosenbaum

The Future of Difference

  One of the biggest shocks of my life came when I was a junior in high school.  A close and trusted friend revealed that she had been struggling with the issue of her sexuality, and that she was either gay or bisexual, she did not know which.  I tried to be there for her as much as I could, but I must admit that I was very uncomfortable with it.  Coming from a Christian home, I had my own set of moral standards, and I definitely did not condone that lifestyle.  She knew how I felt, and sometimes I wonder if that is why it took so long for her to confide in me.

   Over the next few months, I was undoubtedly the only person she talked to about this.  She was terrified of the social pressures put on her, but at the same time she felt she could not pretend to be something that she clearly was not.  This internal conflict was tearing her apart, and while I sympathized with her unhappiness, there was not much that I could do for her. 

When it came to such a socially important issue as sexuality, the task of outwardly defining my position seemed impossible, especially as a junior in high school.  In the beginning, I tried to deny it simply because the consequences of my peers judging me for being a “homo” would be devastating to my self esteem, and it would rob me of my confidence.

By the time Christmas came, she had joined a group of young individuals like her self who were battling the same social pressures.  There was a Christmas party that was going to take place a hotel where the members of the group could go and also bring a supportive friend along if she or he chose to do so.  I had agreed to go with her, since I was really the only one she confided in, but truthfully, I knew I would not be comfortable with the situation. 

We arrived at the hotel a half-hour late, and it looked as though everyone else had already arrived.  I observed several people talking and laughing, and I knew I was one of the only heterosexuals present at the party.  I was tense and unsure, but my friend began introducing me to her friends immediately, ignoring my obvious uncertainty.  Walking into that room, I was forced to directly deal with my uncertainties about homosexuality.  As this was my first impression of individuals leading alternative lifestyles (aside from television), it was quite a shock.

As we went around the room, I could feel people looking at me and wondering.  Perhaps they were wondering if I was going to judge them.  Maybe they were judging me.  I don’t know for sure, but I was certain that they could tell that I was a heterosexual.  Something about the way that I carried myself was different from them, and I felt scared that they would perhaps see right through me and confront me.  Then what?  Would they assume that my morals are incorrect and judge me for that?  The usual situation had been flipped.  This time I was the outcast in their society, and I definitely felt alienated. 

We walked in the room, and she perused the faces staring back at her.  I couldn’t interpret exactly what she was thinking, but her body language gave away her insecurity.  I introduced her to my new friends, people with whom I shared a common challenge and had grown close to as a result.  They were just as kind and interesting as she considered me to be, and I wanted desperately to show her that.  Above all else, I wanted her acceptance.  I knew I had her support, but that is not quite the same thing.   

What was most surprising was the way that the people at the party related to me with touch.  Prior to this event I had never hugged someone the first time that I met him/her, and in this case so many people hugged me as if I needed support.  It irked me a little.  Perhaps they sensed that I felt alienated and wanted to make me feel better, when it really made things weirder. 

However, watching the way my friend interacted with the group, I noticed that among these individuals she was confident.  She no longer seemed lonely and afraid as she did in the high school environment.  I was happy for her.  Despite my objections to her lifestyle, I did not feel that she deserved mistreatment in any way, and I was glad that she felt comfortable and unthreatened. 

I remained polite the rest of the evening, attempting to hide my discomfort, but I couldn’t shake the strange feeling I had.  I was exposed to a way of life that I felt was wrong, both morally and biologically, yet I sympathized with those who were forced to deal with hatred and disrespect from their community.  Needless to say, I was left with my own internal conflict as the evening came to a close.

This event is significant to me because I never directly came in contact with anyone living an alternative lifestyle prior to that night.  Walking into a room full of homosexuals, shaking hands with them and hugging them, was so odd because I have always been told by my parents, society, clergy and the Bible itself that homosexuality is morally wrong.  More importantly, I was taught not to affiliate with any sort of misconduct, which this event definitely qualified for.  

I found myself surprised that there were so many people at that party, that my friend was not one of a few, but of many who were trying to define their sexuality.  Now, I look back and wonder why I thought that was so strange because I can see that there are many homosexuals in our society, although our laws and practices do not generally condone that type of behavior.  When one takes a look at the media, social structures, as well as the historical (traditional religion based) society, one can see that we live in a highly heterosexual country, and probably the rest of the world as well.  So as a 16 year old in such a heterosexually influenced social structure as a public high school, my first reaction to the homosexual gathering does not seem so surprising anymore.

This exercise helped me to thoroughly examine the experience of those that the dominant society constitutes as Other.  Now, I analyze the crisis that my friend was going through from a different perspective.  Considering the intolerance and cruelty of certain homophobic teenage peers, I understand exactly why she and perhaps others kept their feelings “in the closet.”  Without having gone through the experience myself, I truly sympathize with her.  Alternative lifestyles certainly do not justify ostracism and disrespect.  Differences of morality in society are bound to persist.  How we choose to respond to these differences is what will determine societal health.  I believe that social “norms” are rapidly being redefined, and perhaps in a few years, this event, which I consider to be a significant lesson on difference, will not be so significant to another youth.  Hopefully, the future population will embrace such differences, instead of fearing or rejecting them.

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