One of my coworkers has two sons who are a few years younger than mine. This coworker, who was born and raised in China then came to this country after college, periodically turns to me for explanations about American practices related to school and parenting. For example, I’ve explained birthday party etiquette to her, and what classes a typical middle-school student is likely to take. My favorite was the time I helped her write the “Here’s what my 3rd grader is like, and here’s why you should assign him to the good, strict 4th grade teacher next year and not the relaxed, self-esteem-boosting 4th grade teacher, but we need to phrase it differently since you don’t technically allow us to request specific teachers” letter to her son’s school. (Ah, the joy of elementary school class placement in a middle-class suburb.)
A couple weeks ago, I asked how her older son was doing in middle school. She said he’d had a band concert recently that went really well, then continued, “The band teacher, the kids say she is lesbian. And when she thanked people at the concert for giving their support, she said ‘Thank you to my wife.’ I felt so uncomfortable!”
It occurred to me that clearly this coworker has no idea I’m a lesbian, and equally clearly this didn’t seem like quite the right time to come out to her.
She continued, “I’m from China, nobody talks about this there. My son says ‘Mom, it’s no big deal,’ but I don’t know. Is everybody here OK with it?”
I answered honestly, “Well, a lot of people here, especially younger people, are totally fine with it. And some people aren’t OK with it, and some people are changing how they feel about it. That’s why you hear so much about it in politics, like what Obama said recently about changing how he feels.”
She said, “I would have felt better if she said ‘partner’ instead of ‘wife.’ But ‘wife’ must mean she is already married.”
I replied, “Yes, it probably does mean she is already married. And if she had thanked a husband instead of her wife, nobody would have thought anything about it. She just wants to be able to talk about her family the way anybody else would.”
She nodded, and I could see her understanding grow as she thought that over, and we both went back to work.
Obama’s recent announcement that he finally supports same-sex marriage had left me feeling angry and frustrated. It wasn’t just because it’s taken so long for someone in power, and someone who wanted my vote, to decide I deserve equal rights, but also because I’m expected to feel grateful he’s finally “evolved” enough to say it. His statements have never seemed like anything more than a political power play.
But my coworker, who talked about how the teacher’s statement made her feel, but never once indicated she thought the teacher shouldn’t have been allowed to say it, and who acknowledged this a topic she’s never discussed – it was wonderful to see her genuinely grappling with the concept, and then the understanding and a bit more acceptance spread across her face.
And also wonderful that her preteen son is giving her exactly the same message at home.