Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Clash of Beer Week and Gay Pride

I had an interesting experience in Philadelphia last week at wonderful, wonderful Philly Beer Week, where the country's best beer city steps up its game six notches and dozens of great local bars serve up keg after miraculous keg of rare and supernal spuds.

Philly Beer Week, strangely, coincides with Philly's annual gay pride celebration. Not my favorite scene; as I've written previously, I don't find public celebration of sexual preference a tasteful thing (one's preference for innies versus outies is supremely uninteresting; those who self-identify on that basis really ought to get lives).

But we ran into one fellow who seemed to span the gulf between both events, and at 1am in a dark specialty beer bar, where me and my blue collar buddies were goofily swilling esoteric Belgian brews, this fellow, an ardent home brewer, struck up a conversation with me.

My buddies (who are actually very kind-hearted), being wasted and goofy from drinking all day, got up, stood over the guy's shoulder, and started batting their eyes and making kissy faces at me. Unfortunately, the guy noticed and quickly left in a quietly dignified pique.

My friends asked whether I realized that he was gay and appeared to be "into me". My reply was that I didn't give a damn on either score, and that I was enjoying the conversation (he's a physicist doing fascinating research). Someone's sexual inclinations have no bearing on me or on anyone else. And if inclinations were indeed directed toward me (I hadn't gotten that impression, but I wasn't looking for it), what difference would it make? Lots of people are interested in lots of people for lots of reasons, few of which are pertinent to an interesting discussion about physics. If he'd chosen to make it pertinent, he'd have been politely refused, case-closed. So what, exactly, is the problem? Is gayness contagious? If that's the worry, then the problem would obviously be a crisis of confidence in one's own orientation!

That shut them up. And we went on to enjoy further carousing, but I felt a lingering dismay, having registered the guy's pain as he'd been essentially ridiculed out of the bar.

As I mulled it over, though, I realized this hadn't been bigotry or hate or anything so ugly. In fact, much the same happens to us all...frequently! Just a few weeks earlier, I'd enjoyed a riotous discussion with a 19 year old waitress who shared my love for corned beef hash. As we jubilantly swapped favorites, trying to one-up each other, her coworkers didn't hide their disgust toward the middle-aged creep shamelessly chatting up the hot young girl. Upon registering this, much to my horror (I do corned beef hash jams with strangers of every stripe; I hadn't even imagined anything romantic), I left in a similar state of quiet humiliation. Guys my age are not supposed to socially bond with younger people. It looks desperate and creepy. Lots of things look desperate and creepy when they're really just normal and friendly!

My experience with the corned beef hash waitress had been the exact same situation! Was I a victim of hatred? Were the other waitresses bigots? Was this prejudice or persecution? No. It was just normal stuff. There are times when our differences stick out, with humiliating results. Remember how I was made to feel like an escaped convict during my ill-fated sport jacket-buying trip to Saks?

Gay people have made enormous strides. Yet people still rank on them sometimes. Well, that's likely to continue. It's a part of coming to the table, rather than remaining hidden. Alienation and repulsion are unavoidable in human social interaction. It stinks, and I try to never do it, and I deeply wish my friends had shown some class (though, geez, who expects class at 1am in a beer bar?), but it's not hatred. It's not even bigotry, which involves actual malice and oppression. Neither of my friends is remotely capable of that.

Living in a multicultural society means being ranked on, condescended to, looked askance at, and generally called out for being different in some settings, and embraced for being like-minded in others. Perhaps those gay pride parades aren't so distasteful after all; everyone needs to swim with their school sometimes.

Why should gay people expect equal rights plus some idyllic condition of seamless dignity and indiscriminate welcome which none of the rest of us enjoys? This isn't a Benetton commercial; this is real life! So, to you, humiliated gay home brewing physicist, I'd say: it's not just you. Everyone experiences social friction from difference. Laughter stems from that same friction, and, in the end, that's okay (though a challenge to one's dignity), and quite far from hatred. See things for what they are - far less malevolent than you'd at first imagine. And don't ever quit talking to all sorts of people; we all need to show courage in this life!

See this follow-up.


Seth Godin said...

Oh, Jim.

Last time I checked, no one had recently been beaten or killed because they liked to talk about corned beef hash with willing waitresses:

Or even forced to quit their job, or leave town or hide out.

False equivalencies are a dangerous slope. We can never imagine someone else's life, and telling them to get a life isn't our most generous act.

Jim Leff said...

I replied here:

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