Travelling while queer, pre-pandemic
It was 2013 and I was heading home to San Francisco, from DC, after a work trip. A year ago, before we began to stay at home due to pandemic, I had a similar experience with a driver on the way to an airport in Texas.
I have a story of a “husband” that I sometimes use in casual conversation around the world (and some places in my country) when I sense that my queerness will not be welcome.
“In Ethiopia it’s 70 degrees and sunny every day, I miss that weather,” says the town car driver as we make small chat about the freezing weather and snow in DC. Then the conversation veers around where I live, where he used to live, what he likes about being a driver. “Do you drive,” he asks? “As little as possible,” I reply, “I prefer to passenger on planes trains cars, and pedestrian as much as I can.” I mention my daughter. She wants to learn to drive someday. Sometimes, I’ve noticed, well, more often than not, if I mention that I’m a parent then I’m assumed to be straight unless I quickly (often non sequitorly) append a reference to my wife.
He mentions that he has a friend, from Ethiopia, who moved to San Jose, while he, the driver, lives in Virginia. His friend told him, “don’t visit me here.” He asked why. The friend responded, “there are a lot of gays here.” I wondered where this conversation was wandering. It felt slightly dangerous. “There aren’t any gay people in Ethiopia,” he continued, “people hurt and kill gay people. I don’t understand the gays. I have a friend, she says she’s a lesbian, and she asks me all the time if I’m okay with gay.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. With the conversation threads of immigrating from a country where being gay means invisible or harmed (how can you harm and kill gays if nobody is gay?), the friend who doesn’t like the gays in San Jose, …. It seemed the odds weren’t good for this conversation and I felt trapped in the back of the car.
I’ve had this experience before. A driver chitchats, I respond and add to the conversation, eventually I’m asked if I have children, if I’m married (is this common for men too or is it peculiar to women?). Yes, yes, I reply. And, inevitably, “what does your husband do?” And so, “oh, no husband,” I cheerily reply, “I have a wife.” The majority of the time, “oh, my mistake” is the response and the conversation continues, but sometimes there is silence for the rest of the ride, the driver in the front and the married dyke out of the closet in the back seat.
This driver continued, “I don’t understand the gays, I don’t know any gays, besides my friend who says she’s a lesbian, my friend in San Jose is afraid of the gays, sometimes I think I see gay people here in U.S., in my country being gay is not okay.”
“If she says she’s a lesbian, then isn’t she a lesbian, not just saying she is?” I challenge him. He considers, “I don’t care who anyone is, it’s just that I grew up where there are no gays, gays are hurt and killed.”
Then we were at the airport. My heart was beating faster. “Thank you for the ride,” I say, “you’ve met one more gay. I’m married to a woman.” His head whipped around, “you? Really? No way. You’re too pretty to be gay.” Keeping a fear out of my voice, not having felt so slightly afraid of coming out to someone in a while, “yes, I’m a lesbian like your friend, and I have a wife who I’ve been with for a long time and we have a daughter.”
I smile and step out of the car and walk into the airport. I wasn’t in danger but I was so shaky nervous.
The lesson of civil rights advocacy is that the more people know “the gays,” the less likely they are to vote against our civil rights. One town car driver at a time. Speak up.