Some reflections on the challenge of educating allies, with the help of Ben Passmore's Your Black Friend.
Sometimes when I'm talking about my experience of life as a queer person, whoever is in earshot will just simmer down and turn to me to quietly soak up whatever that day’s LGBT-related challenge is. I have a lot of straight friends. Some of them are Republicans, but all of them love and support me. They are doing their best to be allies, but privately I sometimes reflect that their efforts are hilariously not good enough. They know not what they do.
So I become their queer friend, a person in their lives to whom they feel they can turn for answers to life’s big lesbian mysteries, a safe space to experiment with bettering themselves. Katie Couric just did that in a National Geographic documentary, Gender Revolution (2017), wherein she basically rounded up a gaggle of transpeople to help her understand. My wife and I have a fair number of trans friends, but we often feel like our efforts are hilariously not good enough. We know not what we do. And hey, we cried like 12 times during Couric’s interviewing, bless our hearts.
The public high school where I teach has about 300 adults in the building, at least a dozen of which are queers, and I’m the only teacher who’s out amongst the kids. One openly queer teacher divided by the attention of 300 well-meaning colleagues who have questions that should get answers. So I become their expert on anything LGBTQ, even though I can only speak for myself. Mostly I coach them into a field of greater acceptability by using statements about my thoughts, feelings and wishes, rather than using any language of correction or right and wrong. I’m not policing or picking fights with anybody, but how can I turn away when they ask me stuff in all their good heartedness so much of the time?
This kid is crying about how his boyfriend just broke up with him. Can you spare five minutes? The mom says she’s supporting the kid’s transition and she’s happy to sue us. So, do you know what’s the best policy for sending this kid to a bathroom? This kid needs a book on how gender roles are oppressive for her research paper for my class. Can you recommend some things? He goes by Sean, but isn’t it still Hannah in our online grade book? I can’t stand all that kissing they do in the hallways. Were you like that in high school? Did you hear they nominated her for Prom King? Is that even legal? Can you just go in and get that other paperwork -- in the girls’ locker room? How come you never wear a skirt to work? Is she your wife, or partner, or what? Why don’t you and Mindy ever come to our football games? What time is the Gay-Straight Alliance meeting, again?
I jumped at the chance to read Ben Passmore’s Your Black Friend, because I suspected that being someone’s black friend is roughly equivalent to being someone’s queer friend. The content will all be different, but the forms will be much the same. At the Women’s March a couple months ago, one of my favorite signs was “same struggle, different difference” being carried around by a black woman who was about my age. She had on a cool outfit, too, over which she and my wife bonded. At work, I have two black friends. One of them is a librarian and one of them teaches career skills. The teacher’s son was in my class a few years back, and from the way he engaged with me in class discussions, I knew his mom was talking to him thoroughly about blackness over dinner.
It’s good to have people to talk to me thoroughly about blackness. I loaned them Passmore’s 11-page comic and once all three of us read it, we had a little bit of a book club going about it. Sometimes they related to Passmore’s feelings about a given stereotypical scenario and found his commentary hilarious. Other times they thought they might be too old to get into that situation, or they identified with the situation but not Passmore’s feelings about it. Neither of them found anything in the book offensive. They found it mildly funny and mildly informative, but neither said they would think to pass it along to others, whether those others were black or white.
They liked that I thought to share it with them and they both patted me on the head for trying another try. They seem to be keeping it as real with me as they can and I appreciate it so much, hoping that they don’t ultimately feel like I’m an annoying idiot, even though I know they must because of the way I feel about my own ambivalent burden of being other people’s queer friend. My naïveté and casual lapses while carrying the ally banner probably aren’t as lovingly forgivable as Katie Couric’s. Kudos to Passmore for gladly suffering to depict the fools in Your Black Friend.