I have been thinking of context a lot lately. The same words, same clothing, same look can appear totally different based on the surroundings. If I were to be having a glass of wine with a friend and in a discussion of my job say, referring to my boss, “I want to kill him”, my friend might chuckle and clink my glass. Someone at the next table might whisper to their dinner mate “Must have had a bad day”. If a sullen teenager were to make the same utterance, hopefully minus the wine and likely in some electronic fashion, at best they may find themselves in the guidance office and at worst may have precipitated a lock down. And the thing is that in both cases – the chuckle in the restaurant and the terror in the school – the responses are totally appropriate.
This came to mind in a different realm the other day. I had dinner with Tammy, my thirty something lesbian friend, and we were discussing Phil. Now if this was a real diary I would describe him – slight of frame, “gay” beard…, but this is a public posting so suffice to say a good argument could be made that Phil looks gay. Tammy would change the phrasing from “a good argument” to “are you kidding?” Yet Phil remains to a great degree in that well appointed closet.
The night before my dinner with Tammy, Phil and I went to our favorite informal restaurant – a nice dive in the very gay district. While in the middle of boys’ town, the clientele is pretty mixed – some nights almost fifty percent straight. We are taken to a booth in the back and Phil looks around and does a double take: there is a couple, the wife a friend of forty plus years, a couple I met last month at their holiday party. A table is quickly pulled over and they finish desert while we nurse our beers. Now these are highly intelligent, sophisticated human beings but I suspect later that evening they just commented that Phil’s friend seems nice or boring or whatever they thought; I sort of doubt they had a discussion of Phil’s orientation.
One of Phil’s longest friends dates back to college – four plus decades – and is quite gay. A year or so ago after I had met him once or twice, Phil decided to come out to him. As we sat in his apartment – Phil and his new friend, his accountant, me! - Phil points out we met on Craigslist, a sure giveaway one would think yet a few days later he discovers the friend assumed I was found in the classifieds under tax services. I suspect the same phenomenon also occurs the other way; there are people I work with who surely know I am gay, who I suspect are not particularly gay friendly, yet they are my work friends.
It is hard to separate context from content and maybe that is a good thing because it recognizes that who we really are exists in our own unique spaces: I am a man who happens to be gay (along with a few other attributes) as opposed to being defined primarily as a gay man.
As for the poor teenager, maybe someday we will live in a world where assuming the worst is not required protection.