Chapter 16
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Outspoken

Gay-rights activist Abby Dees gives straight people permission to ask the embarrassing questions

There are no statistics on this, but given that some six-to-twelve million Americans are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, it seems fair to assume that every straight person in this country knows someone who isn’t. But as civil-rights activist Abby Dees has observed, it’s not always easy for even the most open-hearted straight people to ask their gay friends and family members about the kinds of issues they really wonder about. And without open dialog, Dees believes, it’s too easy for misunderstandings to fester, for stereotypes to persist. That’s why she wrote Queer Questions Straight Talk: 108 Frank, Provocative Questions It’s OK to Ask Your Lesbian, Gay or Bi Loved One.

The book is both witty and earnest, a gentle conversation-starter designed not to answer questions but to invite others to ask them. “This book comes out of my very strong belief,” she writes, “that if you are asking with love in your heart, there are no stupid questions.” Dees—who is legally married in California to her partner, Traci Samczyk—divides her time between Los Angeles and Nashville. She answered questions from Chapter 16 prior to her Nashville appearance at Nashville Pride and at OutLoud!

Chapter 16: Was there a catalyzing moment or some “aha!” revelation that made you recognize the need for this book now?

Dees: Yes, there was an “aha” moment, but like so many things that seem to have occurred to you only in that moment, you soon realize that you’d been thinking this way forever.

The simple story is that Queer Questions Straight Talk came out of conversation my publisher (I’m an editor), my mother (she’s an editor, too), and my partner and I were having last year over a big shared piece of cheesecake. I’d just edited a book of questions for caregivers to ask their caregivee, both to facilitate the healing process and to turn an often difficult process into one of discovery and creativity, and we all loved this idea of the power of questions rather than answers to bring people closer. (I’m also an old civil-rights attorney, so I liked the old Socratic approach anyway.) We were casting about for other subjects that would lend themselves to this approach and QQST fell right into our laps. It was more, “well, duh,” than “aha!” because I’ve spent twenty-five years watching people either mustering the courage to ask me about this part of my life, or avoiding the questions that need to be asked.

As I began, I thought back to my own experiences of leaving my familiar territory to learn about someone else’s life, especially around things like race, class, religion. Sometimes I’ve needed to ask “stupid” questions just so I can get to the next place of understanding. There is so much emphasis on knowing the “right” answer, but there doesn’t seem to be room for the process of getting there. You know, only in quantum mechanics can you get from point A to Z without going through all the stuff in the middle. QQST is my statement that it’s OK to be in the middle, confused, maybe even a little clueless, as long as you’re trying, genuinely, to learn.

Chapter 16: You mention in the book’s introduction that even the best-intentioned straight people may find it difficult to broach some of these questions out of “fear of looking ‘politically incorrect’ or, worse, homophobic.” Are there other hindrances to honest conversation as well?

Dees: I think there is often an assumption that LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] issues are inherently private or perhaps unhappy. More glibly, sometimes people think they’re either talking about sex or disease, which don’t belong in polite conversation. But this is more a reflection of their own discomfort than the reality of our lives. Sure, thinking about your loved one in any sexual context is not usually fun—I mean, no one really wants to, say, talk to their parents about their sex lives, which I learned the hard way. And it’s hard for lots of well meaning people to think about LGBT issues without assuming there’s something very wrong, or at least painful, about it. They don’t want to bring these things up.

So I remind people that talking to LGBT lives is usually no different than talking to straight people about their lives. When someone tells you about their love, crush, break-up, marriage, or loss of a spouse, these things touch on the whole spectrum of human experience, whether gay or straight. We should be talking about this stuff with the people we love. The miserable, private part isn’t being LGBT. It’s what silence and condemnation can do to LGBT people.

Chapter 16: “On a good day,” you write, “homophobia exists as a nagging stressor, the thing that happens every time someone assumes in casual conversation that there’s not a woman on this planet who would kick George Clooney out of bed for eating saltines….” This is obviously not the same kind of destructive homophobia that you go on to detail a bit later—the kind, for example, that can make parents lose custody of their own children. You’ve been a civil-rights attorney for twenty-five years. Are things getting better with either the nagging form of homophobia or with the more overtly hostile kind?

Dees: I think about this every day. Some days it feels amazing that we’ve come so far in both categories since I came out. To think that I’d be a boring, married lesbian when I felt like such a renegade way back when! More and more people really get that LGBT lives are normal lives. But I still hear stories in so-called “liberal” places about homophobia that literally cleaves families apart, or the extraordinarily high suicide rate for LGBT teens, and I can lose hope some days.

Legally, we are moving forward in fits and starts. The proliferation of domestic-partnership statutes in cities and states throughout the country is something we only dreamed of twenty years ago. Still, with every success, people get scared and push back. There have been more anti-gay legislative “victories,” if you will, in the last few years than ever before. Those domestic-partnership rights have been voted or legislated away in lots of states, especially during the 2008 presidential election. We haven’t even gotten to the federal level yet, where there are virtually no protections for LGBT people. It’s truly bizarre in practice—my partner and I are married in California, but according to the IRS and the state of Tennessee, where we live part time, we might as well be strangers.

Historically, we know that almost all civil-rights accomplishments are preceded by a lot of hysteria and anger. But after the cries of “this will destroy our society” finally die down, people wonder what the big deal was, after all.

Chapter 16: You live in both L.A. and Nashville. I think most people here would assume there’s a lot less homophobia in L.A. True? Or is it homophobic in a different way?

Dees: I’m still getting to know Nashville, so I can only report on what I’ve seen so far. My sense is that while the huge role of conservative Christianity here makes true acceptance of LGBT people much tougher, there is also such a tradition of being kind and neighborly. My partner, for example, worked in both the country and Christian music industries as an out lesbian for many years. Her colleagues would have moved mountains for her, yet many of them still pray for her soul.

It’s better in Nashville and harder in L.A. than people think. I sense that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is operating a bit in Nashville—and, of course, Tennessee and Nashville have a much longer way to go in terms of legal recognition of LGBT people. But in L.A. there’s lots of potential to be lost and anonymous, which can truly isolate LGBT people. I think isolation is the one of the most dangerous things that LGBT people—especially young people—face.

Chapter 16: There are 108 questions in this book, but you’ve included answers to only a few of them. How did you decide which questions to offer sample answers to, and which to leave for readers to discuss with their gay, lesbian, and bisexual friends or family members?

Dees: Oh, I wish I could say it was totally intentional and planned. Lots of those questions went in just because I liked them and thought other people would, too. However, I did truly want to convey that there are so many answers to these questions, and that they are all important. I also wanted people to see that humor belongs in this discussion just as much as earnest introspection, sadness, and joy. I hope the answers show this range and give people permission to add their own, different responses to the list.

Chapter 16: In 2008, the California Supreme Court briefly allowed same-sex marriage before voters, thanks to a misinformation campaign funded largely by out-of-state church groups, rescinded the right. How much does this kind of focused interference by religious conservatives explain the difference between the state of marriage equality in the U.S. and its status in Europe or Canada?

Dees: In short? A whole lot! I think it’s ironic that in our country, where the separation of church and state is up top in our founding documents, religion plays a much stronger role in our national discourse than all those European countries whose history is almost indivisible from the history of the Church. As a civil-rights lawyer, though, I have to avoid the temptation to be automatically critical of the role of churches in our law-making. There is a reason freedom of religion and freedom of speech are together in the First Amendment: there is a delicate balance between them. If we forbade churches from getting involved in legal questions, then the civil-rights movement of the fifties and sixties would have been very hampered.

Though it is less expedient, I believe the most profound response to religious “disinformation” about, well, anything, is more information—free speech. There is a myth out there that religion and LGBT issues are incompatible, and I know from all the brave religious leaders I’ve met, read, heard, that there is massive, but somewhat quiet, community of religious people who believe in LGBT equality and dignity. Rather than silence churches, I’d like to encourage religious allies to speak out.

Chapter 16: You acknowledge that some of the questions you’ve included in this book tend to be annoying or even offensive to gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. Why encourage straight people to ask those questions?

Dees: The fact is that straight people still have these questions and they need to be answered—where else are they going to go? There are some books out there, but there’s no substitute for heart-based conversation. I’m very clear that this book is not a free-for-all invitation to ask your local gay a bunch of questions for the sheer hell of it. Instead, I suggest that folks mutually agree to a certain time and place to talk about this stuff. You don’t have to ask the questions you’re not ready to hear the answer to, and you don’t have answer the questions you’d rather not answer.

I remember about fifteen years ago I met transwoman activist, Rikki Wilkins, at a conference. I had never really understood trans issues, but I genuinely wanted to. Rikki said explicitly, “Right now, you can ask me whatever you want to ask, and I won’t judge you.” How liberating! So I took a big breath and asked all those questions that I kind of knew were stupid, but they were still sitting in my head until she generously gave me the space to ask. It was clear that at any time she could say to me, “Enough, girl!” and I would have gotten the message. This was an act of generosity on her part and I hope that we can all be this way with the people we care about.

Chapter 16: In addition to your law degree, you have a degree in creative writing. What’s next for you as a writer?

Dees: Well, as you can tell, I love the law and free speech. So I think a user-friendly look at free-speech is next up. It sounds nuts, but I also think the world needs another book on the Beatles—a life-long passion of mine! I will keep writing, whatever happens, and trying to get people to find some common ground for conversation. The world is way more interesting this way.

Abby Dees will sign copies of Queer Questions Straight Talk on June 19 at Nashville Pride in Riverfront Park, and on June 20 at 3 p.m. at Outloud! Bookstore.

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