Today is Joe’s 65th birthday. We have been together for all but 16 of those years. Our lives have intertwined in ways both planned and unexpected. He has earned every grey hair that he has. His work often goes unacknowledged but his commitment to the cause of disability rights and civil liberties is unrivaled. He is, frankly, an amazing man.
What I’m going to write about today stems from a place of some anger, however. I received, yesterday, an email. The content is unsurprising, I’ve gotten this before, but maybe because of Joe’s birthday, maybe because of our years together, it struck me twice as fast and three times as hard. The email stated that I should ‘stick to disability’ in my keynote presentations because people have no choice but to be there and when I mention Joe, as my husband, I am making a statement that makes some people uncomfortable. The writer said she found it difficult to hear my message because of the white noise of my sexuality getting in the way.
I want you all, and her in particular, to know that Joe and I have long talked about my lectures and about our joint decision to mention our relationship, long before marriage was even thought about as a possibility, in every talk that I give. Every. One. Joe fears that someday someone will pull out a gun, I know that’s a possibility but I think a small one. Our decision was made precisely because we wanted it to be clear, to any other LGBT person in the room that they weren’t alone. We both know what it is to be the only one in a room, we both know how lonely that can be. I know specifically that in our field agencies have a dreadful history regarding LGBT people often attempting to purge us from the workforce. This still happens.
Because of what I do, I hear a lot of keynotes and a lot of session presentations. I have not kept data but I’m willing to posit that nearly 100 percent of heterosexual presenters mention their wives, husbands, boyfriends or girlfriends. They do it casually as if they don’t notice the privilege they have, in that moment, to not fear the reaction. The blithe way they don’t seem to realize that they won’t get an email telling them to shut up about their lives and their loves. They also don’t know that they are signaling to every LGBT person in the room that their relationships are allowed air time, that their relationships expect to be met with welcome, that their relationships are valued. I’d love one day to hear a heterosexual presenter say something like, “I know I’ve mentioned my husband a couple of times and I want you to know that I am aware that there are people here who are not free to speak of their loves or their lives and I acknowledge you and I support you in your fight for equal time.” But I’ll wait a long time I suspect.
Privilege is like that. It doesn’t notice itself. It doesn’t acknowledge itself. But it loves the freedom and power it has.
So, I will continue to mention Joe here on this blog, there in my lectures and anywhere I wish. If that makes you uncomfortable, you need to look at yourself and your attitudes not request of me, silence.
I love Joe.
He loves me.
I’d love those two statements to be purely personal without a hit of politics. But, for now at least, they are both. I know this because I still have LGBT people come up to me after a lecture and wait until they are sure their comment won’t be over heard and they will whisper, “Thank you for being openly who you are,” and many walk away quickly wiping tears.
It can be hard being so alone.
In a room full of people who say they care for people.
In a room full of people who say they believe in inclusion.
In a room full of people who say they believe that all means all.
In a room full of people who trim the edges off all and for whom inclusion for some and exclusion for others.
So, it’s Joe’s 65th birthday. And I get to spend it with him. I get to continue living the life we have together. I get to sit quietly with him, laugh uproariously with him and I get to continue to make the same silly joke with him that we’ve been making for 49 years.
Yes. You may have heterosexual privilege.
But I have the privilege of living with and loving Joe.
You have no idea how much better that is.
Happy Birthday Joe!