by P. Kristen Enos

(Originally posted Sep 2, ’09. All rights reserved. Do not post or excerpt without permission.)

I can’t remember exactly when I started speaking on gay and lesbian panels but it had to be around the early 90’s, when I was involved in the Gay and Lesbian Student Union (GLSU) at University of California at Irvine. I did them on and off for about five years, also taking opportunities to speak at other colleges and universities as a Co-chair of the GLSU as well as a board member of other non-profit organizations outside of UCI.

On the surface, it’s a great opportunity for egotistical people like me to have an hour or two to answer questions about being gay to educate people. It’s about showing faces to stereotypes, breaking down negative assumptions and answering questions that wouldn’t be answered otherwise. And it helped if you were charming and fun in your stories and answers. Again, this was before the internet being so available for people as an information source.

The panels usually start off with a self-introduction that always included as much (or as little) information about your background in general and your coming out process. Once all of the panelists have said their piece, then it usually opens up to audience driven Q&A.

My introduction usually consisted of explaining my military brat upbringing, religious background of having been devout Baptist (and currently agnostic), and officially coming out of the closet at the age of twenty for a woman who made me understand what it was really like to be passionately in love with someone (which hadn’t happened regardless of gender until then.) I liked given less information in my intro because it usually spurred questions about things I didn’t address because usually the audience or class had preparation time and their own personal curiousity agendas.

The key thing to keep in mind is that while you’re there to answer questions from your own experiences, the audience members will more often than not take whatever you say as truth applying to ALL gay people. This applies to your appearance as well. You can’t help but be very aware of wanting to break the bad stereotypes as well as proving that “we” are just like “you”.

And it can be a little bit dangerous.

Though these have never happened on panels that I had been on, I had heard stories about heated confrontations that were usually religious in nature or extremely homophobic. Luckily, I had never heard from any of my co-panelists of these moments turning physical. There is this expectation that there is this level of basic respect from the audience in the questions they ask, and from the panelists in the responses that are given. It was not uncommon to have questions about molestation and abuse experiences – which is not something you would typically ask of a total stranger.

I remember once when I had to observe a panel where the person speaking was sooo incredibly ignorant and full of false information about gay and lesbian history and facts about AIDS. This kind of ignorance can happen, just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you are immediately and magically granted community knowledge. You have to educate yourself just like everyone else. I remember that night vividly because I was going nuts in the audience in my frustration of not speaking up and publicly undermining this person.

But for the most part, I loved the experiences of educating people about Kristen the Lesbian (and AIDS) Activist. Yes, I have short hair and prefer jeans, but I’m not a man-hater, out to prey on little girls, or a walking source of disease. And over the years, I had built up enough experience and confidence to know how to handle questions that were potentially controversial. I’m a firm believer that there is no such thing as a stupid question as long as those moments are treated as a genuine opportunity to educate, if not just the speaker, but other people in the room who never say anything.

So it kind of surprised me that one of the last panels I did, someone from the audience asked us how we became gay. I really think my surprise was that I hadn’t encountered that question sooner given that by then I had done over two dozen of these speaking engagements.

I remember answering something like I hadn’t seriously considered it and that it wasn’t important to me. But I added that how I became gay isn’t the point for me, but that I fully accept the responsibility for acting on it. I was pleased to see a handful of students in the audience respond with surprised “Oh!” and start to furiously scribble that down in their notes.

Now mind you, I was a double-major in Psychology (the study of the individual) and Sociology (the study of groups). I know the arguments about nature vs. nurture, even outside of the gay issue. Is a genetic make-up what determines who you are? Or did your environment shape you? I believe it’s a blend of both for everything in your personality and your life.

But I also know that back then and to this day, people who typically ask the “cause” question for gay (or lesbian/transgender/transsexual/etc.) are coming from the perspective of something that needs to identified so it can be fixed or prevented. And I won’t enable that because that’s just the person I am. (I’m sure it doesn’t make my parents feel better because I know it was on their minds, and probably still is.)

I don’t really blame people for taking that attitude given the controversial state of being gay. After all, people don’t question the “norm”; the elements that are “abnormal” get all of the analysis.

I’m not saying that I didn’t have my coming out issues, but my struggle really was around “Am I?! And if I am, what do I do now?” When the possibility of being lesbian was very real for me, it was like a light bulb was shining on thoughts and behavior that I had in the past but never really labeled. I was never the type of person to sit down and think “Oh woe is me! What can I do to change me?”

If I had contemplated the “cause” question for myself back then, I honestly don’t remember whatever answer I came up with. That reaffirms my belief then and now that it wasn’t important to me. So my answer of “don’t know, and don’t care” still stands.