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With the holidays around the corner, plenty of us are bound to find ourselves in alien surroundings. It might be at the family home of a new romantic interest for Thanksgiving dinner. A holiday office party might land you in a corner with some co-worker’s spouse you’ve never met. This is a very social season.
Mine got off to a head start last weekend with the Association of Personal Historians annual conference. While I’ve met a handful of fellow D.C.-area members since joining the APH, this was a time for countless introductions in a demographic that presents as largely women, largely white, seemingly suburban and exurban, and where my 44 years may put me at the younger end of things. Surely I wasn’t the only gay person – or L, B or T, for that matter – at the conference, though I cannot prove otherwise.
This not being a social event, what did it matter? I was signed up to enjoy presentations like ”Obituary Writing for Fun and Profit” – which I certainly did – not to revel. There was, however, a bit of socializing Friday night: the requisite welcome reception. I grabbed a beer and ended up chatting with a young (by which I mean a mother of three who looked to be in her early 30s) woman from Cleveland. Before we could spend much time sharing our disgust for ”Cincinnati chili,” one of the organizers, Sue, instructed us to split into groups defined by our home regions, and then discuss with our regional compatriots our local cuisine. Sue was cooking something up. After a few minutes, she opened the floor for anyone to tell a story about food.
A wonderful New Yorker with Italian heritage took the microphone and told us all about marrying into an Irish-American family, and how she had to explain the concept of a stuffed artichoke to her turnip-loving in-laws. Another woman told a tale of romantic betrayal centered on a garlicky New York deli. A ”ragin’ Cajun” detailed the delicacy of crawfish, and how her mother would ”suck the head till the eyes wiggled — crass, I know.”
Whether a story followed a crowd-pleasing formula or merely meandered, everyone was hooked. People who know me well will be amazed that I didn’t jump up — particularly with a couple Amstel Lights in me — to tell a far-too-long tale of boll weevils in biscuits or to share my father’s secret to good cooking. I was content just to listen to strangers pull back the curtains a bit on their lives.
In a ”not seeing the forest through the trees” idiomatic moment, I realized I’d never thought much about how sharing stories fosters the sort of empathy that leads to equality. There is obviously a correlation between knowing a gay person and advancing social acceptance. That knowing comes through stories, even if they’re as simple as a retelling of a particularly shitty commute. It becomes so much harder to dehumanize people once we’ve heard their stories, mundane or miraculous.
I’ve been telling LGBT peoples’ stories for years, but I never thought much of the audience beyond other LGBT people. Even in this closed arena, however, there is plenty of need for storytelling. Maybe you’re gay, but don’t feel any kinship with those fighting for transgender equality. Or you’re staunchly left-leaning and dismiss gay Republicans as idiots. Or you’ve paid your decades of dues and feel just fine lumping all queer kids into a banal ball.
If you can point to people who seem too alien to warm up to, read their stories, watch their stories, or, best yet, let them tell you their stories. You may not become an ally or a friend, but you will be compelled to respect their humanity. And there’s no one who doesn’t deserve that.
Will O’Bryan is Metro Weekly‘s managing editor. Email him at . Follow him on Twitter @wobryan.