Strangers on a Plane
[Warning: Discussion of sexual abuse in this post]
Do not talk to me on an airplane. When I sit down, normally with headphones already on, book in hand, I am not inviting a conversation with a stranger. And yet, my most recent trip (a short hour and change flight, thankfully) these standard strategies utterly failed in the face of an older woman who just needed to chat. I could tell, 20-minutes in, that I was not escaping this so I settled into a rhythm of “uh huhs” that I figured I could keep up for the rest of the flight. The worst that would happen, I assumed, was that I lost an hour while providing some company to a lady who, at most, lacked the self-awareness necessary to realize that I just wanted to finish my novel. But what a chat it became.
It started innocuously enough. She told me about her life, her children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. She was a retired teacher and school superintendent and a pastor. She told me about beginning teaching at 19, barely older than her students, and some of the problems and difficulties that entailed. She worked for 42 years before retiring. Things took a turn, however, when she began tell me why she doesn’t substitute teach any longer. She told me about an incident when she had to call a young kindergartner’s parents after the child had swore at her (“bitch, don’t touch me,” she claimed she said). Obviously not a good look for a five-year old, though who knows if that’s what was actually said. In any case, my airline companion proceeds to explain that she called in the students parents and it turns out that it was two dads. The child, who the teacher assumed was a girl, turned out to be a boy wearing girls’ clothes.
At this point, I could feel my heart rate rising as I had some idea of where this was going and I, quite frankly, did not want to get into it with this woman. And yet. Somehow she explains that the student told her that she had been up all night and revealed that her parents would know this because she had been in bed with them. I think basically nothing of this, but my seat mate looks at me hard and asks, “you know what that means, don’t you?” I replied in the negative and she stated, firmly and definitively, that the child was being sexually abused by her parents. Children, she went on, should not be “poisoned” and should have the ability to “choose” what they wanted rather than being forced into a lifestyle. They should not know about these things. “Can you imagine,” she asked me, “a young child giving oral sex to an adult?” (She may have actually said “blowjob,” but I’m not positive).
The series of conflations and assumptions that went on here astound and shake me. Drawing on a whole host of stereotypes, anxieties, and fears that have dogged gay men for decades, if not longer, this woman not only assumed that the student was being forced in some way to behave and dress a certain way, but that this apparent turn toward homosexuality (she seemed unable to distinguish between sexual orientation and gender identity) came about necessarily through sexual abuse. The two apparently distinct problems were but one and the same thing: homosexuality as child abuse. Indeed, the way she constantly slipped back to talking about how the child shouldn’t have to “know” things (the vagueness was the point, I think) from the supposedly real concern about child endangerment reveals the real problem for her: not physical harm to a child, but rather mental abuse in the form of simple knowledge that homosexuality exists.
I am not a confrontational person and by the time she asked me the aforementioned question, I could barely get out more than a shocked grunt of disbelief. Now, let’s be clear that I have absolutely no idea what actually happened here. Nor would I necessarily discount the intuition of a teacher of 40-some years to know when something was going wrong in a child’s life. And yet, cajoled into responding, I eventually managed to ask (after, of course, feeling obligated to come out of the closet (again)) why she was assuming the worst. Don’t many 5-year olds sleep with their parents now and then? (But two men, she asked?) Don’t many (most) gay people discover themselves in the context of heterosexual families? (But shouldn’t children have a “choice” she responded?) Heterosexuality is everywhere, I finished, and that “choice” is always there.
Her response to my push back was both unsurprising and surprising. Unsurprising, because I then had to listen to her talk about her gay friends for the rest of the flight as proof of her goodwill. Surprising, because immediately after I finished she sat back and said “you’ve really given me a new perspective on this.” I’m not entirely convinced, but I can only hope that it’s at least somewhat the case. She told me that I was only the second person she had ever told this story (her husband was the first) and that she was glad she had. I could only wonder why, if she truly thought a child was in danger, she didn’t report the incident to the authorities. Cognitive dissonance can be a strong drug.
This only occurred yesterday, so I’m not sure I have any ready-at-hand conclusions to draw beyond just sadness for any queer children she may have encountered in her time as a teacher and pastor. But I also can’t help but remain astounded that a complete stranger would feel it appropriate to regale someone with this story. I was trapped, unable to escape my own discomfort (a discomfort she at one point acknowledged, but simply disregarded), and forced, in some ways, to come out of the closet to someone who I did not know and certainly could not trust. Of course, others are far more vulnerable in these kinds of situations and others more often find themselves having to defend whole classes of people. As a reminder, of just how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go, I suppose this conversation proved useful. A reminder of my own bubble, of the privilege of living in spaces where my own identity remains affirmed in ways that others will struggle to find. Perhaps a reminder to engage, rather than evade, hard conversations.
But maybe also just a reminder to get bigger headphones.
Originally published at https://www.andrewisraelross.com on May 14, 2019.