First published at 365gay.com on March 12, 2010
The border guard didn’t even look up when she asked the question: “Citizenship?”
“And why are you in Canada?”
I paused. She looked up.
I was going to Canada to give a lecture, which would be easy enough to say. But then there would be the inevitable follow-up question: “A lecture on what?”
Instantly I thought back to a story once told to me by Glenn Stanton, my frequent debate-opponent from Focus on the Family. Just prior to Canada’s legalization of marriage for gays and lesbians, Glenn went there for a right-wing conference. When the border guard asked him, “Why are you in Canada?” he responded with “For a same-sex marriage conference.”
His border guard shot back, “We don’t need that shit here.”
After relaying the story to me Glenn added, “I thought to myself, what if it had been you, John?”
To which I responded, “Welcome to my world, Glenn.”
I live in Detroit, just next to Windsor, Ontario. I go there occasionally for dinner with friends, and most times the crossing is smooth. But if you happen to catch a border guard who’s having a bad day, or who’s on a power trip, or who’s just congenitally an asshole, be prepared for an unpleasant delay. I generally aim to give border guards all and only the information they absolutely need.
And yet a frequent theme in my advocacy work is the importance of coming out. Not just on National Coming Out Day, or at pride parades, or when writing columns for the gay press, but at any time when reference to one’s (actual or desired) significant other—or more generally, one’s life—would be appropriate. Coming out is an opportunity to teach diversity, and to be a role model for those around us and those who come after us.
More than that, it’s a chance for simple honesty: there’s something profoundly dehumanizing about treating one’s sexual orientation as a dirty little secret. I don’t want to be complicit in that.
So (for instance), last Valentine’s Day, when a Trader Joe’s employee presenting roses to female customers offered me one, saying, “Maybe you have a special girl at home to give this to?” I responded, “I’ll give it to my special GUY at home, thanks!”
Giving a diversity lesson to a Trader Joe’s employee is one thing; giving one to grumpy border guards is another. Military uniforms intimidate me more than Hawaiian shirts do. In the past, I’ve been harassed by Texas State troopers for kissing (yes, kissing) another man, and it wasn’t fun.
After that Texas incident, I filed a formal complaint, which resulted in the trooper’s being put on probation and having to take classes on Texas state law. I’m not afraid to stand up for my rights, but like most people, on some days I just don’t want to be bothered.
I admit I’m embarrassed to share these thoughts. It’s not just because of the great figures who have stood up for our rights even when it’s been inconvenient or dangerous: luminaries like Frank Kameny, Harvey Milk, Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon and Harry Hay. I’m sure even they had days when prudence trumped other virtues.
It’s because I was facing a CANADIAN BORDER GUARD, for goodness sake. They’re not exactly the SS.
So I’m embarrassed that the question gave me pause. But I share the story anyway, because it speaks to the tremendous power of the closet.
“Why are you in Canada?” She repeated the question, startling me from my deliberations.
“I’m giving a lecture at the University of Lethbridge.”
“A lecture regarding…?”
Now she paused.
“Have you ever been to Lethbridge?” she finally asked.
“Well, good luck with your talk.” Then, as she stamped my declarations form, she leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, “Really, good luck. It’s redneck country, you know.”