My partner, an organist for a suburban Episcopal church, needed to practice the organ for Sunday's service, so I had an hour to kill after a long, tiring day of five meetings in every corner of midtown Manhattan. I decided to pop into a local bar to have a glass of wine. It was the first day of the NFL draft, and my eyes caught sight of ESPN on a television at one end of the bar. I headed over, ordered a glass of wine, turned on my iPad, and settled in.
The bartender seemed like a nice guy. He was working with a female bartender, and they got busy chatting about all kinds of stuff. An ad for Sacha Baron Cohen's new movie, The Dictator, came on, and he said to her that he loved Borat but couldn't bring himself to watch Bruno, Cohen's comedic movie about a flamboyant, sex-crazed, gay character. He had heard from friends that some of the scenes were just too over-the-top, and he thought he couldn't handle it. She didn't seem to know much about the movie. I looked right at him and said, "Well, I am actually gay, and I thought some of the scenes were too over-the-top myself." He laughed, and I wondered if I might have embarrassed him a bit by catching him in a homophobic moment. But he headed over my way for a closer conversation and asked a very common question in New Jersey: "Giants or Jets?"
We ended up having an hour-long conversation about football. Much of it was straight-up football talk about stuff like the difference between Giants and Jets fans (I'm a Giants fan, he's a Jets fan), whom our teams should draft in round one, the insane Jets quarterback controversy, the merit of the league's harsh penalties on the New Orleans Saints for "bountygate," and a host of other topics. I also pushed a bit further with my analysis of how "queer" it is that Tim Tebow seems to build his muscle mass for looks rather than performance as a quarterback, while at the same time committing publicly to virginity. He laughed out loud when I told him about the recent joke by New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski that he would be willing to "F" Tebow to take his virginity.
Why am I telling this story, and why have I thought about that bartender for the past day or so? Well, first of all, I firmly believe that gay people should come out in situations like this, even if it feels risky. If I had just stayed silent, awkwardly smiled, and looked away, I believe I would have been expressing and embracing a form of shame about my sexual orientation. Worse, I would have been complicit with the expressed homophobia by not embracing the opportunity to stretch the minds and hearts of others.
A similar thing happened to me in Times Square in New York, when I was searching for a sports bar to watch Monday-night football with my nephew, who was visiting. I asked a guy we encountered promoting comedy clubs where we should go. He asked me if I wanted one that had strippers, and I said, "That isn't necessary. My nephew is too young, and I am too gay." He chuckled, patted me on the back, and sent us on our way toward a bar. You might ask, "Why bother saying that to a stranger on the street?" My answer is that you say it because it's the truth, and there is nothing to be embarrassed about.
Now, let's get back to my bartender friend. The other thing I love about that experience was that once he became aware that I am a gay man, he did not for a second shy away from asking me about football. Perhaps he saw me glance at ESPN and figured I had interest. Too many straight men immediately stereotype gay men and decide that we couldn't bond over a chat about football. Perhaps they figure that our interests would be too different. And, to be fair, many of my interests are probably very different from his. But if he were gay, wouldn't that still be true?
When I wrote my HuffPost blog "When I Met Liza," one reader commented that he was disappointed that I was contributing to the typical stereotype of gay men when there are plenty who might really prefer watching a Sunday football game to meeting a gay icon. Well, my neighbor across the street is that type of gay guy, and we love watching the Giants together. But why does it have to be one way or the other? Why can't I be a lover of theater, Glee, and divas while also being a nutjob football fan when the Giants are on the tube?
I say come out, come out, whoever you are. And remember that coming out is not a singular event. We need to do it over and over again in casual conversations, despite the associated risks, and in more important conversations like job interviews. The more we do it, the more we can teach and influence others.
Each experience in life offers an opportunity to learn and influence. I am so glad I decided to stop for that glass of wine the other night. Maybe I influenced that bartender, but he also influenced me.