Diversity Guides

Brian McNaught's Gay & Transgender Issues in the Workplace Blog

What Do You Mean?

Secretary of State John Kerry said he will be sending U.S. “experts” on homosexuality to persuade Uganda President Yoweri Museveni that the horrific anti-gay bill he signed is based on faulty science. There are many of us in the field of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender sexuality education who wonder what will be said and by whom. It’s essential that the experts’ presentation be understandable and relevant to the African, Evangelical Christian.

We often speak to others as if they know what we’re talking about, and if they don’t, we sometimes assume that they’re ignorant. Recent French houseguests of Ray’s and mine had never heard of Tennessee Williams. I was astonished. They were perplexed when we didn’t know the names of the revered French singers they referenced in conversation.

Not long ago, our very bright, 28-year-old nephew told us he hadn’t seen the black and white Christmas film which we were referring to. “You’ve never seen The Bishop’s Wife?” I said in disbelief. “It’s the classic one with Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven. You’ve heard of them, right?” He awkwardly replied that he hadn’t. “Cary Grant was today’s George Clooney,” I explained. I was now speaking his language. We had a connection, a reference we shared.

The executive director of a city’s LGBT Community Center was visiting recently. This very sweet homosexual “expert,” who is also a friend, talked about the work he was doing. After a few moments, I commented, “You use the word ‘queer’ a lot.” He replied, “I wouldn’t have any credibility with the younger generation of our community if I didn’t.” I sighed, “But you lose credibility with my generation when you do.” Does President Museveni use the word “queer”?

In his second Inaugural Address, President Barack Obama linked Stonewall with Selma and Seneca Falls. I was deeply moved, but I suspect that most people listening to the President either didn’t know the meaning of “Stonewall,” or “Selma,” or “Seneca Falls,” or all three. A high school educational tool recently developed by the Stonewall National Museum and Archives cited the President’s speech, and explained the references to Stonewall, Selma, and Seneca Falls. In doing so, students learned some history of the LGBT, black, and women’s civil rights movements. Uganda President Museveni won’t know those words, though. Our “experts” shouldn’t use them. I hope they won’t use the acronym LGBT either.

Those of us who purport to be educators have to become culturally competent with our audience if we are to succeed in being understood, and in impacting a change in attitude or behavior. Many people in my generation of seniors, even those who are paid to communicate thoughts to a varied audience, assume that their lifetime references match those of all others. They expect to be understood, and if they are not, they are frustrated with the lack of sophistication of the reader or listener. Do you think the President of Uganda, who is currently allowing homosexuals to be imprisoned for life, knows the names “Alfred Kinsey,” or “Masters and Johnson”?

Even The New York Times, one of the best newspapers in the world, and the one I read daily, frequently is filled with references that make no sense to readers under age 35. A television reviewer will often write that a program has “jumped the shark.” A news commentator will say that a certain person “drank the Kool-Aid.” Even readers in my generation may feel unsophisticated or illiterate because they don’t know what the expressions refer to. In September 1977, the once very popular television program, “Happy Days,” aired an episode in which the leather jacket-clad character, Fonzie, jumps a shark while water skiing. The storyline was thought by critics to be the low point of the series, which thereafter went downhill, and was cancelled. In November 1978, nearly 1,000 fanatical followers of the Rev. Jim Jones committed suicide at his request by drinking a cyanide-laced fruit drink, similar to Kool-Aid. One could argue that the Uganda legislation “jumped the shark,” in being a ridiculous low point in the country’s history, and that the legislators “drank the Kool-Aid” in unquestioningly supporting a law inspired by an American Evangelical troublemaker. But President Museveni won’t know those references if they are used by our homosexual experts.

If these same State-Department designated emissaries lazily refer to a bisexual as being “AC/DC,” it’s unlikely that any Ugandan or young American, gay or straight, will know what the letters stand for. I had to look up the difference between alternating and direct electrical current.  In days past, a bisexual person, was often referred to as being AC/DC, capable of operating with either alternating or direct current. A bisexual was also called, “a switch hitter,” but if you’re not familiar with baseball, like our French friends, the expression is meaningless.

I don’t know what, if any, words will convince President Yoweri Museveni to repeal the horrible Ugandan law that criminalizes being a homosexual. If I were meeting with him, I’d first learn everything about the man that I could, not just his political and religious beliefs, but also his personal life, family, friendships, mentors, favorite pastimes. And I would personalize being gay by relating it to his own life experiences. Changing a person’s heart is far more effective than changing his or her mind. I might discover that President Museveni watches the film The Bishop’s Wife every Christmas, and that Cary Grant is his idea of a manly man. If so, I’d let him know that it is believed Cary Grant was at the very least bisexual, AC/DC, a switch hitter.

Finding common ground, and communicating in ways that can be understood, is essential in impacting another’s thoughts and feelings. That’s my expert opinion.



One Response to “What Do You Mean?”

  1. lisa christie says:

    good comments brian on communication.. it is startling tome sometimes the references we use that folks 40 and under do not know.. always good to read your stuff..

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