Ezra Klein’s recent interview with Kathryn Bond Stockton on how we think about gender brought to mind an awkward situation I created four decades ago. I still cringe at the direct question I asked someone I hardly knew. However, it led to reflections on my own response to people’s attempts to talk to me about prickly subjects, especially disability.
I reconstructed the incident and some of its aftermath in the following excerpt from my unpublished memoir, Promise, set during my three years in law school.
A few notes:
Fred is a composite character combining a several men friends I had outside law school. I want to protect identities, and also too many friends would be too many characters for a 100-page memoir.
Tess is also a composite character combining several women friends I made in law school.
The city is Boston.
For readers who don’t know about me, I lost my vision when I was thirteen. I’d graduated from Amherst College the year before this incident and was now in law school.
I’ve lightly edited the excerpt for clarity and relevance.
On most Saturday afternoons, I’d meet Fred and we’d go for a sail in his boat on the Charles River. Sometimes I steered, turning the rudder as he directed. I reveled in the wind and the rise and fall of the boat as it streaked over the waves. But the lower boom of the sail constantly threatened to sheer at head level across the deck, and I spent much of the time bent low.
[Fred tells me about an argument he’s having with a friend. When he finishes …]
My thoughts turned to a mess of my own. The previous weekend a friend of Tess’s named Judy had given me a ride back from an event we’d both attended at Amherst, an hour and a half west of Boston. As she drove, she explained why she was glad she’d gone to a women’s college. “They make it possible for women to grow. Even women professors let men take over in the classroom in a coed school. There’ve been studies on that.”
I’d come around to respecting this claim for women’s colleges. Aloud, I said, “Does that mean you’ve become assertive?”
“That sounds too aggressive. Women look for consensus.”
“Isn’t reaching consensus time-consuming?”
“You think that way because you’re a man. In my experience, everyone agrees when someone says something sensible. If someone disagrees, there’s a lot of head shaking, but then someone says something conciliatory. Before you know it, there’s consensus.”
“If I believe I’m the only one with a certain opinion,” I said, “I think twice before saying it. That’s my contribution to consensus.”
I was satirizing my cowardice, but she didn’t catch on.
“When I’m too uncomfortable to speak,” she said, “I figure it’s because I’ve picked up that they want to exclude me.”
So much for consensus, I thought. Why one moment was she touting it, the next saying how easily, and obtusely, she felt excluded?
I said, “Is it really so different around men?”
“I haven’t been in situations involving a lot of men since graduation. The students in the two courses I’m taking are mostly women, and the poetry program where I teach is all women.”
Trying to untangle her meaning, I wondered whether her talk about consensus and exclusion might be a way of hinting at a subject from which she feared I’d shy away.
“You don’t have to tell me – I don’t care either way. I’m just wondering if that has anything to do with what you’re saying.”
More miles of road sped under our wheels. “I think,” she said, “that’s a highly inappropriate question.”
Next day Tess pulled me aside after Torts. With that edge to her voice that this time signaled displeasure, she said, “What did you say that got Judy so pissed off? Did you ask her something about being a lesbian?”
“What business is that of yours? It’s a very personal thing. She’s angry with you.”
So was Tess. She avoided me the rest of the week.
Choosing a moment when we weren’t tacking in one direction or another, I told the story to Fred. When I’d finished, he said, “Do you think you might have been making a big leap from what she was saying to your assumption that she’s a lesbian?”
“I didn’t assume. I asked. At the time I thought it mattered, but I’ve lost the feel of the moment and I’m not sure anymore.”
“Were you trying to change her?”
“Of course not.”
“Then why ask at all?”
“I thought if we didn’t get it out in the open, we’d keep talking in circles.”
“I’m not saying what you did was wrong,” Fred said. “You go right at things, I know.”
“Just like you, Fred. If you suspected someone was beating around the bush–”
“I’d go right for the bush.”
“Start again. If you suspected–but you’ve already confirmed what I’m saying. You’d go right at it, too.”
“You lawyers like distinctions.”
“You lawyers like distinctions,” I mocked.
He chuckled. “There’s accepting someone for who they are but not accepting them on their terms.”
“You accepted her being a lesbian, if she is, but not her secrecy about it.”
“Her privacy about it. Secrecy sounds sordid. But I do accept her privacy. When she made it clear she didn’t want to discuss it, I didn’t pursue it.”
“But your question forced the cat out of the bag. However she reacted, she gave something away.”
“Yes, I see that. Now I do.”
I also saw in that moment that the hazards entailed in trying to do the right thing went both ways. I recalled times when I’d responded coldly to someone who didn’t broach the subject in a way I found acceptable. How often I’d responded less than appreciatively when someone tried to do the right thing by me. Why couldn’t I accept what people gave without placing expectations on what that should be? Couldn’t I accept what people gave without wanting more?