A decade ago, my best friend of 20 years accompanied me on my trip to China to pick up our youngest daughter, Claire. Russ stayed behind with Bryan and Megan; we had learned when we picked up Megan four years earlier that it is wise to have a rested parent ready to take over at the end of a physically and emotionally exhausting two week trip. Our first stop, Beijing, was primarily a holding tank for the five families arriving to pick up their children. It was a place to rest after a long trip and to pick up our translators, who would accompany each family to the different provinces, where we would meet our children for the first time and process their adoptions with the respective local governments, before meeting up again in Guangzhou to get their visas to enter the U.S. We were the second to arrive, after a single mom from Texas who the non-profit organization which arranged our adoptions had connected me with via e-mail before we left home. This meant we got to take advantage of all of the several tourist outings they arranged in Beijing, including trips to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. The other families joined us as they arrived from all across the United States.
A young couple from northwest Arkansas (ironically, where we live today) arrived a day later with their two sons, about five and seven. Their new 5-year-old daughter had been diagnosed with hepatitis A. I thought they were brave to take a child with a highly infectious disease into their family with their young sons. The mom from Texas brought her 19-year-old son to pick up her new daughter, a nine-year-old albino with severe hearing and vision problems. I admired her the most. We were a small group because our children had special needs. A trip like this to a foreign place, facing uncertainty and the emotional stress of picking up our new children, has a way of bonding strangers quickly. We all began to get acquainted.
As we spent those first couple of days seeing the sights of Beijing, I began to notice something unusual – the couple from Arkansas was definitely avoiding us. I’m not a terribly social person so it didn’t particularly bother me, but they were otherwise very friendly and outgoing, and their shunning was noticeable. I’m a student of human behavior, and it didn’t take me long to develop a theory. At lunch at the cloisonne factory with the massive gift shop (clearly some “tourist” stops were primarily designed to pull American dollars out of our wallets), I executed my plan to test that theory. I maneuvered to sit next to the wife and struck up a conversation while we ate. I ignored the fact that she was visibly uncomfortable and talked as if everything were normal. I told her about my husband and kids back home, and about how wonderful my friend was to come all this way with me, using her vacation time and leaving her own husband and kids at home. I wasn’t immediately sure whether it worked or not; I didn’t have long to wait.
On the bus on the way to our next stop, the Great Wall, the Arkansas couple was suddenly very chatty with us. I had proven my theory: clearly they had thought my friend and I were a couple, in China to adopt a child in the only country at that time where a single mother could adopt. When they believed we were lesbians, they had nothing to do with us. Once they knew we were not, they treated us like they did everyone else. Once I knew that, I returned the favor and avoided them the rest of the trip.
That small experience is the only time I have ever had the tiniest hint of what it must be like to be LGBT. It made me angry: angry that anyone would judge me without knowing me. It was a wakeup call. Some of my closest friends are LGBT; two of them were among the first to befriend me when I moved to Arkansas last year. I am still angry that we live in a time and place where my friends are judged based on a single aspect of their lives. This is the last frontier in civil rights in America. Everyone deserves to live their lives as they see fit and to be treated with dignity and respect. Everyone deserves to not be discriminated against, legally and in their workplace. Everyone deserves to spend their lives with someone they love. My friends are wonderful people; my life is richer that they are in it. What are they, who instead judge and limit who is in their lives, missing? I propose that they are missing much.
“We cannot keep turning our backs on gay and lesbian Americans. I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation.” –Congressman John Lewis, civil rights activist