This past Saturday, I taught my first workshop at a small writing conference outside of Seattle. I had a lot of anxiety around it because I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea of me teaching others. Give a reading, yes. Speak on a panel, sure. Host an event, absolutely. Bestow wisdom on others, not so much.
The night before, I sat in the kitchen with my roommate to discuss my fears around it.
“Are you worried about how people will perceive you?” My roommate, the deeply empathetic counselor, asked me.
“Why is that?”
This presentation would be the first time I spoke openly about my queer identity with people in a professional setting outside of my scope of community. This was not talking about being queer while working at The Feminist Press, which felt like a “free to be you and me” utopia. This wasn’t the same thing as reading stories about longing for women in a bar in Seattle. No, this was my first time teaching and it would take place in a very red part of Washington.
As we discussed the various scenarios for how the workshop could play out, I was able to pinpoint my most irrational fear: that a white conservative Christian man in a #MAGA hat would attend my workshop and pick a fight with me in front of the whole class. Once I had said this fear out loud and my roommate and I laughed at the absurdity of it, I felt calmer.
The first half of the day leading up to my talk was full of good conversation with my friend who originally connected me to the conference, meeting another Seattle writer who traveled down to teach a workshop, and autographing a copy of my book for a kind grandmotherly woman who was volunteering at the conference. But the afternoon belonged to the workshop I had been excitedly dreading for most of this year.
After my introduction, I asked everyone in the room to share where they were in their writing/publishing journeys; in essence, why they came and how listening to me talk about self-publicizing might help them. Two men in the workshop were in attendance because wives. I thought it was sweet. After the workshop ended, and I felt like I could breathe after nearly an hour of blabbing about building community through your writing, the oldest of the two men approached me. He was tall but meek. Before the workshop, I had run after him to grab the door when he hobbled into the classroom on crutches.
“I knew you were nice when I met you,” he said as he approached me. Now I understand that was a preface. “I have one critique for you.”
As he began to explain how I talked about myself too much, I defaulted to thinking that one of my fears about teaching was coming true: my impostor syndrome was real and I didn’t have enough expertise to share, so I instead blabbed about cool things I’ve done.
“You don’t need to talk about your personal life so much, your being queer.”
Reader, I married him. (Just kidding.)
The fake smile stuck to my face. It was the life preserver I clung to as I drowned in this man’s bigotry. I couldn’t stop my eyes from glossing over with tears, but I could smile and pretend they weren’t there.
“You don’t have to bring in your queer agenda,” he explained to me, before quickly realizing how loaded a term “agenda” is and correcting it. “Maybe it’s not an agenda, but you don’t have to talk about it so much.”
Suddenly all those queer farming fantasies of mine started to fray at the edges. Maybe there really is no place for me beyond the liberal cities I’ve made my queer sanctuary. Because being queer in that space meant that I didn’t have an identity, I had an agenda. Though the keynote speaker was allowed to talk about his wife and nobody critiqued him for having a “straight agenda,” I was poisoning the conference because I discussed creating a salon for queer women and non-binary artists as a safe place following our last presidential election. I detailed the salon as a way to demonstrate how powerful and needed community is. Being a writer can feel very isolating, so I invested in building a group specifically for artists and queer people to combat that isolating feeling.
Perhaps the worst part of this encounter was how kindly he delivered his condemnation of my life and choosing to be open about it. If he would have been mean, if he had raised his voice, I could have too. I wanted to defend myself. I wanted to yell at him. But he kept mentioning how he was still giving me a good score on my instructor evaluation and his tone was almost apologetic. His critique seemed more like an obligation from his traditional (to me, quite stunted) religious stance. No matter how sorry he was to have to inform me of my wrongdoing, nonetheless, he persisted, ending his critique by telling me that he was still able to jot down notes on some of the tips I gave, presumably those that weren’t tainted by my queerness.
Recalling the lesson I had only moments ago given that we should come together and learn from those who are different from us, I said, “Well, I’m happy that despite us being different, you are still able to take something from this workshop.”
After he shuffled away, the other supportive husband approached me. The professional side in me knew to make small talk with this person who stayed after to talk to me, but I feared what critique he might have for me. Perhaps he too had seen through my evil plan to gay everyone by talking about how important it is to have support communities as a writer.
“My friend, she’s a writer. We were in Iraq together. She and her wife…” he said and trailed off into some story that I realized was an excuse for him to share that he knew a gay person, two even.
I smiled, let out my breath. Talking to him was like talking to my dad, someone with a different background and outlook from me on many things, but does his darndest to find a bridge. I felt incredibly thankful that my workshop could end on this conversation rather than the one that happened moments before it.
I left the conference without mingling at the meet-and-greet. I used the excuse of worrying I’d miss my train, but mostly it was out of pure shaken up-ness. I felt scattered, frazzled. Homophobia is not new, nor is disguising it as professional advice. But the hardest part was that it had to occur during a milestone moment for me. At the same time I had overcome my fear of teaching, this stranger felt compelled to give me unsolicited advice on just what kind of teacher I should be. Not a teacher with a backstory or experiences or a viewpoint, not if it was one different from his narrow view of the world. In a workshop centered on community, this stranger let me know I couldn’t be a part of his.