Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Two black women and a homo drive to Gillette

Yes, it has been a while since I've posted. I haven't had much to say lately. I've been in maintenance mode, just trying to keep up with appointments, meetings, and generally keep my head above water. I didn't want to post random fluff about what I did. So here's a lesson, in true Big Gay Jim Tradition.

I went to Gillette this weekend. A group called Leadership Wyoming wanted a presentation on diversity issues. They contacted the University for help, as UW co-sponsors the program as a whole. And so I got a phone call from Nell Russell, our new Employment Practices Officer. She's been here for 10 months. She wanted to put together a diverse team. She also called Deb McGriff, Education Professor and Director of African American Studies at UW. Chris Primus from Disability Support Services was supposed to round out our team, meaning we would cover sexual orientation, disabilities, racism, and sexual harassment. All in all, a pretty good team.

Friday we got word Chris was sick, and it would be just 3 of us going. We'd gotten some flack from one of the head honchos of the program, worried that we would be "pushing personal agendas." The long and short of it: he didn't want us to talk about anything but racism, as that's really all people in Wyoming have to deal with and all future leaders needed to be trained in. *cough* Okay. Tough shit? Our attitude was "You asked us to present on diversity, and that's what we're going to do. We may not be experts, but we're educated and might know a thing or two about what needs to be presented." We certainly knew we didn't need a stodgy heterosexual white male telling us what diversity issues Wyoming has to deal with.

And so it was that 2 black women and one large gay man climbed into a University car and hurtled ourselves northward for 4 hours. We arrived at the Clarion Inn on schedule. It used to be the Holiday Inn in Gillette, and little has been done since it was built. So there is now a general shabbiness to the place, and a desparate attempt to cling to the rustic atmosphere Gillette counts on for its limited tourist industry. We attended the "Back to the Ranch" event LW was hosting. It was designed to introduce the leader trainees to ranch life and give them a sense of the issues facing agriculture in Wyoming. Free steak and a reading of stories written by some of Wyoming's most gutsy women made it a unique evening, to be sure.

We woke early the next morning and had breakfast with the trainees before preparing our different presentations. We broke them into groups using numbers, so our groups were random. I ended up with the Chief of Police for Casper, the Casper City Manager, and about 10 other random Wyoming leaders. It was clear that some of the people did NOT want to be in "the gay group." But despite some tension and pointed questions, everyone "played nice." They were respectful of each other and of me, which is really all a person can ask for when it comes down to it. And after all the tension about university folks coming in to present on diversity, including the gay stuff, one theme was almost universal on our evaluations: they wanted MORE time. More discussion of diversity. More exposure.

So where's the lesson, you ask? Well, it's in the people. As soon as we walked into the "Back to the Ranch" event, an old family friend jumped up to give me a big hug. I have babysat for her sons, who are now in high school (shut up, Zeus). They were members of our church, and she played the piano at my mother's funeral. I knew the son of the Casper City Manager because I had judged him in debate. I met the father of another UW student; Dad is a bank VP in Sheridan and Junior works with the Campus Activities Center as a student programmer. Many of these people were fairly surprised that they had a connection to a gay man. But they were only surprised, not repulsed. This connection in and of itself could be a great lesson. I'll let you draw your own conclusions there.

But for me, the biggest lesson wasn't in the event itself. It was the travel to and from the session. Deb, Nell, and I had a great time. I played tour guide, explaining Wyoming history and Campbell County's socio-political and economic makeup. And we talked. Gawd, did we talk. We ignored the obvious barriers. We gave each other unspoken permission to ask anything. We learned about each other and the special challenges our different minority groups face living in America and in Wyoming. And we learned, not surprisingly, that the issues are very similar. We laughed, joked, and exposed our fears. Paralyzing loneliness. Isolation. Burnout. Political challenges. And we became close friends. I'm going to take Nell for a drive around the area, showing her the hidden beauty of Wyoming. We're going to have drinks, cook ribs, hot tub, and escape our lives now and then.

The lesson in a nutshell: find someone who's different. Have an open, honest conversation. Sick back and amaze one another. Don't we all deserve another friend? You really CAN'T have too many.

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