Speakout aims to create atmosphere of toleranceBy EVAN HALPER
Surrounded by more than a dozen strangers, Mike Klaus talked openly about what he must face every day of his life as a gay man in a society that continues to treat gays as second-class citizens. He began with the seemingly innocent term "coming out of the closet," delicately turning the tables and asking straight members in the room if they remember "coming out" with their sexuality. "I'm looking forward to when [it] is no bigger a deal than coming out of the closet as left handed," he said.
Klaus was beginning another session sponsored by the Maine Speakout Project for Equal Rights, a network of more than 100 trained participants holding discussions with community groups across the state to fight homophobia and build a support base for equal rights for gay men and lesbians. This particular dialogue, held Friday at the Visiting Nurse Association and Hospice in South Portland, was led by Klaus and Susan Comyns, a teacher and former nurse whose son is gay. The coordinator of Speakout, Jonathan Lee, was also present.
Even with a group that appears unanimously sympathetic, as Friday's group appeared to be, the one-hour lunchtime dialogues can be engrossing. "There is more to understanding than saying, 'I know people who are gay, and that is OK,' " Klaus said.
Early in the meeting he shared examples of where he and others in the gay and lesbian community are discriminated against day to day. "It means filling out my income tax form and finding that the rules do not apply to me," he said, explaining that the law docs not recognize his spouse of 16 years. The same goes for the bank with insurance policies and loans.
Then there is "the kind of discrimination that is difficult to even convey, the kind that no legislation can change," Klaus said. He talked about actions most people take for granted, such as holding hands in public, or talking openly about a significant other in casual conversation with a recent acquaintance.
As Susan Comyns introduced herself, she held up an enlarged baby picture of her now 21-year-old son. "This is what a gay baby looks like," she said, adding that she thought of herself as tolerant and respectful of non-heterosexual lifestyles until her own son was involved.
"As soon as he came out, I went in," she said. When her son won a trip to the Bahamas for himself and his partner from a gay bar, Comyns was delighted, but said she kept her enthusiasm mostly to herself, afraid of how friends would respond.
Comyns feels guilty that her son was compelled to stay "in the closet" for several years, first talking with her about his sexuality only two years ago. "The energy it takes to be in the closet robs people of energy that could be used in so many more productive ways," she said.
A number of questions and comments from the group focused on the frustration people were finding conveying messages of tolerance to their children. Judy Caylor, a nurse, is angered by the messages her two teenage boys are picking up from their peers at school. "This weekend someone called someone else a 'fag' . . . It made me understand that just because I feel one way about something, it isn't going to make them feel that way through osmosis," she said.
Jonathan Lee said the project, aimed at stimulating dialogue in local schools, is finding resistance. "People in schools are telling me you have to have parents asking for this," in order for dialogues to take place, he said. Those involved with the project hope to win support for opening local schools to discussions on anti-gay discrimination.
The Speakout Project began in September and by April plans to have conducted 75 meetings. Not all the audiences are friendly. Lee said the project may deliberately seek out groups like the Bangor Lions Club, which he described as a "tough bunch."
Part of the issue, Lee said, is that "most people in Maine have not met an openly gay or lesbian person."