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First impressions

First impressions


I was a senior. He was a junior. I edited one small section of the college newspaper. Derrick, as I'll call him, had quickly leapt to a leadership position at the paper. We barely spoke. I was a recently out Yankee attending a Southern university and hung out with other gay guys and social outcasts. Derrick was an umpteenth-generation Confederate overachiever whose dad had been a star athlete at the same school 30 years earlier.

I dressed like a dork. He was handsome, well-groomed, and appropriately preppy.

I thought he was standoffish. He probably thought the same of me.

We went our separate ways--me to a small-town newspaper; Derrick to the Ivy League--without ever connecting. What did we have in common anyway?

A few years ago I ran into Derrick at an AIDS fund-raiser. He was with his partner; I was with mine. He recognized me and said hello. We exchanged cards--and still we've barely spoken. But ever since, I've felt like I missed out on a friendship that could have been remarkable and fun.

I had judged Derrick too easily. It wasn't who he was that I was responding to, but what I thought he represented. He didn't seem gay (and may not have been out) back at college. He seemed the epitome of the Southern establishment.

I wonder if Derrick shares some life experience with Portia de Rossi. "I've got to tell you, I had a hell of a time convincing people I was gay," she tells The Advocate in her remarkably candid interview. "You...tell people and they go, 'I don't think you are gay. No, no, that doesn't seem right to me.' "

Back when Derrick and I were in college, the band Talking Heads was at its peak. I always smiled at their spoken-word song "Seen and Not Seen," about a man who believes he can through force of will reshape his face to match his personality. "This is why first impressions are often correct," intones singer David Byrne. "Although some people might have made mistakes."

None of us need to make that mistake anymore. We need not hide behind faces that we imagine don't match our identities as gays and lesbians. And none of us should assume anymore that a certain kind of face just can't be queer, just can't be friendly. Actions should speak louder than faces.

I wrote here in our last issue about my first impression after seeing the smirk that often appears on the face of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. Days after that column went to press, the nation learned that Roberts had worked with gay rights advocates in prepping for the Romer v. Evans case, the historic outcome of which outlawed blanket bans on gay-protective laws.

First impressions can be wrong. They are at best inconclusive. Advocate columnist Paris Barclay went to prep school and Harvard with Roberts, but as with me and Derrick, they went their separate ways in college and after. Paris is still wondering where Roberts stands on LGBT equality.

Clearly Roberts is more complex than I gave him credit for being and more accomplished than Paris ever dreamed he'd be. (Roberts would likely say the same about the multiple Emmy-winning Paris.) None of this means that he'll be a friend to gay equality on the bench, but it does mean we can't just assume he'll be an enemy.

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