In an effort to get a bit more fashionable I recently did some shopping at Kenneth Cole. I ultimately purchased a pair of brown shoes and a tie, and apparently that was enough to warrant a small parting gift from the mid-20's man who rang up my items.
"Here you go, a little something we give our valued customers," he said, and he handed me a condom.
Before I had a chance to say anything he added, "we're increasing social awareness. Use it in good health."
The idea of obtaining a prophylactic from a retail clothing store doesn't inspire much more confidence in me than if I had gotten it from a $.99 store or simply found it on the street: if it's not in a perfectly sealed box by the world's greatest engineers, I don't want it.
To be polite I slipped the condom into my pocket and smiled awkwardly. "Thank you, I feel more aware already." As I turned to leave, the man said, "you knows, those types need to be using more of these," and nodded his head toward an effeminate-looking gentleman in a suit.
"And what types are those?" I asked. "Well-dressed men?"
He looked in both directions and said, "you know...the gays. What they do makes me sick, the least they could do is be safe about it."
I had a homosexual client years ago who told me that one of the most frustrating aspects of being gay was that almost everyone he knew immediately assumed that the sole aspect of the institution was sex. "When I told my parents that I was gay, their first reaction was 'are you practicing safe sex?' They didn't ask if I was in love or if I wanted to raise children with another man or anything like that. It was all about not catching AIDS. People who are heterosexual don't have to deal with that." I felt a pang of guilt when he said that because I too have had knee-jerk reactions about safe sex when people have revealed to me that they are gay.
The man in the store looked at me as if he was waiting for me to agree with him. Not that I tend to immediately shy away from confrontation, but I'm certainly not the best at it. I should have fired off something like:
How dare you shamelessly share your brazen homophobia with me. I'm a Z-list celebrity for Christ's sake!
Although there are probably millions of women who would love to be walking out of this store with me and what is now MY condom, I eschew it (cue to Rob throwing condom on the floor) due to your hate speech.
In the heat of the moment, however, I simply came up with, "yeah, safety is real good." And I left, condom in pocket.
I wrote about a recent experience with hate here and I caught some grief, justifiably so, from readers who wanted to know more about the "Psychology of Hate." They wanted something beyond the simple overgeneralizations a person can make after negative experiences, like when a woman is physically assaulted and suddenly hates all people of similar ethnic backgrounds as her attacker. That's just Classical Conditioning and most of us are familiar with that.
The truth is that the study of hate is outside my area of expertise (my area of expertise being "nothing except sitting there listening to people all day" if you ask my mother ). What I will share, however, is what I see in people: an inherent need to be part of groups, to identify with others. Football teams, religions, ethnicities, where we live, careers, where we went to school, etc. All of these are simply a way to categorize ourselves and form a relationship with others. Wanting that connection, that affinity to be with and feel in contact with similar people, to have that sense of belonging to something, isn't inherently bad. Unfortunately, there seems to be a cognitive leap from "our group is great," to "therefore yours is not." When that leap is taken to a greater extreme, you get "us vs. them," or hate (e.g., think about the hockey dads who get into fistfights or the riots seen during international soccer matches). In other words, holding the idea of "I'm okay, you're okay," isn't necessarily part of our nature. We seem to be programmed to separate people into categories, which can bring both safety and security. Unfortunately this often leads to negative viewpoints about groups that differ from our own.
In case you're wondering, the condom from the store is sitting safely in Dr. John's dresser. I have a small wager with him that it won't be put to good use anytime soon.