I think part of me always knew I wanted to be more than friends, but in an attempt to avoid the emotional impaling that often comes with trusting another flawed human being, I kept the burgeoning feelings to myself. It wasn’t until she offered me socks that I realized I was in love with her. We were sitting on the edge of her ratty green couch, legs touching, our slush-ridden boots strewn across the carpet. My teeth were still audibly chattering from the cold (or maybe from sitting in close proximity to her?), an involuntary mannerism, more nettlesome than painful. “Do you want a fresh pair of socks?” she asked with a solicitous hand on my arm. “Um…can I kiss you?” I responded.
How I was ever able to abandon the emotional repression I had so painstakingly cultivated for years in that singular moment remains a mystery. It was Laila, my friend Laila, the quiet but eloquent girl in my sociology class. Not only was she beautiful, she also exuded intelligence. The fact that I wasn’t even sure whether she identified as queer should have made the situation all the more intimidating. And yet, I squeezed my eyes shut and leaned in: a bumpy first kiss, though far less awkward than other saliva swapping catastrophes of the past.
At least that’s what my character did, according to the 2016 Tapestry of Possibilities script. For those of you who didn’t go to the mandatory orientation event during your freshman year, Tapestry is an interactive theater performance that aims to promote awareness of the myriad social issues Cornell students face.
Upon first reading the script in July, I didn’t quite know how to feel; I was going to be playing a lesbian. On one hand, it would be a challenging role. I often get typecast as the sarcastic best friend and was definitely ready to do something new. On the other hand, I would have to not only kiss, but be in love with a girl. Being emotionally vulnerable on stage is a difficult task for any actor. Regardless of the gender of the love interest, expressing love in front of a whole audience is terrifying, especially when you hate PDA. Still, I couldn’t deny that the fact that my love interest was a girl somehow compounded my issue with the role.
Comments from friends and family did nothing to mollify my hesitations about playing the part. I almost choked when my grandma asked me whether I’d be “the girl in the relationship” and told me that the kiss would be “shameful.” Of course, we might chalk her strong reaction up to generational differences. We can’t convert everyone who’s older than us to accept those who identify as LGBTQ+ if they’ve been raised all their lives in stringent environments that instructed them to do otherwise. However, responses from my peers, though not as overtly bigoted, were nonetheless questionable. “It’s hot when two girls kiss,” “Lesbians are super hot,” “Get ready for freshmen to jeer at you,” were just some of the reactions I received.
Both of these perspectives are depersonalized — to say the least — and yet considering how much I struggled with the role, my own perspective was clearly not all that much more evolved. I’m aware of my bias towards many things, but queer identity was one of the few things I thought I held a completely accepting attitude about. Love is love, attraction is attraction. Why is it any of my business who people love or are attracted to? It isn’t. But while I could be accepting of other people’s relationships, the thought of being in a lesbian relationship — even if only on stage — still perturbed me.
It was almost comical, me acting in a social justice theater troupe, preaching to freshman about acceptance and diversity, when I myself was worried that people would view me as immoral or dirty for portraying a relationship with a girl. It was all the more reason to play the role — not only to combat and acknowledge these inherent biases, but to acknowledge that there is a difference between tolerance and acceptance. I tolerate those who identify as LGBTQ+, but until I work on this ingrained and deep-rooted discrimination, I do not fully accept them.
During the facilitation that occurs after each Tapestry performance, we tell students that the discussion has only just begun and that we hope they will continue it throughout their time at Cornell and beyond. For those who are ready to continue the discussion, don’t denounce your biases: confront them head-on. Conversation is surely not enough to end social disparities, nor is the recognition that you are a prejudiced ass, but both count for something. Don’t be worried about getting it wrong. Even if you made an effort to stay educated, even if you belong to a marginalized group yourself, there will undoubtedly still be times when you are wrong. We all hold partiality for what we understand and have experienced ourselves as well as fear for that which is foreign to us. Perhaps our best chance at change will come when “the educated” abandon the fear of looking biased, and admit that they too are grappling with the kind of hatred and myopic perspectives that are naturally intrinsic to us all and that have been fostered throughout our formative years.