This weekend, we were lucky to attend a dinner party with some friends. We were having a great time, until that point half way through the dinner when the conversation unravelled to reveal irreconcilable differences among the guests. This, of course, is common in dinner parties, and we (we ladies, especially) learn early on to patch up the conversation with some quick dismissals of differences and deft changes of topic.
However, I think we sociologists sometimes find ourselves in a particular conversational pinch, as I did this weekend, when the dispute lands squarely in our area of expertise.
I remember a day in grad school, playing softball with my adviser, whose expertise is in welfare policy. Some bonehead made some comments about welfare cheats and how crazy it is that we should waste our tax money on poor people because it just makes them lazy. The guy clearly did not expect to get into an argument, but unfortunately for him, Edwin has a razor-sharp wit in addition to abundant information on the topic, and the conversation ended with the other guy mumbling to himself and walking away.
A dinner table is no softball field, though, so when the guest in question made an obnoxious, homophobic remark and the two-thirds of the table that knows I study lesbian and gay activism turned to me to see what I’d say, I wasn’t really looking forward to cutting her down, Amenta-style. So, I disagreed with her statement dismissively and tried to change the topic, but it was not meant to be. She wanted a fight, and so did my friends.
If I had it to do over again, I would have turned it into a lecture. We could have started with the mental health of lesbians, which she had questioned, learning a bit about the history of psychology’s treatment of lesbians and gay men, the studies about the equivalency of mental health in gay and straight populations, and the decision to remove the diagnosis of homosexuality from the diagnostic manual. We could have then discussed why exactly women’s sports as an institution has been a gathering place for lesbians for decades, and why they may have needed–and continue to need–safe havens. I could have even provided a thoughtful discussion of why I, as a straight woman, would possibly be interested in studying gay activism (funny, no one ever questions why I study right-wing activism).
Unfortunately, the dinner table is not a classroom, and when she saw she wasn’t going to get anywhere on the anti-lesbian front, the conversation devolved into a myriad of tirades against things as seemingly benign as yoga, sandals, and baseball. Unfortunately, my years of training–in sociology and in general etiquette–did not prepare me to participate in this conversation, let alone make any good come out of it. I’ll be glad to get back to my intro class, where hopefully I am a bit more useful.