Straight Talk About LGBT Issues in Hyattsville
Freewheeling, frank discussion focuses on the lives of minority sexuality and gender-identity populations in the Gateway Arts District.
In a different setting it might be considered a rude question, but when Hyattsville resident Richard Morris asked if same-sex couples express traditional masculine-dominant, feminine-subservient partner roles as one might find in a heterosexual relationship, no one batted an eye.
That's because Morris asked his question during yesterday's Conversations in the Corridor at Busboys and Poets which focused on life for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people along the Route 1 corridor and beyond.
Soon after asking, Morris had an answer.
"When I came out to my mother, the first thing she asked me was 'which one of you is the woman," said Colmar Manor resident Doug Bowles. "I said to her, none of us. That's kind of the point."
These types of exchanges were common throughout the discussion, which saw members of the area's minority-sexuality population engage in direct talk with a few of their heterosexual neighbors.
The discussion was frank in trying to address divisions expressed locally and nationally over the issues of sexuality and gender identity.
When asked if area communities area were accepting of the lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender population, the response was a resounding yes…but.
Pennye Jones-Napier, owner of Big Bad Woof and a lesbian in a committed relationship, thought that there is a high level of acceptance of lesbians and gays in the area. Discussion moderator Shannon Wyss noted the area's progressive reputation.
"Our experience has been really great," said Wyss.
But Colmar Manor resident Doug Bowles noted that he was subjected to a barrage of hateful, homophobic comments from a group of teenagers once while walking along the Bladensburg waterfront.
"What we are talking about is getting people to accept the fact that there are people different from themselves," said Bowles. "We have to make our community an engine for that kind of acceptance."
The discussion began with introductions asking participants for their name and preferred gender pronoun. This slightly unusual addendum takes into consideration the presence of transgender people whose physical appearance may not reveal their true gender identity.
"It's probably the least understood aspect of LGBT. Most people understand the 'L', the 'G' and the 'B'," said Wyss, a transgender person who prefers to be referred to by the gender-neutral pronoun zhe or zher. "Not everyone understands the 'T'."
Wyss explained that there are many reasons one may be transgendered. Some may be born with ambiguous genitalia and assigned a gender at birth which doesn't match the person's true identity. Some may possess fully developed male or female genitalia but, for whatever reason, identify differently.
Even within the LGBT community there exists anti-transgender bias, said Katie Wanschura, Wyss' partner.
"You still get pushback from the gay community about guys in drag," said Wanschura. "It's still okay to point at the guy in the dress."
One older lesbian woman, who declined to provide her name to this publication, seemed to give voice to that split when she said that the issues faced by lesbians, gays and bisexuals don't always line up with the issues faced by transgender people.
"If I'm a lesbian, I'm a lesbian and I don't have to do anything," she said. "If I'm transgender, I have to take pills and I have to have reconstructive surgery, and I have to do all this stuff."
But Wyss responded, noting that the larger heterosexual community frequently cannot tell the difference, seeing only sexual outliers. Cast as an "other" by society, Wyss argued that it was useful to band together to fight for political rights and public acceptance.
"We still face the same issues of discrimination because we are all viewed together as just 'those freaks.'" said Wyss.
The discussion also touched on how the LGBT community was viewed among the areas racial and ethnic minorities.
Moderator and Hyattsville City Council member Candace Hollingsworth, an African-American, said that broaching the topic of sexuality and gender identity issues remains difficult among members of her extended family.
When discussion turned to Maryland's recently passed and signed same-sex marriage bill, some older members of the LGBT community were openly skeptical of the need.
"Truthfully, I want someone to explaine to me the benefits of gay marriage," said Jones-Napier. "I already spent thousands of dollars securing my rights with my partner."
Another participant responded that she would have been able to spend that money on her wedding instead of legal fees.
Wyss, echoing statements from same-sex marriage advocates, said that it was all but inevitable that the same-sex marriage bill would return as a referendum issue on the November election once same-sex marriage opponents gather enough petition signatures.
Addressing that point, Hollingsworth asked what locals can do to show solidarity with their LGBT neighbors over the coming months.
Wanschura said that something as simple as putting out a pro-same-sex marriage sign on your front yard goes a long way to promote neighborhood acceptance.