Name: Robert Hensley
County of Residence: I was born and raised in Fayette County; I live in Allegheny and Erie Counties while in college. Now lives in Los Angeles, California.
Preferred Pronouns: Human. I find this dialogue block offensive. It perpetuates labeling.
How do you describe your identity? I describe myself as a human being, a person with gifts and talents, and a citizen of the universe. Asking – in some instances, forcing – people to identify or label themselves is incredibly petty and only further imposes societal division. We are all the same.
Please describe your coming out experience. Where did you find support? What challenges did you face? I was never really in, so I didn’t have a typical coming out experience. My family, those people I with whom I went to school, they all had an idea. Even if they didn’t know what to call it, what label to slap on it, they knew I was different. Conversely, I didn’t try that hard to pretend not to be, or try to fit in. It was difficult to be the one to stand out, but also a wonderful opportunity to grow. I never had to wonder about being normal, because I was always extraordinary.
How would you describe yourself NOW in terms of “being out”? I have nothing to hide. I live as an out gay man.
Tell me about the first LGBTQ person whom you met. What impact did they have on your life? Growing up in a rural area, I’m sure I met gay, lesbian and bisexual people, but because of the conservative climate, I was not aware. The first person I remember meeting was a tour guide at a local museum. He was very kind to me and had similar interests to my own, and he spent a lot of time talking with me. He showed me kindness and seemed interested in what I had to say. He didn’t treat me like a stupid kid. The impact this encounter had on me was profound. I had been brought up to believe gays were all deviants. They were vilified and this man was nothing like that. It taught me to see people as people, to endeavor to treat everyone with dignity and respect.
Past or present, favorite LGBTQ character or creator in television, film or literature? Please tell us why. Like many, I laughed at Jack on ‘Will & Grace’ and Coach Sylvester on ‘Glee.’ I reveled in the theatrics of the characters on ‘Queer As Folk.’ However, none of these characters has been a favorite. They were sad stereotypes, which presented watered-down, non-confrontational, conservative-safe characterizations of people who just happened to be gay. It’s almost ridiculous how the most honest representation of a gay character on TV came from a soap opera. Historically, in literature, there are fabulous representations of gay characters, well-rounded, fully-realized and profoundly relatable; too many to name.
How do you stay informed about LGBTQ issues? I stay informed about global issues, including those relevant to the LGBT community, by reading online news resources, blogs, watching limited television, and through word of mouth – lively discussions about current events with friends and colleagues.
Describe your geographical community. I live in Los Angeles. It’s a progressive, yet conservative environment, almost an entire universe away from Fayette County. I’ve been around the world and have settled in a place where ‘gay-friendly’ is actually a thing. West Hollywood is a city on the forefront of LGBT rights and inclusion. However, ‘gay-friendly’ is for how we are treated by those who are not gay – not how we treat each other. WeHo is, unfortunately, the apex of every narrow, negative stereotype, which afflicts our ‘community.’ Gays are notoriously catty, bitchy and hateful – sometimes spiteful – people. We fight amongst ourselves to be the gayest. Gays dislike lesbians, and lesbians dislike everyone. ‘Community’ is a great idea, but not a concept which has taken root. We have tons of support; from the LGBT Center to the LGBT Youth Center, clinics, etc. It could be worse.
Describe your local or regional LGBTQ community. There is no LGBTQ community. Take that as you will. When I visit Uniontown, Pittsburgh, Erie – it’s all the same; everyone playing into the limited boxes in which they’ve been labeled: twins, bears, jocks, etc. And everyone acting as prescribed by the stereotypes they’ve seen on television and in movies. They all cry for equality, but also expect to be treated differently. The LGBT flag, Pride parades…what other minority group has its own flag? Why should gays be proud of their sexuality – is that what defines them more than what they may have done of the betterment of all humankind? It’s like having Green Eyes day. If you want to run around in your underwear and kiss your same-sex lover, just do it – on any day. Why wait for Pride. You can’t fight for inclusion and expect to stand apart. It’s beyond counterproductive.
Have you ever experienced discrimination based on your identity? Specifically, in a job setting, when applying for housing or while in public. I was bullied in elementary, middle and high school. It continued into college. It happens in some small way now as an adult. High school ends, but the bull shit attitudes of a few close-minded bigots does not. I work in the film industry and there are those macho, all-man, manly men who get their jollies for making fun of the ‘fag(s)’ on the crew. They make snide remarks, tell tasteless jokes, walk buy with their hands over their crotches…they are the bullies in school who never grew up. It takes some of the joy out of the job, but it won’t keep me from doing what I love to do.
Are there issues impacting your LGBTQ neighbors that aren’t visible or part of the local dialogue? We all have issues. In Los Angeles, we have access to more support. However, when I visit Pennsylvania, I see how the climate of intolerance and threat of violence has damaged the gays and lesbians in SWPA. So many men and women are forced or feel they’ve been forced to live a lie or in the dark – and they turn to alcohol and drug abuse. They can’t find ‘community’ or support. Unfortunately, the environment in SWPA is not supportive and this is still an area where threats of violence could lead to situations like Matthew Shepard. The young people are left to feel they have no way out, and suicide becomes an option. The dialogue which needs to happen is about how to build the ‘community’ everyone talks about.
What would you like to see elected officials do to improve life for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians? I hope elected officials would hold true to their oaths and govern for all the people – not based on income, color, sexuality or religion; to govern and protect everyone as humans. I hope they would realize their own religious beliefs are secondary to the office they hold, and understand they are employed by all the constituents in their city, county, state and/or country – and they must act in the best interests of everyone.
Please share a lived experience, anecdote or fact about life as an LGBTQ person in your community. No response.
Beyond discrimination, what other barriers create challenges for your LGBTQ neighbors? Unfortunately, we are our own problem. Again, fighting for equality and expecting to be treated differently – we can’t have our cake and eat it, too. We either want to be seen and treated like everyone else, or we want special treatment. We can’t have both.
What LGBTQ friendly resources are available for your neighbors? No Response
What is your greatest fear for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? I fear SWPA may never have a healthy LGBT ‘community.’ I fear there will always be an environment of hate, and there will never be change in the prejudicial attitudes of the locals. I fear the geographic distance between metropolitan, suburban and rural centers will continue to keep support resources from reaching everyone who needs them.
What is your greatest hope for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? I hope SWPA can build a thriving LGBT community. I hope they can build bridges to close the gaps, which separate people from the resources they need. I also hope they can find intelligent leadership – people who won’t try to hire a notoriously homophobic act to headline their Pride celebrations, and make the ‘community’ a joke to the rest of the world.
What can allies do to support your LGBTQ community? Stop using labels and identifiers. Stop making us stand out as different.
How can gay men and lesbians support the bisexual, transgender and queer members of our community? Stop treating them like aliens. They are people – humans – like the rest of us. Include them and treat them as you hope they’d treat you.
What motivated you to take part in this project? I felt is was important to share my voice as someone who came out of SWPA and has had the pleasure of experiencing ‘community’ around the world.
Finally, what question should I have asked? Please also share your answer. No Response
Thank you, Robert.
Read the entire AMPLIFY LGBTQ Q&A archive.
AMPLIFY LGBTQ is a series of blog posts designed to give a “signal boost” to the voices of our LGBTQ neighbors throughout Western Pennsylvania. We are using a Q&A format and will minimize editing their responses.
Our intent is to highlight the voices of marginalized members of our community who are not always invited to the table or whose voices are not heard. These are glimpses in to the lived experiences of LGBTQ people in Western Pennsylvania as told in their own voices. If you would like to participate, please email me pghlesbian at gmail or visit the online Q&A.
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