Thursday, January 29, 1998

Gay Men And Bossy Women

While cleaning out my files as a way of distracting myself from work (the house was already clean), I came upon this letter I wrote a few years ago to a friend doing research in gay and lesbian studies. It is, in case you miss my hidden agenda — because the focus is on sexism, not on gay rights—a kind of celebration that we have finally left behind the once prevailing view that gays and lesbians are but victims. Because all the people involved have moved on, I decided I could take it public. All the names remain changed, however, for all the customary reasons.

One of the many things I do from time to time to collect a salary is stuff envelopes. I do this every year at Entrance Examination time, when only the senior professors are allowed to touch the sacred text. This year, I have extended my talents and have been stuffing things for charity, as well. I have been working with a local expatriate group to raise money for sufferers of AIDS.

The idea for such a fundraiser came from an American resident of Tokyo who had heard of an event in New York and wanted to reproduce it in Tokyo. The New York group had been very successful in raising money for organizations dealing with AIDS by getting one hundred people to throw a party, all on the same day, and selling tickets to their invited guests.

Anybody who knows Japan well will call this naïve. Japanese do not traditionally throw parties in their homes; they have no tradition of volunteerism, and the idea of taking money from your friends is a conceit rude, crude, and most unattractive.

That is not to say, of course, that in Tokyo's sophisticated and internationalized social world it could not be done; it means only that where in the West one plugs into a series of helpful expectations, in Japan one finds instead a series of unexpected hurdles. No help from the government with tax write-offs, no large corporations willing to donate space and party favors, no hosts and hostesses looking for another excuse for a social gathering to spruce up the winter season, for starters. And no large pool of party-folk who know just what to do and just how to behave. Few folk familiar with philanthropy, or comfortable with the notion that such responsibility is anybody's other than the government's.

So the fundraiser was an ambitious undertaking, requiring more than a few prime movers. Cameron was one; he had had the idea to copy the New York example. Jerry and his lover, Daisuke, made three. Doris and her husband David made five. And I joined the group at their second or third meeting at the invitation of Geoffrey, the sixth member, who lists among his many talents an expertise in the area of AIDS. Geoffrey knew of my seminar dealing with the AIDS crisis and thought I might be useful as someone who could do some publicity for the group. I don't remember much of the first meeting at Doris and David's, but I remember my second meeting vividly. We met at Geoffrey's to talk with the director of the HIV Centers of Tokyo and Osaka and an unpaid American volunteer who, because the director spoke little English, acted as the Center's spokesperson.

I learned a lot at that meeting. I observed that Mark, the volunteer, was in an awkward position, not knowing how to read our offer to raise money for the Center; that the Japanese director was exhausted, and knew even less how to read the group, that Geoffrey wanted to be recognized as the senior and most expert member of the group, that Doris overrated my knowledge of Japanese, and that the group had little or no coherence.

We fumbled about looking for things to talk about with the HIV Center people. We were very direct. Was this even the right group to raise money for? Was there anything we needed to know before making the offer? And if this wasn't in-your-face American enough for these guys, Doris then decided to convince the Center to organize as an American corporation. The idea was stunningly insensitive. Here come the American cowboys to the rescue. Their solution? Make everything American. The guys from the HIV Center squirmed. "How do we tell this nice lady her idea is from the Twilight Zone," I read in their eyes, "without losing her support?" They were new at this fundraising business, too.

I spoke up, finally, and Doris backed off. Too late for Geoffrey, however, who was already folding up his tent. The next day we all received handwritten notes from him saying he felt his talents could be better used elsewhere. To me he confided that this "typical American woman" drove him nuts. "No sensitivity, no awareness of anybody else." Just pushes on with her own agenda, insists on her own way.

I came to know in time that tent-folding was characteristic of Geoffrey, but that evening I was baffled by his overreaction. Had Doris not, after all, backed off as soon as one of us spoke up? Her suggestion had merit, at least financially. Clearly Geoffrey had another agenda. He had been very critical of things American on many occasions, often with blanket condemnations. He wasn't pissed at her, I thought, but at some other "pushy broad" in his American past. In any case, this left me working with the group without the guy who brought me into it.

The next meeting was at Doris and David's. Here, Doris was clearly in charge. I didn't like her much. She talked about her mother and her mother's experience at charity work. This isn't going to be easy, I thought. I'm not interested in hearing how it's done down Georgia way; and not fond of her references to "important" people. She reminded me of Geoffrey in this, actually. No wonder he couldn't work with her. The question is, can I? What have I gotten myself into? I'm over my head.

The group began weekly meetings at a restaurant in Omote-Sando and moved slowly and clumsily toward the Sunday in November first established as the day of the parties. Summer came and I left for two months' vacation in the States. When I got back, there was a whole new atmosphere. Lots of work had been done, lists drawn up, press releases put out, and Jerry was no longer attending any of the meetings. The excuse given was his preoccupation with getting a new job. Daisuke, his lover, continued to participate actively.

Then Cameron left for a three week vacation and there was just Doris and me. It wasn't long before I was used to her style of working and talking, and I found my respect for her growing. The agenda was hers, as was the organization of the group. She had the fax machine and the extra telephone line. She had the list of organizations to contact, she did most of the mailings. She was practically the whole show, or so it appeared. And while I took the summer off, and Cameron took a long vacation in November, after we had postponed the date to January 13, Doris stayed on. David was working more actively now than before, or so it seemed to me. Geoffrey had been out of the picture since the beginning, Jerry almost as long, and Daisuke had been transferred to Fukuoka for almost a month. Doris was the group.

The last few meetings around Christmas time (I was gone again for Craig's funeral and again at Christmas) were edged with panic. Nobody had committed to parties yet and there were an impossible number of things to do. Doris had suggested that all party-goers should receive an "omiyage," a gift to take home. This was later scaled down to a small pin, which she and David paid for, a STOP AIDS button, a piece of chocolate, and a condom. Also in the packet were several pieces of information from various AIDS related services and counselling centers in Tokyo.

In the end, David and Doris had donated several hundred hours and more than a couple thousand dollars to the effort. And they had established themselves as the kind of people who go to work and stay at it. Cameron and Jerry were less willing than I, however, to give them credit for their efforts. Doris was a tyrant whose only good point was that she made the trains run on time, they snarked. By being the engineer herself and getting David to stoke the engine.

The day before the party, I went with Cameron to deliver packages to several of the party givers. The job took us over four hours, with Cameron dropping me off, finally, to finish the deliveries while he made a mad dash for Narita Airport to pick up a friend. That was the longest time I had ever spent with him and the first time I was aware of the extent of his resentment of Doris. I set him off by commenting that I had not seen the merit of handing out "omiyage" at first, but had come to see later what a difference it made that the whole affair had a "touch of class." Cameron was furious. "That was my idea!" he said. "Typical of her, to take all the credit."

I tried to play peacemaker and urged him to have this out with her if he wanted to do this again next year. I rambled on for a while about how all volunteer groups suffer from a lack of clear direction until somebody takes over, and somebody always does, usually with no shortage of ill will. Cameron wouldn't hear any generalizations. Didn't apply here, he said. There was no vacuum. It was just that she had the money to do things, she had the time to serve as contact person, the fax, the telephone, the xerox machine. It was just that she was always here when everybody else was on vacation. Others came and went, at least another half dozen volunteers, most of whom came once only and required more time being filled in by Doris than they provided help. He was smarting. He wanted credit for his idea. I put our conversation out of my mind and concentrated on last minute details.

The party hosts did appear, finally, and the event did take place. We came nowhere near one hundred parties, but the twenty or so which were held raised $17,000. Not a bad show for a charity do in a non-charity environment, I think.

Doris is now off tying up loose ends in her career and getting in a short vacation, the first since this whole thing started. Cameron is busy. Jerry and Daisuke are in Taiwan, and today I went over and spent an hour with David unpacking the rest of the unused packets, so we can return the literature to the volunteer organizations that wasn't distributed. No engineer. Just a couple of stokers. I enjoyed his company.

On the way home, I thought about how little the man and I have in common. His age, his social background, his business world lifestyle, would all suggest we would have little to talk about. But that wasn't the case. In fact, I found myself having a very good time, sitting on the floor and talking about this and that. Me and this straight man, cleaning up, picking up the pieces, and having a jaw. It occurred to me then that all our encounters, in fact, had been like that one this morning. "Hen-pecked husband," they had said. "Mr. Maggie Thatcher," someone had joked once. But that didn't jibe somehow with the picture I had formed of a thoughtful, decent, gentle man who supports his wife's passion for the cause of AIDS, and has no trouble making coffee in the kitchen while she calls the shots in the living room. Curious, I think now, that in all this time I never heard an angry word from either one of them. And no criticism of the volunteers.

Geoffrey, Jerry, and Cameron had all taken exception to her "bossiness." I, too, bridled at it the first time. But the longer I reflected on the many encounters over the last year, the more I marvelled at how non-confrontational they actually were. Doris could give orders, it is true. But anybody could have countered them at any point along the way. The one time I did disagree with her clearly, she accepted what I had to say without question. There was no clear example I could come up with of her overriding another's opinion, of rejecting out-of-hand another's policy suggestion, no behind-the-scenes manipulation, no gossip, no backbiting, no ridicule, no dismissal of another's efforts.

Something had to explain the animosity these guys felt towards this woman and by process of elimination I was left with one disturbing conclusion. It would appear her being a woman was the problem. Geoffrey called her "a pushy American broad," Geoffrey himself the master teacher of how to play games only according to your own rules. Jerry called her "bossy," a word which, in the Sexist Vocabulary Olympics, could win a gold medal without even working up a sweat. And Cameron referred several times to "her and her hen-pecked husband." Two with one blow.

But what if David were Doris and vice versa? If it were Doris, the "woman behind the man," the cheerful maker of coffee, the wife who sometimes comes to her husband's favorite fundraiser group, tired from her own job, but bent on supporting his magnificent obsession. If David were the "take-charge" kind of guy; the slow and steady force behind the movement, the guy you can always count on to be there when others get distracted. Change the roles and you have a ton of virtues to extol in both of them. Bossy? Try assertive and bold. Hen-pecked? Try loyal or supportive.

So much in the choice of words. Three gay men. Three points of view, and all of them sexist. In the sixties and seventies, gay men used to wonder why the Lesbians were reticent to work with them on their causes and campaigns. "Because we are women and you are men first," they would answer, and the men would shake their heads, not comprehending. Twenty years and more I have watched gay men do this to women. The Lesbians are right. We are men first.


Revised, January 29, 1998