I told a story earlier this week about someone freaking out at a picture of my husband on my desk many years ago. Now I want to tell you about a completely different experience.
It was some years later. The company had grown, been bought by a giant corporation, split in two, and the division I worked for was sold off to another big company that set us up to run semi-independently. They hired some new people to fill out the most decimated departments. One of the new people hired was a young computer engineer, fresh out of college from Eastern Europe.
One day shortly after he joined our company, Eduard, the young engineer, was setting up my account in the new bug tracking system, showing me how to log in, and so forth. So he was looking over my shoulder while telling me what to do next. When we finished, he pointed to the photo frame on my desk. It was in a very similar location as the previous picture had been. Many things had changed since the previous experience with another engineer. Ray had died, and I had since met, fallen in love with, and now lived with Michael. My office was in a different building, the equipment and furniture were different.
So the man in the picture, the picture frame, the desk, and so on were all different. The only thing that was the same was that I still kept the picture at a spot where I could see it, and where other people could usually ignore it.
He asked in his heavily accented voice: “Who is… Is that your, uh, husband? Partner? I don’t know the word.”
I told him it was my hubby, Michael, and that I never knew what word to use, either. Boyfriend, partner, husband all had difficulties back then.
“Does he work in computers, too?”
I explained that he did computer support for a number of clients, and also worked for a computer refurbisher.
“How did you meet?”
I briefly told him about the science fiction convention where we’d met.
“It’s good to have things in common. I met my wife in the hiking club in college. We both love climbing mountains.”
And so I asked him a few questions about her. It was a simple, brief, very human conversation.
Over the course of the next few years we worked on a lot of software products together. Eduard and his wife had a couple of sons. He started organizing snowboarding excursions for the other employees. He bought a motorcycle and started riding it in to work (and organizing long groups rides with others on summer weekends). He rose to a management position. He was one of the smartest, nicest people I’d ever worked with. One of his best traits was that he accepted everyone at face value, more concerned about getting the job done right than worrying about whether who was the “proper” person for the job.
I can’t tell you how many engineering managers I’ve met who pigeonhole non-engineers the moment they meet them. They assume all tech writers know nothing about technology (and don’t really want to know), but only worry about things such as Oxford commons, split infinitives, and making text look pretty. With that sort, any time I made intelligent comments on specifications, or suggested workable fixes to problems, they would look at me as if I’d grown and second head and ask, “How do you know about that?”
Eduard wasn’t that way. When, for instance, we had to resurrect some old functionality in one codebase that hadn’t been used in many years, and I started explaining about how we had sampled which parts of the digital signal, he just started asking questions about the technology. It wasn’t until the end of our discussion that he asked how I knew it so well. When I told him I’d been the software tester on the project when we’d first developed the functionality, he just nodded and asked if I’d be willing to explain it to the engineers who had to re-create the functionality, and was I willing to review test plans.
Then one June Monday I was in the office, busy because I had some big deadlines looming. I had heard on the news about a late season blizzard that had struck nearby Mt Rainier days earlier, and how rescuers had had to retrieve two climbers who had gotten caught in the storm. One of them hadn’t survived.
It was quite a shock when I learned the climbers were Eduard and his wife. They were very experienced climbers. It had just been one of those times when nature reminds us just how small we are. They had had to dig in to take shelter, and as the storm raged on, Eduard had wrapped himself around his wife, using his body to shield her from the worst of the cold. He saved her, but it cost his life.
And that’s how this queer middle-aged man, from a very low-church Southern evangelical background wound up standing in a very high church, orthodox funeral mass surrounded by teary-eyed co-workers in the very unchurched Northwest a week later.
He had been raised in a culture that was much less gay-friendly than ours (which still isn’t terribly), but I had never felt the slightest hint of judgement or awkwardness from him. He had treated the discovery of my husband’s picture completely matter-of-factly, and any other conversations that drifted into family or related topics remained that way. He approached the world with an open mind and an open heart.
Because of the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and the annual commemoration in many places with a Pride Parade, I always end up writing about gay rights or people who oppose them even more often than usual during June. But for the last few years, June also makes me think about Eduard—a straight guy with a wife, kids, and a predilection for adrenaline-pumping hobbies—who had reacted exactly the opposite as that other engineer upon seeing a simple picture of a man on my desk. Whereas the other guy had taken offense and demanded that I be punished and forbidden to have the picture in my office, Eduard had asked how we’d met.
I hold out hope for the day when Eduard’s open-hearted outlook on the world is the norm from straight guys everywhere.