One of the many things I love about storytelling is that each time a story is told, something is always discovered or rediscovered by the storyteller. No matter how many times I tell a tale, I am always finding another insight or revelation, which always leaves me feeling like I have never told the story before.
One such tale is an encounter that I recently had with a taxi driver in London. In fact, a few minutes after the encounter, I found myself telling the story in a business meeting, and in the days that followed, I must have told it at least once a day. As I reflected on the story earlier this week, I found that I was still uncovering newer depths to the story; very much like Alice, lost in Wonderland and getting more curious and curious!
I have wanted to write about the story for the past couple of weeks, but I had become so enchanted by the oral telling of the tale and somehow felt that putting it to paper might mean that the story no longer unraveled. But as I found myself going through the OutTales archive over the past few days, I noticed that so many of the stories here all have further levels to what has been written, and if I was to write many of them again now, there will be a different pair of eyes and hand bringing new life to the already told tales…
Anyway, enough of my sentimental nostalgic reflection and on to the tale at hand…
The encounter took place just shy of one month ago. I had been attending a workshop at the Old Vic Theatre, where myself and five other participants got to tell stories from the stage. I was beaming and feeling so elated about the whole experience, as I stepped into a taxi outside the Old Vic to take me to my next meeting.
As I settled into the back seat, lost in daydreaming about how the workshop had unfolded, I heard the taxi driver ask whether I was an actor. I briefly explained what had taken me to the Old Vic. And before I knew it, we were deep into talking about other things. The driver was clearly someone who loved to engage with his customers, and whilst I love a nice natter too, I was not really feeling up to it on this particular afternoon; in between longing to continue daydreaming about the wonderful Old Vic session, I also wanted to read some of the papers for the meeting I was rushing to. In order to stop myself from talking too much, I decided to keep asking him open questions, so that all I did was ‘listen’, rather than engage. This continued for a while, until…
He suddenly asked me what I did for a living. I told him I worked in the field of personal development and helped people reconnect with their core self and live their best lives. He asked whether I worked for a company and I told him I worked for myself and was a partner in a company. I was conscious that my answers were short and to the point, but the driver did not seem bothered by that, he was just as engaging. He then asked what sort of people I worked with. As I heard him ask the question, I heard a voice in my head say ‘Are you going to tell him you work with gay men or are you just going to mention your corporate work’. This was followed by many other voices; in fact I had a full internal conversation going on. The whole experience took seconds, and in real-time it felt like the moment was happening in slow motion. The dialogue in my head went something like this –
‘So what if I tell him I work with gay men’,
‘well if you do, he might not be so chatty any more’,
‘or he might tell you to get out of his cab’,
‘or he might be homophobic, afterall he looks like one of those alpha male lads,
‘But I thought you said you want to embrace vulnerability, be authentic and show up and be seen’,
‘yes I do, but I will never see this guy again, so it does not really matter and afterall I do want him to stop talking’,
‘So are you ashamed of letting him know you are gay?’,
‘No, of course not. As I said I’ll never see him again. I am simply afraid for my safety‘.
I was also conscious that I was afraid of breaking that connection that we had developed – even though it was not a connection I necessarily wanted.
I heard myself say, ‘I work with gay men and also work with people in organizations’. There was a brief silence. I remember feeling vulnerable – exposed – in that moment. I had no idea what might happen and we were nowhere near my destination. He then looked over at me and said, ‘I think one of my sons is gay. He has not said anything, but I think he is. And if he is, it does not matter, I still love him. He is my son’. He spoke about his family for a while, which was great as I had no words – all I kept hearing in my head was – ‘when I take off my vulnerability armor and allow myself to be seen, it gives others the permission to do the same. As I listened, I felt very privileged to hear this father talk about the love he had for his son. He turned to me, smiled and said, ‘I think my son will be okay’. I spoke about the workshops I co-facilitate for Gay Men. And I talked about how society was changing and how great it was that parents like him are starting to emerge and love their kids exactly as they are. I talked about how it was important to not neglect the fact that homophobia is still evident in many pockets of society, like schools, media and workplaces and that this can sometimes make it challenging for gay men, even those from loving homes, to have a healthy sense of self. He said he’d never thought of that before. He went on to talk about other gay colleagues he’d worked with in previous jobs and then conversation moved onto other topics.
As we said goodbye, I thought of my own father whom I had never come out to by the time he passed away, and I imagined him having had a similar conversation with a friend, colleague or stranger. As I made my way into the meeting I felt grateful for the encounter, for it had been an ordinary conversation that had touched me much more than I could have imagined it doing when I stepped into the back seat of the taxi.
As the weeks have passed since that encounter, I have found myself in many different situations where I have told that story. One instance was when someone in our workshop had said he did not think it was necessary for gay men to go around announcing that we are gay to everybody. I talked about my encounter, saying there was no ‘announcing’, we simply had a conversation that had unfolded naturally. I found myself telling the story once again as I talked to some friends about the relationship between fear and shame, and how the two co-exist. I told the story again as I talked about making assumptions about people, as I had done with the taxi driver.
And just this past weekend as the world celebrated Father’s Day, I once again remembered the encounter and I thought of my dad. And I took solace in the fact that whilst I never had that conversation with my father; I got to have it with the father of another gay son.