What do you do when someone says something to you that is so foreign to your way of thinking that it’s offensive?
I just got back from a private lesson with Patrizio, who is back in France for another month or so, after having spent December at home in Milan. We were doing a class with conversation topics under the heading ‘Sex Sells’.
In case the name didn’t tip you off, the topics were all related to sex, and I find controversy is usually a good way to get people talking (though you do need to pick and choose your students carefully).
We’d been chatting for about 30 minutes when this topic came up:
What should the legal age be to have consensual sex?
Not too controversial – I said that in Australia the age is 16 so, as long as it’s consensual and one person doesn’t have authority over the other, then that’s fine. He said 18 for the same reasons, the only difference being that he said the legal age in Italy was 18.
The next topic was:
What should the legal age be to have consensual gay sex?
“I think never,” Patrizio said.
“Okay,” I said, “and why is it different to consensual straight sex?”
He shook his head a bit bashfully, “no, I don’t want to injure your opinion.”
I grinned, “look, the point of these topics is that they’re controversial, which is supposed to get you talking. I’m always going to ask ‘why’ to get you to speak more – this is just about practising your English.”
“Well, for me, gay people are not right. A person who is gay is a . . . personne malade.”
“A sick person?” I wondered if I heard correctly.
“Yes, mentally,” Patrizio said, “and we need to help them to become better.”
What the hell?! I tried to understand. “So what you’re saying is that being gay is like having a mental illness.”
“Yes,” he nodded.
“. . . so if they are cured of this illness, they’ll be heterosexual again?”
He looked at me blankly.
“I mean, if they get better, they’ll start to like women again.”
“Yes,” he said.
What do you do when someone says something that is so different to the way you think? Do you argue and say that they’re wrong? Do you ignore it and move on? Do you pretend to agree so you don’t lose a student?
I’ve used these topics in one other class, and the question about consensual gay sex was interesting because the student looked at it and her instinct was to say that the age should be later, but she acknowledged that there was no logical difference.
Who’s to say that it takes a gay person longer to realise that they’re gay than for a straight person to realise that they’re straight? If straight wasn’t considered to be the ‘norm’ in society, would I have really cared one way or the other until I was attracted to someone?
I’m straight, but I became interested in guys quite late. I went to a Catholic girls’ school and, at fourteen, I couldn’t figure out why the girls got so excited when they could see boys from our brother school walking past. At our Year 9 and 10 socials (Jolie at ages 14 and 15, these were held with the brother school), I flirted and got the attention of boys, though if I was honest it probably had more to do with the excitement among the girls about the event than with interest in the boys.
I still remember my first crush – Julian (sigh). I was seventeen (see – I told you I started late. A single-sex school, ballet as a hobby, and a general lack of interest resulted in a lack of exposure to boys). It was in January 2003 at a two-week maths camp (yes I know – I’m a nerd). That was the first time I’d been attracted to anyone in that way and, if it hadn’t been for society’s expectations, I probably wouldn’t have thought about whether I was gay or straight before that. I’d never been attracted to any of the girls at school, but I’d never been attracted to a guy before either, so how could I have really known?
And who’s to say that a boy or girl who’s attracted to someone of the same sex at the age of twelve doesn’t really know?
So to hear Patrizio saying that consensual gay sex should be illegal at any age, not because people don’t know who they are but because people who want this are mentally ill made me so angry!
I generally think that I’m a tolerant person – you can live your life the way you want, as long as you’re not hurting anyone, it’s not my place to say. But to hear someone condemn the way someone else lives his/her life . . . it got me so mad. I didn’t want to pretend to agree with him. But I also didn’t want to get into an argument that could quickly become quite heated.
I was going to move on, but then he asked, “and you?”
I answered carefully, “I think a bit differently to you. I think people should be able to live their lives as they like – as long as they aren’t hurting themselves or anyone else. I don’t think that people having consensual gay sex are hurting themselves or each other, so I’m okay with it.”
“But, when you think of it,” Patrizio seemed to be searching for words, “when I think of two men . . .” he couldn’t find them, but I could see the thought made him uncomfortable, maybe even queasy.
I shrugged, “look, I’m straight. I’m attracted to men, so it’s not for me, but I don’t have a problem with gay couples of either gender.”
“So if a woman came to you and asked you . . . ?”
I smiled, “I would say that I’m very flattered, but no thank you.”
Patrizio smiled. He almost seemed relieved.
I wonder if he would have cancelled our classes if I were gay.