Q&A: In Conversation with Abby Dees, Author of Queer Questions, Straight Answers: 108 Frank and Provocative Questions It’s OK to Ask Your Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual Loved One
I’d been planning to do some interviews with local military personnel about “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Then I got a call about the opportunity to meet with visiting author Abby Dees about her recent book, which might well be subtitled “Please Ask, Do Tell.” It seemed a refreshing change to be able, for once, to emphasize the positive.
Abby is an engaging, animated woman—attractive in all senses of the word. She has been an out lesbian for a long time and an activist even longer. She was involved back in the 1970s in feminist causes that morphed readily into what she calls “lesbigay” work: participating in campus groups, volunteering for speakers’ bureaus in all kinds of venues, lobbying for legislative protections.
Abby grew up to be a civil rights attorney, with a particular interest in free speech issues and HIV advocacy. Before taking leave to do her book, her most recent work was representing the interests of jail inmates with regard to HIV. “This was as much about educating people and establishing lines of respectful communication as about filing legal briefs,” she says. “Sometimes it came down to handing out condoms like an X-rated Santa Claus.” These experiences encouraged her to use her communication skills to help bridge the gap between lesbigays (and our allies) and the larger society that is finally realizing it can no longer simply deny the legitimacy of those they don’t understand.
The format Abby chose for Queer Questions, Straight Answers is unconventional. It is mostly a series of questions without answers, grouped around seven themes, such as identity, stereotypes, marriage and relationships, and (of course) sex. Each section has a few explanatory paragraphs, often personal reflections, and for one or two questions in each section there are a few inconsistent, and sometimes even contradictory, sample answers from various respondents. But mostly there are just questions…108 of them, to be exact. Abby says, “I chose the number 108 because it has numerological significance for me. I was doubtful that I’d actually get that many, but it turned out the opposite—we had too many and had to eliminate or combine to keep to the goal.”
The other person in the “we” turns out to be Abby’s mother, Cathy Dees, and that is a story in itself. As a young woman, Mrs. Dees was a gun-toting Goldwater Republican, active in working for the good senator’s run for the presidential nomination in 1964. For her good work, she was sent to the national convention, only to be so disgusted by the corruption she witnessed that she began to question all her beliefs.
By 1972, she had moved from belonging to the John Birch Society to supporting Shirley Chisholm. Having opened her mind that wide, she was able to accept Abby’s coming out with relative equanimity. “She was right there with me in spirit, but it took her a while to realize there was a lot she didn’t understand about my not being straight…and some she probably wasn’t ready to think about. In large part, the book is a tribute to our process together.”
Abby likes to cite her mother’s retrospective wisdom: “A parent’s first reaction to a child’s coming out is often to be protective, to stand in front and deflect danger. But in the end, you have to match your child’s courage in facing the world and stand behind her.” And part of that courage for parents is facing their own instilled prejudices and misunderstandings. By the time of the book-writing, Abby says, her mother often had the clearer picture of which questions were most valuable, and how to frame them without indictment. “I’d say, ‘Mom, what can they be thinking when they say this?’ and she’d be able to tell me. Her assistance was invaluable.”
The questions and sample responses in the book were culled from a questionnaire circulated among Abby’s friends and their circle of acquaintances. The level of interest and variety of answers give Abby hope that the book can be a tool for opening conversations among people separated by miscomprehension and awkwardness. “We did one test-drive. We held a party and, using the book, I fielded questions. We had a great time. A lot of people told me, ‘I want to give this to so-and-so’ but I haven’t had feedback yet.”
She is optimistic that the absence of agenda in the book will enable even people with strong moral or religious biases to enter into conversation if they have curiosity or are in relation to people who have come out. “Even in fundamentalist churches, the pastor may say one thing from the pulpit, but there are individuals having to deal with their gay sons, or their nieces and nephews, or a best friend’s lesbian daughter. They may be glad for some relief from the contradictory feelings they’re caught in.”
I must admit that I found the format a bit frustrating as a “read”—I wanted to hear lots of answers to the questions. But I brought the book to a group I lead at a residence for teen girls and they responded very well to the opportunity to pick questions and discuss them in the light of experience, not abstract morality. So I will add my vote: Queers Questions, Straight Answers provides a welcome entrance into conversations that are wanted but dreaded.[A few questions from the book: “Are lesbians angry at men? Are gay men angry at women? Are bi people angry at anyone?” “Don’t some of your rights step on my own right to live according to my personal beliefs?” “What’s your response to the argument that if we allow gay marriage then we’re on a slippery slope to people marrying goats, etc.?”
A few answers: What’s the best thing about being involved with someone of the same sex? “Sharing clothes”—Alyssa; “We’re both from Mars.”—Ryan. What do you think about outing public figures? “There’s no excuse for denying someone the right to choose when and how they do it.” –Danielle. “If someone is using their name and power to keep gay people down, then they should be exposed for the hypocrites they are.”—Aaron]
Queer Questions, Straight Answers is available online through Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or it can be ordered easily by any local bookstore. Abby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.