When I was a Senior in high school at a fancy boarding school in Connecticut, the famous New Republic editor, writer and LGBT activist Andrew Sullivan came to speak. I was thrilled that I was invited to have dinner with him along with 2-3 other students.
One of the other students who was invited to dinner was our Student Body President. He was a star wrestler and an all around good guy. Larry and I were seated on either side of Sullivan. Across the table, if I recall, was the President of the Gay Straight Alliance, Atlanta. She was a theater tech geek with short hair who wore a lot of black, big ear piercings and combat boots. She was often mistaken for a boy and was in an openly gay relationship.
I had to recall today if Atlanta was even there at the table on that night,16 years ago. What I do remember clearly is that I felt like I had a right to be there, and to sit by Sullivan’s side. I was an outspoken, activisty student and was a casual board member of the GSA but really spent my extracurricular hours focusing on Amnesty International and a Human Rights Watch chapter I had started. I was, at the time, bi-curious but certainly not openly so.
But more importantly for this blogpost and this realization today, I was cisgender and relatively feminine in appearance. I conformed (more than Atlanta anyway) to centerlands conceptions of beauty and social charm.
As this moment rose to the surface of my memory today, I realized that that was why I was seated next to Sullivan. In truth, I probably seated myself there. I felt completely entitled to my place next to a celebrity LGBT activist and writer like Sullivan. Indeed, that was how deeply and blindly I had embraced my privilege and then appropriated the work of our school’s GSA, thinking I was the better spokesperson.
Remembering all of this today in quick flashes over lunch — and drafting this post relatively hurriedly afterwards — reminded me of Katie Loncke’s post over at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship about being invited to attend a Buddhist Summit at the White House and going to DC. And then not entering the building.
My first thought when I saw her post was that clearly she should have gone in. But reflecting now on my own choice to take that seat next to Andrew Sullivan and represent the GSA sheds light for me on the nimble dance that Buddhist meditation practice has trained me to do.
Faced with the same opportunity today, I would do as Katie did outside the White House and notice the strong excitement and urge to take that seat next to Sullivan — and then get curious about where it was coming from and see the hand of ego in it.
I would see the urge to prove myself worthy as a young woman of color who wasn’t in the popular girls’ clique, and the allure of the prestige associated with being seated next to an intellectual superstar. And I would ask myself what good I would honestly be contributing by sitting there — not in simplistic terms but in far looking, nuanced ones.
And finally, I’d pull the chair out for Atlanta next to our guest of honor, give her a wink and take a seat across the table.