In the spirit of second-wave feminist consciousness raising stories, I'm going to share a couple stories with you today. If you don't like personal experience stories, go read about worm therapy or something. A few days ago I read "Poets Live The Questions: Jewell Gomez & Minnie Bruce Pratt" from This Is What A Lesbian Looks Like. My mind travelled off in remembrance when I read the question:
What did we learn about living from our first lesbian and gay gathering, event, dance, night at the bar?
I'm going to answer this by going into the first queer gathering I can remember, and then the first asexual gathering.
I must have been about 11 years old the first time I went to a queer gathering. I had no idea where I was going or who would be there, but one day my older brother C invited me to a party that his co-workers were having. C was working at booth that sold used books at the local street fair at the time, and he was roughly 16 years old. He rarely wanted to spend time with me, and had since my early childhood been verbally abusive to me. At that age I still wanted to be his friend and to have a good relationship with him, so although I was struck by the randomness of his invitation, I was grateful for the chance to spend time with him.
I didn't know anyone at the party other than my brother. If I had to guess I would put the average age of the attendees at 35, and most of them appeared to be woman-identified and were in lesbian relationships. I'm not just guessing that they were in lesbian relationships based on haircuts or clothes, rather they were paired off and sitting on each other's laps, holding hands, kissing each other, etc.
I remember sitting in a plastic lawn chair eating potato chips, watching my brother talk to people at the party, and shyly glancing at the other attendees out of the corner of my eye. I didn't stare at anybody because that would be rude. I was silent the whole time because I didn't know what to talk about and the attendees were absorbed in their own conversations. Why should they care about their teenage co-worker's kid sister? It wasn't an unpleasant or hostile environment, just kind of boring and awkward because I didn't know anybody, there were no other children present, and my brother was being social with other people. In retrospect, I think he only invited me because he felt that he needed a buffer, some kind of "feminine" presence to offset his hetero masculinity. I can only assume this based on what I know about my brother.
At the time this gathering was no big deal to me, even though to my knowledge I'd never seen a lesbian couple displaying affection before. I didn't know the word lesbian at the time, but it was obvious to me that they were couples similar to the way that I'd seen men and women together. It wasn't a big deal, but the memory has remained with me a decade after it happened although I was only at the party for perhaps a half an hour. Regardless of the short amount of time that I was there and my feelings about what I saw, I do believe that being present at this gathering impacted my feelings about homosexuality and queerness in general.
Shortly after the gathering I learned the words gay and lesbian, though I don't recall how. Probably through the internet. I do know that I was immediately accepting of homosexuality and that I recognized my own affectionate feelings towards both men and women (I came out in certain circles as bisexual at the age of 12). It is doubtful that I could have felt supportive of homosexuality at that age just out of the goodness of my heart, considering how heteronormative the culture I grew up in was. So in some respects I attribute my automatic positive feelings about homosexuality to my experience at that gathering, where people were just being themselves and having a good time. How could I have thought there was something wrong about that?
As far as my first asexual gathering, that happened this year. I can't remember if it was in February or March, but it was a lecture at Portland State University given by the Portland Aces meetup group. Most of the information wasn't new to me because I'd already been doing my own research, but I wanted to hear what they had to say, and honestly I wanted to look at and be in the presence of people who identified as asexual. The number of people there filled a small classroom. I think there were roughly 30 people in attendance, with multiple genders and ages represented. The lecture was fine, accurate, but like I said it wasn't anything new. What was really cool was after the lecture, during the questions, about half of the attendees came out as asexual or questioning. Some of these people admitted that this was the first time they'd heard about asexuality, yet they felt it described them. I didn't come out, but I did put myself on the mailing list. I haven't heard from the meetup group since then, though.
The more I think about it, the more I think that this was totally awesome. A mass coming-out of sorts! I've never witnessed anything like that, really. This affirms for me something that I've questioned as I've come out (again and again), which is that asexuality is probably more common than it would seem from statistics (1%, anyone?). People tell me that they relate to asexuality quite often now, whether they feel fully asexual or think they might be demi, or just experience sexual attraction in a way that isn't represented by the dominant paradigm. So I suppose what I learned from this gathering is that aces are everywhere, just waiting to pop up and surprise you.