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Being herself


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"Just a minute," my friend Patti says into the phone, "there's someone on my porch." I can hear her talking to that someone while I wait for her to return. "What are you bringing me, Wayne? Oh, aren't these beautiful--thank you!" Patti returns to tell me that her friend had been working in his garden, dividing variegated hosta and shade-loving ferns, and had just delivered her a box full of plants she'd admired a few days earlier.

Patti Cruickshank-Schott lives in the kind of neighborhood where people do that: drop in on each other with plants, baked goods, or a book they found on sale somewhere. When Patti goes to the local garden center, she usually picks up an extra plant or two for her neighbors.

But these people are more than just neighbors. They drop in to gossip, to vent about a bad day, to express worry about their jobs and their relationships. They share joys and sorrows together. They share meals together. And Patti is at the center of it all.

Situated just north of downtown Raleigh, Patti's neighborhood is made up of modest homes 40 to 50 years old; most sit on average-sized lots, but all of them have gardens. Patti loves the homes, and she loves the gardens, but what she loves most are her many gay neighbors.

"There's a house across the street for sale," Patti said a few weeks ago during another phone conversation. "Do you know a nice gay couple who'd like to buy it? I really want more gay men in the neighborhood."

Not long afterward she called to report, "I'm sad. The house sold to a straight couple." She paused reflectively. "But it's OK. ... I think they're cool."

Patti has shoulder-length brown-and-gray hair and a smile that lights up a room. She talks to you in a way that makes you feel like you are the only thing in the world she is interested in. In her loose-fitting clothes with their shades of blues, purples and maroons, she somehow manages to look simultaneously the mischievous child and the wise community elder.

Of course, none of that explains why a single, heterosexual schoolteacher in her early 50s is so attracted to the gay community.

Patti's connection with her gay friends extends far beyond her physical neighborhood. It started when she was young, and had dozens of close--and sometimes romantic--relationships with young men who would later acknowledge they were gay. With a glint in her eye, she says she thinks that "something like 70 percent" of the men she dated later came out of the closet.

"I seemed to come into this world with some sort of open boundaries, or an interest in people who are different, unusual and creative. Queer people seemed to unconsciously know this about me and were as attracted to me as I am to them.

"In my 20s I got dozens of calls from young men, practicing coming out," she recalls. "They were telling me before they told any family members or other friends." Patti's reaction was always the same: She'd tell them it was great news, and then ask what else they'd like to talk about. "Sometimes," she confesses jokingly, "I think my open and celebratory attitude about the news is because I was a gay man in another life."

Her affinity for gay people deepened in 1985, when Patti lost Kenny, her husband and the great love of her life. Kenny and Patti owned a landscaping business together. Because they had no health insurance, he hadn't immediately gone to the doctor when he began feeling ill. By the time he was diagnosed with cancer, the prognosis was bad. He died seven weeks later.

"That's the first time in my life I felt left out," Patti says. "Most of my friends were heterosexual couples, and here I was among them, a young woman and a widow." She began realizing that she made these people uncomfortable, maybe because she now knew some things about love and death that her friends didn't want to face. They stopped inviting her out, stopped visiting and finally stopped calling.

"It was my gay friends who started asking me out," she says. With the AIDS epidemic, "they were going through what I'd been through, and they weren't afraid of me or what I represented."

Patti helped her new friends nurse their dying friends and lovers, becoming a big sister for men whose biological families would have little or nothing to do with them. "For a long time, I thought my calling was to be a grief counselor," she says, laughing. "I was getting so good at it."

Though she did not pursue an official career as grief counselor, Patti found other ways to work with the community that had welcomed her. When she started teaching at the Carolina Friends School in Durham almost four years ago, Patti immediately joined the Gay and Lesbian Information Discussion and Education (GLIDE) committee, a working group of educators charged with addressing gay and lesbian issues at the school. That work lead her to join the local chapter of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which she has co-chaired for the last two years. She's also a founding member of the Rainbow Youth Coalition, an intergenerational group addressing issues of ageism inside and beyond the queer community.

"At this point in my working life," Patti says, "I am most inspired and challenged by a social-constructivist theory. In part that means that I operate under the notion that rather than 'having' or 'transmitting' knowledge, I want to construct knowledge, truth and a future with others." In the gay community, she's found people willing to try new approaches, to break down barriers and work together to construct a future in which racism, sexism, ageism and homophobia are not tolerated.

"When I was growing up," Patti says, "I always wanted a mentor. Now I feel I have a mentor in the gay community.

"I've always thought of homosexuality as a higher form of development," she continues, "and that's why I'm attracted to this community." Gay men, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered people seem to be in a much better place than most heterosexuals, she says, to challenge society's rigid boundaries and create a better future.

"Yes, I know this is in part a stereotype and there are shallow queer people," she says. "But really, how shallow can you be when society tells you that you must go one way, and you go the other? That takes courage."

Patti has made lifelong friends while working with gay people to make a difference. "She's a tireless spirit, undaunted by obstacles and always ready to respond to others in her positive way," says Patti's plant-bearing neighbor, Wayne. "She's available for consultation night and day, looks everyone in the eye and does not lack appreciation for any soul." To illustrate his point about Patti's generous and open spirit, Wayne adds, "She's one of the few gardeners I know who will allow me to garden in her garden."

Lest she begin to sound like a purely sweet and sentimental soul, Patti is quick to let you know, "I am not sweet at all. I am feisty, sharp and critical as hell about almost everyone and everything I come in contact with." Ben, an 18-year-old who knows Patti from her work with Rainbow Youth Colalition, can go along with that. "She's like my mother, sister, daughter and soulmate all wrapped up in one person," he says. "But she doesn't take any crap."

Patti's biological family lives miles away; most of her siblings are in New England and her mother lives in Florida. Long years, long miles and different interests have separated them, she says; though they see each other at holidays, weddings and funerals, they are are rarely involved in each other's lives. Since she never remarried and, as she puts it, "my children didn't get born," Patti has made a family of the people she loves. And there's always room for another queer brother or sister.

While she had long ago made gay men and lesbians a part of her extended family, Patti had had little experience with transgendered people until three years ago. "When I first started to see Miss Lilly at Cup-of-Joe in Raleigh, I knew I wanted to meet this person," she says. "But I had no idea how to approach her or what to say. Then one morning, I just walked up to her and said, 'I love your blouse,' and we've been good buddies ever since."

Recently, Patti and I went with a group to see Tim Miller's new piece, Glory Box at Manbites Dog Theatre. At dinner before the show, Patti sat next to Adam Robinson, a 34-year-old man she'd only met once before. As we left the restaurant to make our way to the theater, Adam touched my arm and asked, in the voice of an awed little brother, "Can I ride with Patti?" Later in the evening Adam confided, "Patti's my new best friend."

Asked later about his instant attraction to Patti, Adam thinks for a minute. "It's exotically fun to be with someone who's like you and unlike you at the same time," he says. "She's the kind of ally that feels like she belongs and helps me belong."

After a pause, he adds, "And she does this just by being herself." EndBlock


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