Close to 150 students crammed into a large classroom at Santa Barbara City College on Tuesday, April 15, to hear a lecture about gay life from Penny Patterson, who writes The Santa Barbara Independent‘s popular Gay Girl/Straight World column. Speaking as part of SBCC’s “Diversity Dialogues” series of symposiums – which also featured talks from immigrants, black politicians, and women leaders – Patterson held the audience’s attention for more than an hour, telling her own story and answering numerous questions from the mixed crowd of students and faculty.
Coming from a “very religious and very conservative” family in southern Orange County, Patterson graduated from Westmont College, a devoutly Christian university in Montecito, before starting to work in the editorial department of The Independent a couple years ago. She launched her column in October 2007 with a story about coming out to her parents, who did not take the news well. Since then, every other week Patterson, who still considers herself a practicing Episcopalian, has discussed gay politics, culture, and news in her column.
“Seeing how people responded to my first column, I realized how much people yearned for this type of coverage,” explained Patterson on Tuesday. “I realized how much there was a gap.”
As her column has evolved, Patterson believes that she has taken a much different and more positive tact than most gay writers, who tend to highlight how different things are for the gay community. “What I’ve tried to do is bridge this gap,” said Patterson, who says her thesis is now “to show and to give voice that we are all the same.” She explained, “If we start to focus more on commonalities, that’s when we can start to make a genuine difference.”
In her column’s crusade for equal rights, Patterson said that she’s had to “internalize” her own message, to tell herself that she deserves to be treated equal because she is just like everyone else, and only happens to be going through her life with a female partner rather than a male one. But despite a strong relationship with her girlfriend Jackie, Patterson’s problems are very real, in that “I’m not allowed to say her name” to her parents, who have also banned her from speaking about her romantic life in their presence. That all began one year ago this Saturday, when Patterson came out of the closet to her parents over dinner at a restaurant.
After discussing her life story, Patterson took questions that the audience had written anonymously on index cards. When asked about how she blends her religious beliefs with her sexual orientation, she said, “They coexist totally peacefully.” Patterson explained that “Jesus’ main teachings are about being a rebel,” about fighting the oppressor. In that regard, she sees her mission of helping the oppressed gay population as very much in line with the word of Jesus.
Patterson repeatedly brought up the recent murder of Lawrence King, an openly homosexual teenager from Oxnard who was shot twice in the head by a boy King had asked to be his valentine. King is an extreme example of the bad things that may result from coming out to the world as a gay person. Patterson believes she’s lucky to be living in relatively tolerant Santa Barbara, and despite the challenges of being gay, she said the coming out was “the best thing I’ve ever done:.I genuinely think that I’m a better person because of it.” And for that, her parents should be proud.
The afternoon event also served as a kick-off for SBCC’s new Q&A Club, which stands for “Queer and Ally.” There’s an informational meeting for the club on Wednesday, April 16, 3 p.m., in CC226, and the first official meeting will be on Thursday, April 17, 4 p.m., also in CC226. For more on that, email email@example.com.
For all of Penny’s work, see Independent.com/gaygirl.