When I went to study in Spain for a semester, I was looking foreword to meeting people who were different from me. I became close with some Spaniards, but I also became unexpectedly close with an American.
He was a very handsome, fun-loving man named Peter. The first day we met, we walked through Salamanca's Plaza Mayor and ended up tasting pastries from all the shops and laughing at the rudeness of the shopkeepers. Almost every day for a week we met by plan or coincidence at one or another of the city cafes.
One night we were with a group of friends at a disco. When it got late and we were both tired, we went to the back to sit down. Peter was a little out of breath from dancing, but in a very even voice he told me that he wanted me to know he was gay, and if I ever had any questions about it I could ask him.
I had a million questions. How did he first know he was gay? What is it like to be gay? Did he have a boyfriend?
Peter was in love with a muscular, wealthy Spanish man named Abraham, who was studying to be a pilot. Ashley, one of our female friends, was dating one of Abraham's "straight" pilot friends.
Abraham was raised to become strong and macho, and he could always be found somewhere in the streets flirting with a beautiful woman. He met Peter in a bar and they immediately started dating. After the first week, Abraham whisked him away for a weekend of skiing, and for three months they were an inseparable couple.
One night Peter, Ashley and I walked into a bar and saw his boyfriend romantically together with a Dutch woman. When Peter confronted Abraham, he was told that their relationship was over.
He was shocked and hurt. Ashley and I sat with Peter for hours in an all-night diner, trying to console him as he poured out his anger and pain. As I listened to him, I realized that the gender of his lover had no relevance -- he was hurting, and I just wanted to make his pain go away.
Ironically, the very next night, Peter, Ashley and I were at a bar and observed the same scenario -- but this time it was Ashley's boyfriend who was entangled with a Dutch woman. And it was Ashley being consoled in an all-night diner.
In their bitterness, she and Peter were thinking of writing a book titled "100 Ways to Keep Your Pilot Away From a Dutch Woman." Late in the night we were laughing a little, but I felt helpless watching two of my closest friends -- one gay, one straight -- hurting the same way.
With Peter, I was able to see that gay lifestyles and dating norms are very similar to heterosexual ones. Peter explained to me that homosexuality is not only about sex, any more than heterosexuality is only about sex. It is also about attractions, friendships and dating. In fact, Peter is just like any heterosexual friend I have. The difference: He's attracted to men and not women.
Since then, I have tried to understand what it is about gays that seems to offend people. Homosexuals do not choose to be attracted to people of their sex; it is what they feel. Peter once told me, "I didn't choose to be gay, it's just what I am."
Many people never get the chance to know a gay person because of a negative stigma they attach to homosexuality. That is unfortunate. A U.S. News and World Report poll found that Americans who know gay people are more likely to support laws protecting them -- 73 percent of people who know gays favor equal rights.
Unlike members of other minority groups, most gays can pass in the majority culture. Many do, for fear that if they "come out" they will risk jobs or promotions.
Some people have images of gays as flamboyant, effeminate individuals who constantly flaunt their homosexuality. These outrageous few in the crowd should be seen as what they are -- the exception, not the rule.
If I had not been in a foreign country when I met Peter I don't think I would have had the time or opportunity to become so close with him. My schedule is always hectic, and he probably would have been no more than "that gay guy I know."
Instead, I remember a small outdoor cafe in Spain. Peter and I are sitting drinking coffee, taking in the sun and watching the people walk by. Peter is one of my favorite things about my trip to Spain, not because he taught me about homosexuality, but because he became one of my closest friends.
Allison Klein is an intern at The Baltimore Sun.