This is a story that is 42 years in the making.
There’s no question in my mind that gay rights are the civil rights of our time. The battle between each side seems to surge back and forth, but the momentum is clearly headed in the direction of equality and acceptance.
But I can’t claim high ground or moral superiority. While today, I’m proud that someone’s gender preference doesn’t have influence on my opinion of them, I spent a great deal of my life as a homophobe.
I grew up in Alaska. In my high school there were “no gays.” But of course there were, but no one wanted to acknowledge it, and you’d be crazy to out yourself in a place where “faggot” was the worst possible thing to be called. My family is very religious, in fact Southern Baptist. And I can remember one sermon, an actual locally famous sermon where a minister talked about God creating AIDS to deal with the sin of homosexuals. While I may not have agreed with the sermon, I was, without question, homophobic. Now, environment is no excuse though it does strongly influence opinions. I had classmates in high school who were open-minded, though they were the exception, not the rule. The rule was disgust and disdain, though this enemy was invisible and only something referenced in punch lines of locker room jokes.
My first week of my freshman year in college, we were in a round table discussion on multiculturalism (perhaps one of my least favorite topics being the white guy in the room – i.e. the root of all evil during those discussions), and the subject of homosexuality came up. I distinctly remember saying, “Well, personally, I’ve never met someone who was gay,” not realizing at the time that the person to my right, yep, was gay. I’m sure if I could have seen his face, there would have been a quiet smile. He was out, so it wasn’t a secret, but those of us who were new to the dorm didn’t know. I sailed by in my ignorance. A couple of weeks later someone let me know that the word “faggot” wasn’t cool to use, that it wasn’t accepted. I shrugged and moved on.
My second year, despite being in an environment where you couldn’t help but open your mind, mine stayed closed. My best friend and I would talk about how no one could leave our university being racist, because there were brilliant engineers of every race (of course, our measure of intelligence was largely physics-math-engineering related). But race had never really been an issue for me, so it was easy to feel proud that the lower class white guy (me) wasn’t a redneck. Yee ha.
I won’t go into detail, but I even took a photo of myself which clearly shows my distaste for “the gay lifestyle,” as if I actually knew anything about it or anyone who was gay. I’m not the kind of person to push my beliefs on others or ever attack those I disagree with, but I was great at holding on to that opinion without actual knowledge to back it up. Now on campus, there were plenty of openly gay people, gay & lesbian clubs, but of course I didn’t make any effort to actually understand. I’m smart. I’m analytical. I’m a decent human being. I’m humble (just checking to see if you’re actually reading). But that didn’t help me understand. “Closed minded” is a great phrase because the door in my mind was very, very shut.
But it was a door that opened my mind during my senior year. A friend I had made that year was an amazing musician. We shared a lot of the same tastes in music, though he had actual talent and I could only stand there and bang my head. I went to leave him a note on his door one day, and his door had changed. Yesterday there had been logos of his favorite bands, tokens of all kinds of great musical acts, photos of Trent Reznor. Today, there was a rainbow triangle on his door.
I wish I had a picture of the look on my face. What’s even funnier is that I still didn’t get it. Later that week we shared a pizza in his room. He talked about all the ridiculous anti-gay legislation going on in Colorado. I can’t remember what else we talked about, but I remember being incredibly confused. I went back to my room, and at some point it finally hit me. (Yes, duh). He was gay, and had essentially come out to me. My friend had trusted me enough to tell me this, and I had completely missed it.
Fast forward just a couple of months later, and maybe I was a bit too proud of the fact that I had finally gotten wise. Late one night at a party, I jumped on my friend’s back and yelled, “I’M GETTING A PIGGYBACK RIDE FROM A GAY MAN.” Somehow, he still remained my friend after that, and could even laugh at my pride in my new-found, albeit clumsy, open-mindedness.
But it wasn’t an overnight transformation. Small steps every year. Meeting more people, understanding more, asking more questions, reading more. Spending time in San Francisco’s Castro district. The first time I really hung out with a gay couple and was completely at ease. Many childhood beliefs are so deeply engrained that it takes take time and experience to change them. I’m grateful for everyone along the way, who unknowingly was helping me move along the path.
My first year in Sydney I watched the Mardi Gras parade (which I think is the second largest gay pride parade in the world). The energy was ridiculous: an entire city surrounding a set of people and saying “we love you, we support you.” Families, couples, politicians, everyone. An incredible night, and the next year I had the chance to share it with two close friends of mine, a gay couple from the states. My company is also incredibly supportive of gay rights, and I’m proud of my company for having no fear and being courageous.
Today, we have Russia actively exporting hate. We have Arizona trying to pass laws masked in the cloth of religion which are nothing more than the same laws used against black Americans before civil rights, now being used against gay Americans. Gay marriage is still illegal in Australia and much of the world despite no actual rational, legal argument against it, but only fear of political suicide. It’s easy to look at these and think “How could anyone think that way?” But, for me, and I would argue 90-95% of people my generation who grew up outside a major city, we all thought that way. I’m not making excuses, I’m not saying we shouldn’t fight for what’s right. But I think we polarize things so much between us and them.
I wrote this because there may be people in my circle of friends who feel like I used to. It’s okay if you’re not entirely comfortable with something – but don’t run away from something if you’re uncomfortable. And if I can help someone just open the door a little bit, or to ask themselves a question, even if that question is just “Have I really thought about this?”
There are plenty of people who are sitting on their philosophical pedestal looking down at others. I am tired of other people who can so easily see other people’s limitations. I am thankful for my friend who up until today probably didn’t know my full story and may not realize what he did for me. Without his courage, I would have missed out on many of the best friendships of my life. And a huge thanks to Dan Savage, who has for 20 years been trying to help people like me see the light, albeit in the most offensive way possible. Good on ya, Dan.
Don’t take any of this as pride in myself. I’m on a 150,000 step program in life, and this is just one of the steps, and it took me 21 years to get just to this step. I still have plenty of prejudices. I’m working on a few of them, like my distaste for white people who wear jeans shorts. A few of my closest friends know my most severe prejudices (and they aren’t the usual redneck ones) and they are deeply engrained, and they are going to take a lot of work. But, I’m willing to try.