As the Minnesota House debates legislation to extend the freedom to marry to gay people, I’ve been reflecting on my own journey on this issue. I suspect I’m not alone.
My first exposure to homosexuality was being called a “fag,” “queer,” “homo” or “mo” on the playground of my Catholic elementary school. Before I alarm people, this isn’t a confession, at least not the kind you may be thinking.
I was never accused of having romantic or sexual interests in boys. In the 1970s, those epithets were liberally used by boys on the playground to describe general displeasure for wide variety of sins, such as when a classmate had poor performance in kickball. In the language of the playground, those slurs, in that place in time, translated roughly to “you suck,” in the non-sexual sense.
At that tender age, there was nothing sexual about the anti-gay slurs. But there was nothing positive about them either. The lesson we were teaching each other, and passing on down the grades, was clear: Being called a homo was an insult, so being a homo obviously must be a really horrific thing.
I can’t begin to imagine how hearing that barrage of slurs must have felt to gay kids, and how many young straight minds it warped, like mine.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Through my childhood, I honestly never really thought that gay people existed in my home state of South Dakota. I’m not joking or exaggerating. I literally thought gay and lesbian people only existed in a few isolated parts of the world. Maybe those people were in Paris and San Francisco, but not in the “normal” parts of America, and certainly not in my circle of family, friends and neighbors. For that reason, I was indifferent about how gay people were being mistreated.
This wasn’t as parochial and mean as it sounds now. Gay people in my life weren’t coming out of the closet, and I was neither a mind reader nor socialized in a way that would give me even a rudimentary “gaydar.” So, out of sight, out of mind.
The Power of Personal Connection
That mindset slowly began to change when two astoundingly courageous guys in my hometown went to the senior prom in 1979. This was big national news, a highly unlikely first to come out of a place like Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I don’t remember making cruel jokes about it, but I’m quite sure I did. I didn’t hate the brave gay couple. But I certainly didn’t stick up for them either.
But this teen couple’s coming out did slowly start to shift my thinking. I remember thinking: “Could there be a few more gay people in South Dakota that I don’t know about?”
Not too long after that in a college psychology class, I read that as many as 10% of humans were homosexual. The fact that it might even be half true rocked my worldview a bit. But even knowing that, as incredible as it seems now, it still never really dawned on me that there were gay people in my midst.
When I moved to Washington, DC after college, gay culture was more prominent. There was a neighborhood that straight people made snarky jokes about. There was the AIDS crisis, which struck me as horrible, but in an impersonal way. Again, no one in my immediate circle of friends was saying they were gay, so I didn’t get too concerned about issues impacting “those people.”
Until I had a close friend who was gay, I didn’t once stick up for gay people. I’d like to come up with even one heroic story for you, but I have none. The golden rule was sitting right there to guide me, but I ignored it.
But again, part of the reason I couldn’t get sufficiently motivated about the injustice all around me was that the issue wasn’t close and personal to me. When that changed, I changed. When some of my favorite people had the courage to tell me and the rest of the world that they were gay, I suddenly cared a lot about how American society was treating gay people.
Quite suddenly, it was no longer about gay rights. It was about friends’ rights, co-workers’ rights, parents’ rights, and relatives’ rights. Then, after a little flirtation with the notion of civil unions, it all became very clear what needed to happen. My friends, co-workers, and relatives obviously needed to be treated equally and fairly.
The important point here is that I didn’t change myself. My gay friends’ courage changed me.
The Real Heroes of the Marriage Movement
As the freedom to marry legislation is debated at the State Legislature this week, a lot of straight people will be congratulating ourselves about how righteous and courageous we are for fighting for LGBT freedom and equality.
We need to get over ourselves. Heterosexuals clearly wouldn’t be where we are today if gay people hadn’t had the unfathomable courage to stand up and tell a hostile world who they were. Straight people like me failed the courage test for decades, and it took dauntless gay people to finally get us to change.
Straight leaders, activists and constiuents are playing a role in the history being made at the State Capitol this month. Good for us. Finally. Good for us.
But let’s be honest with ourselves, heterosexuals. We are playing a small supporting role in this freedom-to-marry movement. The real heros are not the heteros. The real heros are the people who had the courage to speak truth to power when it was difficult and dangerous: “We’re here, we’re queer, get over it.” That, much more than straight people’s belated courage, is at the core of what is changing America.
Note: This post was also featured as a “best of the best” in MinnPost’s Blog Cabin.