Different minds, different hearts

The Internet today has primarily consisted of commentary on the Supreme Court’s momentous decision to legalize same-sex marriage on the national level, revoking individual states’ rights to ban or otherwise deny it. And rightly so; it’s a huge deal, a sign of a sea change in society that I honestly never expected to see. Of everything I’ve read today, though, this one sentence from The Verge’s excellent editorial really stood out to me:

More than we will ever give them credit for, it’s a story about the gay interns at the Supreme Court who had the courage to come out to their bosses, and helped to change their minds.

Because, really, I get it. That’s what it takes to come around — the realization that the gay community isn’t some nebulous “them” but rather includes an awful lot of people we mentally categorize as “us.” I’m an absolute outsider to the issue of LGBT right, which is pretty much true for me with any social issue. I’m a straight white male American, and that places me squarely in history’s most comfortable, privileged, and complacent demographic. I’m straight not by conscious choice or due to any sort of aversion or fear but simply because, well, that’s how my body’s chemical cocktails work. If things had worked out differently for me, that would have been fine, too, but I’m glad to be married to the wonderful woman I met a decade ago — it’s all worked out OK for me, you know?

I don’t know if I’d have always been that accepting, though. Growing up in West Texas, being old enough to remember a time when “political correctness” didn’t exist as a term or a concept, I came of age surrounded by fear, contempt, and phobia for homosexuality. I have to thank my parents for raising me right, though — I’m not sure they’re 100% comfortable with the idea of homosexuality, but they still believe very strongly in not hurting others, even if your weapon is words. While my friends at school tossed around words like “gay” and “fag” for the sake of insults and mockery, my parents admonished me never to use hateful terms like that. So I didn’t. And I know that mindset — marking those words as forbidden — helped insulate me from internalizing the hatred and bigotry that goes along with them.

But at the same time, I didn’t know anyone who was gay all through school, even in college — or at least, I didn’t know of anyone who was. I’m sure I had plenty of closeted friends and classmates, but coming out as gay in West Texas in the ’80s and ’90s was a dangerous lifestyle choice, and in all my years of school only one person ever confided in me like that. A friend of mine in college, an exchange student from Taiwan, told me one night in tears that her parents had essentially arranged for her to marry some guy who was a wealthy doctor, but that frequently she felt most attracted to other women and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have any answers more helpful than a supportive hug and my continued friendship, and we never spoke of it again. But her angst made me stop and take stock of my feelings. If someone as kind, as smart, as sweet as her were gay, how could it really be something evil and shameful the way I’d been taught?

Eventually, of course, I moved to San Francisco, which meant being confronted with the reality of what homosexuality actually means. At first glance, all I saw were sitcom stereotypes and clichés — men in leather vest sashaying down the streets, that sort of thing. But eventually, I realized just how many of my friends and acquaintances were actually gay, they just didn’t make a big deal of it. It was simply who they were. It wasn’t some horrified, insidious revelation for me, but rather a light bulb.

I’m not sure exactly when the idea of homosexuality turned around for me, when it ceased to be this strange, possibly dangerous idea to a simple fact of life. But it did happen, and I remember accidentally ending up in a gay bar with my wife on our second date. We were so giddy with flirtation we didn’t even notice the rainbow flags and the velvet painting over the bar depicting a muscular nude man on a bearskin rug for nearly an hour. Once I did, though, I felt uncomfortable about it — not in a “oh my god this is a gay bar” sense, but rather a sense of discomfort at being an intruder in someone else’s safe space. The fear that we were being disrespectful.

I think that was the moment I realized that, despite a lifetime of the media and the church and the people around me trumpeting how wrong and sick and evil this entire group of people was, I was happy to accept and respect a community that I didn’t belong to, but whose fundamental motives and feelings were ultimately no different than my own. And that didn’t make me in any way special or commendable… it just meant I clear the low bar of basic human decency.

What I found so encouraging today was the epiphany that this decency has become more common than not all across America — that mindsets are changing the same way mine did, despite everything. I’m still obviously an outsider to the gay community, but increasingly it feels less and less like there’s any need to segregate ourselves into separate groups at all. America remains a deeply broken and divided society, and unfortunately will be for some time to come. But for the first time in my life I feel like I just might actually see something like true equality across all genders, races, sexual orientations before I shuffle off this mortal coil. It’s a wonderful sensation.