As much as it shames me to admit it, I don’t pay very close attention to politics. I like my political commentary pared down to the essentials and preferably in comic form. I’m one of those woefully uninformed young people who consider The Daily Show and SNL’s Weekend Update valid news sources. However, there are a handful of issues that I feel deeply and personally invested in, and one of those is the fight for gay rights.
I was nine years old the first time I heard someone referred to as “gay.” I asked my mom what it meant, and she said, “Some men fall in love with other men, and some women fall in love with other women, the same way husbands and wives fall in love.” My world tilted for a moment when I heard this, The same thing happened when I found out where babies come from– you put what in where?!?!) simply because it was completely new information. Thanks to my mother’s measured answer, it only took a couple of beats for me to accept it. From then on, I knew that some people happened to be gay, and that it was perfectly normal. Why would I doubt it? It’s what my mother told me.
It wasn’t until ninth grade that I found out that I knew gay people. My history teacher came out to our class after this kid named Steven made an offhand comment about something being “totally gay.” The teacher- a young woman with short hair and fuzzy socks worn under Birkenstocks- asked him to consider how that kind of language would sound to someone in the room who was themselves gay. Steven shrugged, “No one in here is gay.” Her reply was a simple “I am,” and it blew us all away. I thought she was a hero. A month or so after that, my childhood best friend told me she was a lesbian and pressed a copy of Ruby Fruit Jungle into my hands. I read that book under the covers with my legs squeezed together. It left me wondering if I was bisexual (a question that I still don’t have a solid yes or no answer to), and with an even deeper connection to the struggle for gay rights.
I have to admit, I grew up sheltered. My hometown is Brookline, a liberal, largely secular, suburb of Boston. I knew few, if any, social conservatives. Even my grandmother had lesbian friends. By junior year, many of my friends and acquaintances had come out both at school and at home, something that is probably rare even today, more than 15 years later. I spent most of my high school career fantasizing about men (well, boys) and women (technically girls) without feeling distressed or in any way abnormal. Aside from a couple of boys using of the word “gay” as an insult, I’d never talked to someone who was anti gay. Then one day in homeroom my best friend Molly and I were sitting on top of our desks, swinging our legs and chatting with this kid Edward. Our town was diverse, but Edward was unique because he had only recently moved from China, whereas most of the other Chinese kids we knew were born here. We enjoyed the, what seemed to us outlandish, things Edward would say. That day, he said something that shocked us: He announced that being gay was unnatural. After I recovered from the surprise, my first instinct was to educate Edward, to explain to him that some people were just gay, and that it wasn’t unnatural, and that he had it wrong. I was surprised, and then upset, when he wouldn’t agree, but rather insisted that being gay was “unnatural in the eyes of God.” At that point I started yelling to make my point, and when that didn’t work, I started crying and yelling at the same time. Eventually my homeroom teacher pulled me out of the classroom. I tried to explain to her what had happened, thinking she must not have understood, but she had. She told me, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.”
This was the first time it really hit home for me that the most virulent homophobia wasn’t due to ignorance, but rather due to deeply held religious convictions. It was also the first time I realized how emotional this issue was for both sides. The emotional nature of this conflict still troubles me, although I’m well used to its existence now. As my homeroom teacher said, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but many religious communities feel that their beliefs should dictate law, and that cannot happen. I feel somewhat buoyed by the results of Tuesday’s election. We re-elected President Barack Obama who has an excellent record in terms of gay civil rights, and we added Washington, Maine and Maryland to the growing number of states where it is legal for gay people to get married. As we move forward, we need to keep finding better ways to talk to each other. We’re growing up in two different kinds of sheltered communities, and maybe we’re not talking to each other until it’s too late to be able to imagine the other sides’ perspective. The conversation has to get smarter and more measured. I couldn’t, and maybe still can’t, reign in my emotions, but hopefully our activists and politicians can and will.