Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Once more for Equality. With Feeling.
I grew up in a small town in an even smaller house and went to the tiniest high school you can imagine. (I'm not joking. I'm friends on Facebook with my entire graduating class. There are about 6 1/2 of us.)
My town had the quintessential makings of small-towness. We had a general store where I would buy chocolate milk on the way to school. We had a penny candy store on the river that was run by the town's beloved Sarge and his son who was, in fact, a pedophile that lived in the back room. I spent many happy afternoons walking along the beach before stopping into Sarge's and picking out 100 stale penny candies that I paid for with a crumbled dollar bill I kept shoved into my sneaker. I rode my bike past boy's houses on the lake. I acted out shows in my backyard with friend. I tested out the electric fence that kept in the horses across the road, sacrificing a bird to see if it was on. (Sorry, PETA.) My fingers were almost always stained with blackberries, my shoulders always sunburned, and I lived a sheltered and idyllic life.
And then I met Justin when I went to high school.
Justin was friendly and fun, a spark-plug who sometimes wore eyeliner to school to match his cape. I was desperately in love and thrilled with the fact that my Mom let me go out with him alone for "dates." She would stand in the kitchen as Justin and I rehashed all the gossip from school that day and raise her eyebrows when I asked if we could go to Friendly's for a soda. "Sure." She would carefully reply, as I wondered why she didn't seem to care that I was going out with a boy. "Just- have fun. Lock the door when you come in."
"What if we're super late?" I'd press, and she'd shake her head, confused, as she patted meatloaf into a pan.
"I'm sure you won't be."
She was right of course, Justin was gay and I had no idea at the time. I had no idea because my town didn't exactly have a community where gay people felt free enough to be themselves. Justin grew up in the same small town and disappeared after a breakdown his junior year. It took me years to realize that he was broken down by the community, by a family that couldn't accept him, and he faded away into the folds of society while we ignorantly (and not so ignorantly) stood and watched.
It still haunts me to this day.
I moved away to Berkeley, California, and quickly was swept up into an environment and culture that was so accepting of everyone all the time. It wasn't even about the gay community. All sexual orientations, all religions, all shades, all walks of life- in Berkeley you were loved AND hated, accepted AND spit on equally. It was nirvana. It was the place that I could walk through campus with a police officer, chatting about the safety lecture I had just attended, and as we were caught in a cloud of pot smoke from a barefoot grad student 2 feet in front of us, the officer gently moved me to the side. "Oh, let's get down wind from this guy, unless you have potato chips in your bag." It was a place that accepted the green-haired angry conservative man that came to rant about the war every day in the main quad. I'd watch bleeding liberals leave him wrapped sandwiches and cups of coffee as he marched around, screaming his argument out on forgiving ears. It was a place that I could hang out with my guy friend Andrew and no one stopped to ask if we were a couple? Was he gay? Was he straight? Because no one cared.
In Berkeley I felt reborn, I felt renewed, and I felt like my Christian faith actually came into play in this city more so than in the small, white, "straight" town that I grew up in. The whole point of Christ's message was to "Love One Another"...and I was getting to see it put into action every day.
My conservative family was harder to convince about this message, and there were many family gatherings that ended in tears and me sloppily trying to illustrate how twisted it was that we were not a "Christian" community that embraced everyone. I have to admit, as an alley to the LGBT community, I did a bad job in my support. I picked fights. I got angry and hurled insults. I did, essentially, the very thing that goes against the message of love. It took me years and quiet, intelligent conversations to finally feel like my voice had been heard. And with my voice the voice of millions. And then today something amazing happened.
My conservative sister offered up her voice in the support of equality. She posted a banner on her Facebook page- on This Very Important Day- that simply said that she was for marriage equality for all.
I immediately commented: "Really?! I am so proud!"
To which she responded: "God, Melissa. I have a gay friend you know. I even have a black one."
It's a small step, but a giant one at the same time. And all we need to do is keep stepping one foot in front of the other...one giant step or small step at a time...until we reach the goal.