Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Why I support equal rights for gays

This blog could probably be titled "Why I Really Support Equal Rights for Gays" because that's the significant story.

I'm not gay.  I offer that statement as context, not as a protest.  If I were gay, I'd like to think I wouldn't be ashamed to admit it, but I might be.  There's really no way of knowing.  But I'm just not wired that way.

And there's nobody in my immediate family who's gay, insofar as I'm aware.  If there were, that person would receive my love and support, and our family would accept that person as he or she is.

I do have a handful of gay friends.  Some of them are publicly "out."  Some of them are not.  But I expect that most people have some gay friends, even if they don't know it.  I think it's possible to have gay friends and nevertheless oppose equal rights for gays.

With the exception I'll get to in a moment, there's really not much in my personal world to prompt me to support gay rights.

But I do.

On some level, what activates my sense of justice with respect to equal rights for gays is just that:  I happen to believe that everybody deserves not just nominally equal rights, but actually functional equal rights.  Take gay marriage, for example.  Everyone is, in some sense, under the same set of restrictions regarding same-sex marriage.  It just doesn't matter to heterosexuals, while it means the whole world to homosexuals. 

So I would be in favor of things like marriage equality even if I didn't have a personal reason to be.

But I do.

I met my college roommate the summer before our senior year of high school, at a six-week residential educational enrichment program.  He and I were fast friends, sharing a common interest in math and having similar politics. When we both ended up at the same university, we arranged to room together for our freshman year.

Living in close quarters with a person, you learn a lot about them. My roommate gave the impression of being essentially asexual. He never dated anyone as far as I could tell, nor did he give the impression that he wanted to.  He was a serious student.

After our freshman year, we both had the opportunity to live in single rooms, so for our sophomore year, we lived in the same dormitory but not in the same room. One evening before the fall term began, my friend was over for a visit.  And he chose that time to come out to me as gay.

At that point in our lives, he was probably my best friend. I don't know that I was his, but he apparently believed I was a good enough friend that I would support him and accept him for who he was.

I blew it. Oh, I pretended that it didn't bother me. On some level, it really didn't bother me. But I was worried about what other people would think about me, that I had chosen to live in close quarters with a gay man.  "If that's the way you are, it's fine by me," I said.  He looked relieved, and if I had just shut my mouth at that point I might have gotten away with it.  But I kept talking.

"Of course," I said, "if anyone asks, I'll have to say that I didn't find out about it until after we quit being roommates."

I wish my 37-year-old self could go back in time and convince my 18-year-old self not to say that. It might be the most hurtful thing I've ever said to someone.  I would give almost anything to un-say that.

To his credit, my friend laughed it off.  But things were never the same between us.  We drifted apart. I haven't spoken to him in probably 15 years.  And I don't blame him for that. It's my fault, and there is nothing I can do to make it up to him, for not being there 100% for him, as a friend, when he needed me to be.

Sadly, I think my reaction at the time was a perfectly normal one, given the mores of the time.  In the last 20 years, my attitude has changed a lot.  I no longer care what people think about me. I would not be embarrassed today for someone to believe I was gay, or somehow to think less of me because I'd had a gay roommate.  But most people do care what people think about them, and I would like to see the world treat homophobia, not homosexuality, as the defect, so that the normal reaction of someone in my position would be properly directed.

I am convinced that legal acceptance of homosexuality as a normal form of human sexuality, and the mainstreaming of homosexual relationships as acceptable on a legal basis, will lead to widespread societal acceptance of homosexuals.  I think we are already well down that road.  We now have experience with marriage equality on a limited basis, and the fact that the world didn't end has caused people to begin to realize that the old way of doing things just isn't necessary, and it's purposefully hurtful to people.

I hate that I hurt my friend because I wasn't strong enough to overcome what I perceived as his sexuality's social impact on me. But it gives me a special reason to stand up publicly for equal rights. If we can change the way we think about homosexuality, then maybe it wouldn't be such a big thing to accept our gay friends and family members for who they are.

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