Something strange has been happening recently. Family members have begun asking me about my experiences growing up, coming out, and coming of age I come from one of those “keep it to yourself” quiet Irish-Norwegian families. You know, the family where you can laugh and whoop it up, but your tears and any pain you feel (other than when a limb is cut off) is to be dealt with when you’re alone. That being said, you can see why it is a curious development that my sisters (not parents or brother) are asking these questions, and asking them with a sincere desire to understand.
My sisters are both younger than I; one by two and a half years, one by four and a half. We are all now in our late twenties to early thirties, and are evolving within our relationships. It has already been a thrill to develop our closeness in those early years of coming of age, after leaving home and establishing our independence. Because we grew up in such a strict home, I think we did push a lot of envelopes, and made up for the rigidity with a lot beer pong and blunts. Reaching a place where we are no longer in open rebellion, we are finally reflecting on childhood with the perspective that only retrospect can give.
Today I was listening to an interview with Dan Savage, and he said that the one thing that all queer people have in common is that we have to come out. I believe he called it something like our hero’s challenge, or hero maker. And that’s quite true. It struck me in reflecting on his words that I have never told my coming out story to anyone (and I am not going to do it here). Having never told this story, and having never had straight people inquire into my experience as a gay man, I am often put for words when trying to share some glimpse of what that experience has been.
It is only over the last two years that my mother has stopped insisting that I am in fact not gay, but bisexual, and no longer refers to my sexual orientation as, “the gay thing”. It is only in the last two years, over a decade since coming out not only as gay, but as a buddhist political leftist, that my parents are not afraid of my religion or sexual orientation (they are still terrified by my politics). If you are from the Great Plains, you will realize how big a pill that was to swallow for a man and woman who still have their “Bush for President ’04” bumper-stickers on their cars…and these cars were bought in 2008. How, in their very Christian, very conservative home did they produce a vegetarian-buddhist-gay-leftist?!
Last week I spent the holiday weekend with my family in Nebraska. My last night there, my sisters and I ended up doing some minor bar hopping in Lincoln, where these questions came up again. One sister is still upset that I cannot call our step-father dad, and thinks that it is now, as it was in my childhood, my responsibility to nurture our relationship and allow him his prejudices and nasty temper. I kindly, and very firmly explained that that ship has sailed, that we have come to a certain peace, but will never have understanding and I am fine in having that peace. I shouldered the responsibility of being the adult for adults who wouldn’t take it for a long, long time. I now take responsibility for no one’s actions but my own, and nurture my own happiness very carefully.
I offer these small happenings in my life as part of the evidence of how rapidly things have changed in our culture. Ten years ago, the country was solidly against marriage equality, and distinctly against hate crimes laws, and equal protection from discrimination. In a decade we have seen the decriminalization of sodomy, the adoption of marriage equality in twelve states and Washington DC, the explosion of the Ellen Show, the wild popularity of It Gets Better, and a dramatic shift in public opinion. If the majority of rank and file Republicans now say equality is inevitable, and must now debate within their party if homophobia has a continued place as a plank in the party platform, things have truly changed.
We often don’t give ourselves credit for our achievements (by we, I mean activists on the progressive side of things). It is our victories that give us the strength and enthusiasm to carry on when the going gets tough. It is easy to burn out when your struggle takes decades instead of a few years or even months. The length of our struggle goes back many decades, and it has lost a lot of battles, but the tides have turned, my friends. From here, from this grand place we witness today cannot be taken away, it can only be augmented, made more solid, and with time, made as sacred as any other right earned the hard way.