“How did you become such a fierce LGBT advocate?”
The other night, a high school classmate sent me that question on Facebook Messenger. I haven’t spoken to this person in years and years, and as the question was out of the blue, it caught me by surprise.
It has been years since someone asked me a basic-level question like that. I muddled my way through the answer, but I have been thinking about it since then. How did I get here? How did I change the views about sexuality I was born in to, that I was taught, that were assumed in my culture?
And since I am about to change my context, perhaps I should think about this deliberately, because no doubt the question will come up again.
Like most changes, it wasn’t a radical clean cut with the past, but rather a series of events that collectively add up to where I am now. At least, that is how I think about it – a series of stories that shaped me and where I am now is the logical result.
Since it is a series of stories, I feel like I should tell them that way, in a series of posts over a period of time.
Here is the first story.
* * *
I was 19 and in the Marines. I was in love with a Marine named Heather who, when she smiled, had dimples deep enough for you to fall into.
Heather had grown up in a big city up North, and I was raised 10 miles outside a town of 800 people in Mississippi. We were very different people, who had each inherited the political beliefs of people who raised us. She was probably my first “liberal” friend. Everyone I had known closely until then you could assume believed more or less like I did.
It was a Saturday. We were at the museum on a date when she told me.
“Hugh, I’m gay.”
I wish I could say how accepting I was. I wish I could say I saw her coming out to me as the gift that it was, that I recognized she was putting her safety and her career in the Marines in my hands, that she loved me enough to tell me the truth about who she was.
But I didn’t handle it well. I mean, I am Southern enough that I probably wasn’t rude, but I was hurt and confused by it all. It wasn’t just breaking up with someone. Instead, it felt like they were gone forever.
When we got back to the barracks, I went for a long walk to process. Everything I knew, everything I had been taught, about sexuality told me that being gay was a sin. Everything I knew about Heather told me she was one of the kindest, best people I knew. It was my first ethical crisis – do I stay true to the religion I grew up in, or do I stay true to the person I knew and (still) loved?
In the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, there is a point where Jim, the escaped slave, is captured, and Huck is faced with a choice: To stay safe, or to rescue Jim. To rescue Jim is to break the law and to go against the things he had been taught about religion, morality, and race. But it would also be the only way he could be true to his friendship with Jim.
He came to a conclusion: “Alright then. I’ll go to hell!” And he helped Jim escape.
I didn’t use these words, but the sentiment is the same. I decided that I was throwing in with Heather. I knew her, loved her, and would support her, even if it meant I would not be able to be her partner or her lover. And if it meant betraying the religion I grew up with, then so be it.
Over the next six months or so, she introduced me to her friends – other Marines who were also lesbians, people I had known but who were not out. This was the first circle of LGBT folks I had ever been invited into. They were so accepting of me, answered so many of my questions – even the ones that were unintentionally rude – so loving toward me. I think I freaked some of them out, but they knew I was important to Heather, so I was accepted.
Reading back over that, I recognize that there is a way to read this that makes me sound heroic, whereas in reality, I was scared. I was changing, what I believed was changing, and I had a small circle of people who supported this change, while the dominant culture I was raised in and immersed in did not.
So, I took the coward’s way out. I supported Heather and her friends but kept my mouth shut in other situations. I was like the guy who has black friends at work, but laugh’s at his white friend’s racist jokes so he can fit in.
And it’s important to point out that I still believed same-sex attraction was sinful. I just overlooked it in Heather and her friends.
But the Evangelical faith of my childhood had a chink in it, and I would never be the same.
NB: Heather and I are still friends to this day. She is a grandmother, a nurse, and a cancer survivor who has a beautiful family and life. She has given me permission to use her actual name when I tell this story.