Recently, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision effectively prohibiting states from denying same-sex partners the right to marry. It was the culmination of a long series of legal battles, and a key moment in a much longer civil rights struggle dating back decades.
Since the decision was released, the world of social media has erupted, and I’ve watched as people I know weighed in on both sides of the issue. Until now, I’ve mostly kept quiet.
This isn’t because I haven’t wanted to weigh in. I personally support marriage equality and view the decision as an important victory for civil rights. I’ve wanted to congratulate the gay community, including some dear friends, and publicly show my support. I’ve wanted to let my nongay friends know that, while some of them may disagree, I personally believe the decision was just. I’ve wanted to turn my profile picture rainbow-colored and join the online victory parade.
Yet, something has been holding me back, which I haven’t quite understood. And after a bit of self-reflection, I think I know what it is.
It starts with some of my earliest memories, as a country boy in the early 1970s, living amidst a small cluster of farmhouses surrounded by cornfields in Northwest Ohio. It was a cluster like many others in the American heartland, light years away from politically active hot spots such as Berkeley, Calif., and Washington, D.C. There was a church on the corner — which I later joined — and a small, conservative college town a few miles away.
There were two kinds of men living around me: farmers and blue-collar workers. The farmers were modest, hardworking, wore overalls, drove pickups and went to church. The blue-collar guys wore blue jeans and T-shirts, smoked cigarettes, drove muscle cars and drank Schlitz out of pull-tab cans. Most were decent people who taught their sons to work hard, act tough, never stand out and to always act like ... well, “men.” And that’s what I set out to do.
There was a third group of men just down the road who would also have an influence on my life. These were the professors at the college — men of philosophy and science — who drove Volkswagens and didn’t seem to care whether anyone thought they were “manly” or not. But at that time, the university was a distant island to me and played no real role in my life.
I spent my youth idolizing football and baseball players, tough guys who played hard and always got the girls. My television hero was “the Fonz” from “Happy Days,” another tough guy who rode a motorcycle, wore a leather jacket and got the girls.
One of our favorite games was called “smear the queer.” It involved passing a football to one kid while all the other kids tried smearing him into the ground. We thought nothing of the name until one day, when one of my neighbor’s moms — an educated woman somehow connected with the university — informed us that her sons couldn’t play unless we called it something else. Thus “down the clown” was born, which I remember thinking was stupid.
In fairness, I had no idea what a “queer” was. Homosexuality was a taboo topic. That was about to change, however.
By the ’80’s, the gay movement had pushed its way into the public discourse, reaching even conservative outposts. Talk show hosts such as Phil Donahue began discussing gay issues openly. Gay personalities such as Boy George and Richard Simmons were becoming household names. But while the movement was gaining support on the coasts, the reaction in the rural Midwest was hostile. Whereas before we never discussed homosexuality, now it was just openly derided. By junior high, the worst insult one could hurl at another boy was the label “fag” or “faggot.” It was a battle cry for bullies.
And though my friends and I weren’t bullies, we did find it OK to joke about “gayness.” We viewed gays in cartoonish, stereotypical ways. Gay men were skinny and feminine and talked like Valley Girls with lisps. When a friend said something “unmanly,” his man card was revoked If it happened to you, you might save face by launching into an exaggerated “gay” routine, denying any traces of “gayness” by mocking it.
We were hardly alone. Anti-gay humor was everywhere. Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay routinely made light of gay men, depicting them in the same cartoonish ways — or worse, as disgusting perverts.
Ironically, I don’t believe we had real hatred in our hearts toward gay people. We didn’t even know any gay people, at least that we were aware of. Rather, we hated a lampooned notion of gay people.
I don’t recall ever picking on any gay people, but I know I wasn’t a friend to them, either. As it turns out, I wasn’t close to a single gay person who subsequently came out, although I can see now that some were struggling. I didn’t reach out to offer my friendship or defend them when others made jokes behind their backs. I was in my own little world, mindful to keep my “man card” safely out of reach.
There was never any singular moment when I gained compassion for gay people. Rather, it was a slow and gradual process. Perhaps it started in college, when I finally met and got to know some actual gay people. Perhaps it was my coursework, learning about other civil rights movements and noticing the parallels. Perhaps it was in law school, studying the Supreme Court’s history, both proud and shameful. Along the way, my spiritual beliefs evolved, and I became less enamored with ancient notions of judgment and condemnation, and more interested in the side of religion emphasizing compassion and justice. Perhaps it was simply living in changing times, and finding myself surrounded by more and more people who were nonjudgmental. Or perhaps I simply grew up and became secure enough in my own “manhood.”
If there was a nail in the coffin of my old beliefs, it might have been the gut-wrenching disgust I felt in October 1998, when Matthew Shepard, a 21-year old gay student at the University of Wyoming, was found hanging on a fence like a scarecrow, where he had been left to die after being beaten mercilessly by two homophobic assailants.
However it happened, I evolved. As a 47-year-old father of two, I’m mortified looking back at my attitudes toward homosexuals as a child. I view marriage equality as a civil liberties issue, and a pretty simple one at that. I now know and work alongside gay people without fear or judgment, and count many as friends. I’ve supported marriage equality for years and have done a few small things to help. But not enough.
And that’s why I’m struggling with this — not with my beliefs or the Supreme Court’s decision, but in joining the parade alongside those who fought and struggled, as if I’d been with them all along. And because it’s easy now to support marriage equality — in an odd sense, too easy. And while the gay community still needs support, what it really needed was my support, and that of people like me, in the 1970s and ’80s, when it was difficult and they were alone.
In old America, supporting gay rights took compassion and guts. It needed us in the 1950s, when gay men were being jailed, and in the ’60s, when they were being fired from jobs. They needed us when they were being bullied, beaten and mocked, when they couldn’t get mortgages or obtain health insurance, or join the military or adopt children. Where were we all then?
I wish now that I had handled it differently — that I had been the wise one, like my neighbor’s mom, or the kind one who had offered a hand in friendship. I wish I had been the strong one who stood up to the bullies, or had been the principled one.
Instead, I have to own that I was once part of what the gay community was up against: a general public filled with fear, ignorance and indifference. For it’s not the headline-grabbing fanatics who dehumanize and objectify, it’s the masses of otherwise decent people who collectively turn a blind eye to injustice, tolerate inequality, and conform to attitudes and biases. We have the power to effect social change, and when it comes too slowly, or not at all, we must acknowledge our culpability.
And there you have it. The reason I’ve been hesitant to hoist a rainbow is because I know that mine casts this shadow. And the reason I’ve been uneasy with the nation’s celebration is because I know that America’s rainbow looks an awful lot like mine, with the same dark shadow.
So, I’m putting my rainbow out there, shadow and all, in the hope that we might start talking about these shadows — acknowledging their existence, thinking about what they mean. And I hope we’ll keep looking into these shadows until we see what else they are obscuring. Because it’s only beneath these shadows — of ignorance, fear and indifference — that we can ever expect to connect with our humanity, and with the millions of others who continue to struggle for equality and justice.
Tim Fearnside is a Boise attorney, father, urban gardener and fledgling blogger. A slightly longer version of this piece can be found on his blog.