Twenty-some years ago, I had a friend in school whom we’ll call George. Technically, by the stricter definition of friendship I’ve operated under most of my life, he was a friendly acquaintance. He wasn’t all that easy to get to know.
That was to be expected. George had a secret. He was gay.
Of course, it wasn’t really a secret. George liked theater and music and was a rather flamboyant punk for our beige little backwater exurb. People assumed. Many of them made his life miserable over it, I think. I don’t really know.
I should know.
I should have been one of the people he could talk to, particularly after that one party where he drank himself sick and I tried to keep him warm in the back of the car until our ride home was sober. We should have been real friends for a number of reasons.
We weren’t, though. I don’t think we had the language to be. I didn’t have the words to tell him that of course it didn’t matter who he was attracted to. I certainly didn’t have the words to tell him to fuck all the haters, that they would go on to have pitifully circumscribed lives while things would get better for him once he could get away from that place.
It wouldn’t have been true then anyway. Mine was the generation on the cusp of majority acceptance of anything but heterosexuality. We weren’t there, in part because we’d grown up without any idea how to talk about it. But we grew up with strong messages about it being okay to be an individual. We saw Billy Crystal on Soap being a regular person instead of the cardboard villain or the hapless victim. Many of us got it in the most general sense.
We just didn’t know how to counter the hate and the fear and the helplessness. We didn’t even know how to acknowledge it. We certainly couldn’t promise a future that wasn’t there yet.
It is here now, in some ways and in some places. The U.S. has changed tremendously since that party. We know how to open our mouths to talk about sexuality in a way that isn’t meant to shut it down, even if we don’t always get the details of what we say right. We can promise a future to more people every year, even if they must still often leave their homes to find that future. We can tell people, “It gets better”, and mean it.
Changing the world, though, means leaving some people behind. Leaving them behind doesn’t mean keeping them from speaking. It doesn’t mean persecuting them. It simply means that when they do try to assert that the world is or should be what it was before, we look at them through eyes that clearly see how out of their time they are. Sometimes we’ll even tell them so. We do not give them the reins of power to try to turn the world back.
I have a little sympathy for those who find the world slipping out of their fingers. Once upon a time, everyone (who was anyone) told them that what they were doing was not just okay but righteous and necessary. Now, with both law and religion trailing slowly behind the morality of the masses, they’re the villains of the piece.
Of course, the only thing that has changed in that time are the number of people who have the words to tell them how they’ve been hurting others. The damage they did was always there, and it was worse when their victims were more isolated.
So while I have that small amount of sympathy, these people don’t get to have the world back. They don’t get to keep hurting people, if I have any say in the matter.
Last I heard about George, things had gotten better. Good work, acceptance, comfort in his own skin. It came after too many years of pain, though. It came after too many nights like the one in the car–and worse. It came after too much needless pain that I couldn’t help to shoulder, much less prevent.
I look at the discriminatory marriage amendment on the ballot in a couple of weeks, and I see an attempt by the people George had to leave behind to sink their claws into his back and make him drag them along into the future. But George has already carried more than enough of their burden. He’s done too much of their work.
It’s time to leave these people far behind, where they can’t hurt my friends anymore. Not time to make them stop talking or to persecute them in turn. Simply time to take the power to harm out of their hands. It’s time to stop carrying them into the future and let them find their own way forward if they will.
If they won’t, well, I think the rest of us won’t miss them terribly.