I was homophobic when I was younger. I thought gay rights represented the worst part of American freedom, and that hatred of gays was a quality – an indication of a firm moral character. My views were forged in the crucible of Southern culture – automatic opposition to anything associated with homosexuality was a virtue. I grinned and condemned, without ever (knowingly) even crossing paths with a gay person.
Flip forward a few years: I was moving to New York. I had a colleague from Moscow who was also moving to New York and I offered to room with him. The responsibility for finding an apartment was his. He found a great place in an up-and-coming gay neighborhood in Manhattan. I agreed, because I had accepted a job in New York and didn’t know any better.
The staggering truth I found out from living in an intensely gay neighborhood for several years – and forgive a stupid statement here – was that living around gay people was no big deal. It’s sad to say that I came to this realization so late in life. My early homophobia was rooted in ignorance and, frankly, a lack of exposure. I realized after a few years of living in the neighborhood that gay people wanted high-speed cable, decent air-conditioning, good restaurants and convenient delis just like I did. They went to work, they ate pizza, they took the subway. Holding hands wasn’t something that bothered me, because it only represented happiness.
That’s why the current political discourse that touches on gay rights in this country makes me so sad. One of my good friends from down South told me in 2004 that the MAIN reason he wanted to vote for Bush was that he was afraid of the effect of legalization of gay marriage on his children. I pointed out that gay marriage was hardly a threat in his small southern town, but he wasn’t convinced. To him, it was a clear and present danger.
Hatred can rob you of a lot of the real business of life. Growing up in a southern state I was influenced to distrust minorities, gay people and even to a certain extent women. Just a little bit of exposure freed up a lot of my mental energy to worry about things I can really hate: climate change, corporate abuse, war and so on. Life is too short to worry about who holds hands with whom.