A few weeks ago, Dan Savage started a movement online called It Gets Better. Inspired by the tragic suicides of young boys who were accused of being gay, he created a Youtube channel to give homosexuals an outlet to express their own lives, their own coming-out processes, and their own way of overcoming the ignorance.
It Gets Better hit critical mass when pastor Jim Swilly, a “megachurch” bishop publicly announced he is gay. He told his local news affiliate: “As a father, think about your 16-, 17-year-old killing themselves. I thought somebody needed to say something.” It was a moving speech. I wondered what took him so long to come out of the closet.
I grew up the daughter of liberal parents in a small town that was primarily white and Christian. I don’t know what other children were taught, but I grew up casually aware that sometimes a man married a man or a woman fell in love with a woman. I didn’t think too much about the subject. My mother, a successful real estate broker, took me with her to listings with her favorite couple, the Edwards. Jeffrey Edwards was a lawyer, my mother explained, and Craig Edwards was a doctor. I never asked why two men lived together—I just asked how anyone could afford such a huge house.
My next door neighbor was my best friend. Liz and I were inseparable; we sat on the bus together every day. When one of the older girls—she must have been nine or ten—called us lesbians, I burst into tears. I thought “lesbian” was a type of lizard and the bully was calling us ugly. Liz put her around me and scowled. “Stop crying! A lesbian means I love you!”
I don’t remember much gay-bullying in middle or high school. Perhaps because I wasn’t the victim, I didn’t notice. I mostly remember the marching band members being teased by the senior members of the football team. I remember the popular kids in the drama club looking down on the less talented students who had to paint the sets.
Was I raised in a particularly gentle town in a fairly liberal suburb? Or did I just not see the intolerance? I fear my own teenage angst blinded me from looking at other student’s pain. Adolescence is always hard—it is even harder when you’re different.
I think America loves gay people more than they think, or want to admit. Ellen Degeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, Jodie Foster, Cynthia Nixon, Ian McKellen and Elton John are beloved household names. More voters approve of same-sex marriage than ever before . But the issue is not (always) about marriage or Hollywood. It’s about leading a normal life where being gay is as unusual as being a red head. It’s just a trait.
A few years ago, a new coworker started at my job downtown. Danny was tall, blue-eyed and unsettlingly attractive. I was delirious in lust with him, and we flirted non-stop. One of my coworkers, an out-and-proud gay who lived and partied in the heart of Chelsea, was convinced he was gay. “Why?” I challenged. “Because you think he’s cute?” I didn’t care if he was gay or straight. I just thought Danny was the sexiest guy alive.
A few weeks later, we were sleeping together. I told my gay coworker, who relayed nothing but envy. “I guess my gaydar is off!” he joked.
Of course, the affair ended just like most 23-year-old romances do—quickly and awkwardly. We stopped sleeping together and went back to being coworkers who, aside from the occasional smile, mostly felt uncomfortable with the fact that we had seen each other naked. Danny left the company a few months later to pursue another degree. I moved on to a string of other boyishly handsome 23 year olds. We stayed in touch and met occasionally for drinks with old coworkers. I jealously checked his Facebook profile to see if he was dating anyone else.
A year later, I ran into a mutual friend. “Did you hear the news?” she asked me. “Danny just broke up with Joshua.”
I froze. “What did you say?”
“I know! After a whole year. Joshua is devastated.”
I wasn’t shocked that Danny had been in the arms of man. I was shocked that I had no idea. I was shocked that in the past year, there was no indication of their relationship in his Facebook profile that I had pined over. I called my out-and-proud gay coworker so he could weigh in.
“Maybe he’s bisexual,” he said. “Or maybe he is gay. I told you so. So what?”
“But why didn’t he tell me?” I asked. “Why didn’t he put any photos on Facebook? Or change his relationship status? It’s 2010! It’s New York! No one cares anymore! Did he think I would care?”
My coworker sounded annoyed with me. “You’re an idiot. Just because you accept homosexuality doesn’t mean his family accepts it. It doesn’t mean his hundreds of Facebook friends can accept it. It doesn’t mean he’s sure of it, or he’s okay with it yet. It’s none of your business.”
He was right. I was an idiot. Just because I was raised by liberal parents in a seemingly accepting town with little—if any—gay bullying, doesn’t mean everyone else feels the way I feel. It didn’t mean Danny was okay with it, or wanted some pseudo-ex girlfriend to know who he was sleeping with. If anything, my own acceptance was ignorant of the terrifying intolerance that drove the very same suicides that inspired It Gets Better.
I hope all children have a memory like mine, when my five-year-old best friend put her arms around me and said, “a lesbian means I love you!” I hope that, regardless of my exes’ sexual preferences, I can mind my own business. I hope all sad children, or gay twenty-sometings, or closeted fifty-somethings will know it gets better.