I learned my first lesson in equality and politics from my father. Our town was voting on putting in place a curfew for minors and I, as a 15-year-old, was voicing my displeasure.
“It will pass,” he said, “because the only people who can vote are not affected.” He was right, it passed handily, and that lesson has stuck with me. A person can be compassionate, but people are selfish. I always considered myself sympathetic to the plights of others, but in reality I was never much for doing anything about it when I was not directly affected.
When I went off to college I found myself in a different world. Fayetteville, the home of the University of Arkansas, is a world away from the conservative shell in which I had lived. Even today one of the taglines for the city is “Keep Fayetteville Funky.” Patchouli, local coffee shops, beaded curtains; all of these things were now thrust into my worldview. I could ignore them easily enough, but the one thing that I could not ignore was a young lady who had grown up there. We fell in love, got married FAR too young, and have been together ever since. Fourteen years and two kids later we find ourselves here in Coastal Virginia.
In retrospect I should have noticed the tie-dye and broom skirts before falling totally in love with Stephanie.
Two quick things about me: 1. I don’t like to draw attention to myself. 2. I don’t like to feel uncomfortable in public settings (which almost always happens as a result of #1). My natural defenses tell me to avoid uncomfortable situations at all costs. So how in the world did I find myself standing all alone outside of a Norfolk courthouse being told that I was going to Hell? My journey to that point goes back to the girl in the broom skirt.
That cold day in Norfolk wasn’t the first time I had looked around and wondered how I got myself in a particular situation. Years before I had a similar feeling while rinsing out a salsa jar before putting it in the trash. But it wasn’t going in the trash, it was going in the recycling. I was well-trained at this point. Left to my own devices I wouldn’t recycle. It seems like a waste of time in that, in the grand scheme of things, one more salsa jar in the dump isn’t going to make that much difference. And even if it does, that is not a problem for me but rather for someone in the future. Steph tells me that if everyone felt that way we would all be doomed. My persistent stance that “one person can’t make a difference” has been a constant struggle for her. I would say that I have gotten better. She would say I’ve got a long way to go.
Recycling aside, Steph’s real passion is social causes. We both majored in foreign languages in college. French for me; I had long been a francophile and wanted to be able to go to France and blend in undetected. Spanish for Steph, as she had long noticed the difficulties for the large immigrant community where we lived and wanted to help them. She was a migrant tutor at an elementary school and the Spanish-speaking advocate for survivors at a Sexual Assault Crisis Center. Early in our marriage when she became the director at the Crisis Center she asked me to go through advocate training, as there was a real lack of male advocates. I consented, but ultimately decided the best I could do was be a member of the speaker’s bureau. The actual “advocating” was too hard for me.
I am a typical WASP (though, technically, a WASC as I am Catholic) and find it hard to be genuine when trying to relate to other groups. Their plight, while it may be terrible and unjust, does not affect me personally. I feel bad about social injustices, but not bad enough to participate in righting them. I think most people are probably that way. Generally the people passionate about a cause on either side are, at least initially, on the extremes and they usually strike me as a little whacky. I admire the white people standing alongside the black in Civil Rights era pictures, but I would be lying to myself if I ever thought I would be one of them. I probably would have just stood by and thought about how terrible it all was.
All this said, one day Steph reminded me of a famous quote, one that I think everyone should not only read, but really, truly think about. It comes from the post-WWII lectures of pastor Martin Niemoller:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.
The plights of others are far removed from a middle class, straight, white guy like me. Is it enough for me to just be personally upset about injustices but not do anything about it? Well, at some point they are probably going to come for me.
Marriage equality has long been an important cause for Stephanie, and I was always behind her 100% in that regard. On the day when the court in Norfolk was expected to rule on marriage equality she had to work, and I knew it bothered her. It was time for me to get in front of her for once, so I headed out to join the rally on my own. It was amongst the most uncomfortable and alone I have ever felt. I stood on the side of the street that was for equality, but I felt unequal. Alienated. Judged.
I felt exactly like a lot of people feel all of the time, and I hated it.
On the “traditional marriage” side of the street were two guys playing sermons on a speaker and interjecting occasionally that they still loved us, but that we needed to change our wicked ways before it was too late. There was a part of me that wanted to yell back at them and tell them not to worry about me, I’m “heterosexual married.” But I didn’t. Sometimes you need to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes.
Back home, in my own shoes, I was really glad that I went. Steph was touched and more than a little bit surprised. To the scores of people out there like me, people who care about a cause (just not enough to do anything about it), I urge you to get involved. Stand up for injustice. Recycle your salsa jars. Step outside of your comfort zone; it will make you feel like a better person.