In my 1975-76 senior English class at Hutchinson High School, we learned a lot of things that were honestly not very meaningful at the time. As I get older, I think about some of those lessons, quotes, and ideas. We learned Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” at a time when examining one’s life generally didn’t go past thinking about what was for breakfast.
Sometimes examinations are forced upon us like pop quizzes, and one in my life began over thirty years ago. It requires some context. As a group of high school friends, our small crew was like any group, I guess. We were disposed to have fun, get into mischief, participate in some sports, debate and forensics, know what band was playing at Century 2, and plan for what to do on the upcoming weekend. I would have never thought of myself or my friends as bullies, at the time. Sadly, this perception was far from accurate.
When the Eagle Scout of our group, the one who studied the most, went to church every Sunday, was always there when we needed a hand, stayed out of trouble, and generally served as our conscience came out as gay in his 20’s, we all faced a cognitive challenge. We could contemplate and own all the mean, hateful, gay slurs we had thought were so funny in high school and college, many or even all of them occurring in the presence of our closeted gay friend, or we could decide to condemn a guy who we all loved and admired.
Memories are stories we tell ourselves, and who doesn’t want to be the hero of their own stories? But another thing we learned from reading Melville’s Billy Budd in senior English was that all heroes have a fatal flaw. Failing to acknowledge our fatal flaws either requires some serious mental gymnastics or implies perfection. When I think back on things I said and did, and how my gay friend must have felt, I know my fatal flaws were ignorance, lack of empathy, and disrespect. I feel embarrassed and deeply sorry for my actions. My story’s true heroes are my friend and the other kids we called names because we thought them different from us. One could argue that it was a different time, our culture has evolved, we know more now, and that we didn’t understand. That argument dismisses a 2,000-year-old axiom most of us grew up with: The Golden Rule.
Do I still struggle with understanding why some people are straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender? Of course, I do, and I always remember what a Church Bishop said in a sermon on the subject in my Emporia church 20 years ago, “Can someone explain why I find my wife attractive, why when I look at her it fills me with feelings I can’t describe? No? Then how can I possibly understand what someone else feels when they look at someone they love?” Because of a self-examination journey, I realize that it isn’t my business, let alone for me to judge who my LGBT friends and family members love. My duty is to love them as I do myself.
Polls say 70-80% of Americans agree with the recent Supreme Court decision that one cannot be fired for their sexual orientation. That means many of you readers will agree, and others may strongly disagree with my conclusions. The church I grew up in is fracturing over these issues. I don’t claim to know any more than anyone else. I have done what my English teacher taught us, write what you know; and that some best stories are about a hero’s journey. I’m no hero, but I am telling the story of what I know, my journey, not to convince you of anything except to take a journey of your own. Maybe we will end up in the same place; perhaps we won’t.
I learned a lot from that Senior English teacher who I now understand was also gay. He lived by the Golden Rule and treated me with respect and dignity even when it was not earned. Though the court did not directly order this, students in our schools deserve to be taught with the same dignity and respect that the Supreme Court ordered for our staff and that we want for ourselves.