It is fascinating to me how social awareness often percolates below the surface in our American culture and then finally bursts forth in full view–bringing with it people who were once in denial or in steadfast opposition. Such is the case, it seems, with the Marriage Equality movement. The majority of Americans now agree that to deny gay people the right to marry is not in the spirit of our democracy, our sense of fairness, or morally defensible. It has taken a long time to arrive.
Many of us who are straight have been on a long journey to come to this conclusion. As it is with most breakthroughs, it comes with confronting one’s own backward biases and growing through it. Looking at your upbringing is where this process begins.
I grew up in a very conservative family in the South. My father, an aeronautical engineer, worked with the Navy on military aircraft. They were segregationist, homophobic, and Catholic. Having said that, they were also wonderful parents who encouraged debate and intellectual growth. Being the kind of child who observed the inequities of my region, there was constant confrontation going on in our family and I was always by myself when it came to social justice. The gay issue, however, took a long time for me to wrap my head around. It started in college when seeing openly gay people holding hands. I had also met a black man and we became friends. In the process of explaining what it was like being black in a white society, he also explained what it was like being gay in the black culture. He had been completely disowned by his religiously conservative parents when he came out, and I felt terrible for him. Later, I became good friends with a journalist whose writing inspired me, and I invited myself over to his house one day where I met his roommates. Only then did I learn that he and his friends were gay. We stayed up late that night discussing politics, philosophy, religion, music, science and anything that mattered to us. I thought it was tragic that they were the objects of ridicule by the straight world and I was proud that he trusted me.
My exposure to the lesbian world came later. I was living in New York City and I had earlier become a big fan of Holly Near, a singer of political protest songs. I learned she was having a concert at NYU and I made sure to see it. Unknown to me, she had come out and the audience was almost entirely women. Her older sister was a ‘signer’ and signed Holly’s songs to the audience. I was overwhelmed by the love, beauty and sisterhood of that evening. I made a point of meeting Holly that night and told her I was a longtime fan. She told me that she was pleased that I had stayed a fan. She had lost many.
When I finally got my first job as a cartoonist, I remembered all of these people and the struggles they faced. I joined with them in helping bring awareness of the ugliness of homophobia. Those earlier cartoons grew from fighting for gays in the military to marriage equality today. It is all part of us growing as human beings. It is not always easy, but it is very rewarding.
When someone is not free, no one is free. As a dear friend told me recently with such eloquence, it’s all the same love.