I recently had occasion to visit my state’s capital building. As I walked through those halls, with their pillars and arches, two thoughts burned themselves into my brain. First, the capital building seems smaller than it did the last time I was here, ten years ago. Second, I am sorry, so very sorry.
Ten years ago I was a teenager, still in high school. Did I know what I was doing?
We got up early that morning, that day ten years ago, and piled into our fifteen passenger van. My dad, five or six of my siblings, some extra friends, and me. My mom stayed home with the youngest ones. The capital building was crowded when we arrived, and we quickly added our own number to the throng.
We found a spot on the balcony on the third level where we could see, then looked around at those crowded in next to us and down on the atrium below. Some kids were in school uniforms, and others were clearly homeschoolers like us. It was a weekday, after all. Many of those around us held signs or banners of various kinds.
Down below we watched.
After a bit, the center of the atrium opened and a series of speakers came forward. They told us that marriage had always been between a man and a woman. They told us that our society was built on traditional marriage, and would collapse without it. The told us that adding an amendment to our state constitution defining marriage was imperative. The crowd around me went wild as people shook their signs and cheered. I cheered too. The air was electric. There were Bible verses and prayers. There was talk of out nation’s Christian future. There were more prayers and shouts of “amen.” The atmosphere was one of a church service or a revival meeting.
Afterward, we walked out of the capital building, and there, on the lawn, I spoke with reporters. I think the idea was to give them the youth perspective. I told them what I’d been prepped to tell them—but it’s not like I didn’t actually believe it myself. I talked about marriage and family and procreation. I tried to look mature and confident. I wanted to impress the reporter with my thorough understanding of the issue. I wonder, now, what they thought of me.
Today I question whether I had any idea what I was talking about. I certainly thought I did. But at that time I had never, to my knowledge, met a gay person. I had never, to my knowledge, met someone who was lesbian to bisexual or transgender or simply queer. I was homeschooled and my community consisted of church and other Christian homeschoolers. How could I understand the issue having never had any exposure to the other side?
Since that day ten years ago many things have happened. I’ve had a friend come out as bisexual and then as gay. I’ve talked with a lesbian friend about the risk of crossing state lines with a child whose adoption is not recognized in many states. I’ve listened to a gay coworker describe his adolescent suicide attempt. I’ve been there to help a friend support her spouse coming as transgender and transitioning to life as a woman. I’ve listened to gay friends discuss the significance of which state they live in after grad school to their plans for adding children to their family someday. I’ve watched a gay colleague follow each election to see what new states he can add to his list of places he can move to after grad school.
Last year I attended a marriage equality rally for the first time. I proudly held a rainbow flag and cheered as the speakers called for equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression. I cried as I stood there, surrounded by gay couples with children and other straight allies and supporters. I cried because I wondered if maybe, in some small way, I was making up for what I’d done before.
But I also know that I do bear responsibility for my activism as a teen. I know that LGBTQ members of my state community are hurt by such blatant displays of bigotry. Yes, bigotry. And I was there, I participated, I cheered. I knew there were people on the other side. I didn’t know them, and I’d been taught lies about them, but I knew they were there. I shouldn’t have been so unquestioningly accepting of my parents’ prejudices.
I sought to restrict the rights of those I had never met. I did that. Me. And so, as I stood there in the capital building recently, looking up at the balconies and the vaulted ceiling and remembering, all I could think was I’m sorry.