I used to hate gay people, for no other reason than they were gay. If you’d asked me, I would’ve told you, “No way, I don’t hate anyone! I don’t hate gay people. I just hate their sin.” I would have mentioned the three gay people I knew and called them my friends, offering this as proof against what I saw as an accusation against my character. I didn’t think I was intolerant. I believed that someone who was gay was just choosing to live a life in rebellion to the natural order of things. I didn’t think they were evil. I just thought they were wrong, and that I was the only one who knew what right was supposed to be. I believed that right was what I knew, and wrong was what they were. I think a lot of times, hatred is caused by fear. In my case, this was exactly the issue. I was afraid of anyone who fit the category of “homosexual,” because I was raised to be afraid of anything that was outside of the strict parameters of my versions of right and wrong.
There are a lot of reasons why someone can feel this way. In my case, I was raised in a very conservative church environment. Towards my high school years, things got even stricter with a change of leadership, and I was taught that AIDs was God’s punishment for gay people, that anyone who claimed to have been born gay was lying, and that possibly, demon possession was responsible for it. I know, I know. It sounds laughable to list those things. What person with the capacity to reason believes that, just because someone in an authority position tells them that? But the truth is, there’s a lot of people who believe it because someone else told it to them. It wasn’t just my small church, with its angry preacher. There’s a lot of places that teach this.
I don’t want to excuse my words or actions from the time when I believed this. I just want to explain where I came from, and how I got to where I am now. I was homeschooled, which means my parents controlled every influence over my mind and my upbringing. It was intended that their beliefs would automatically become mine. The idea behind homeschooling, in the circle I came from, was that “The World” was evil and out to corrupt us, and the only way to prevent that was to raise kids in a sheltered version of reality. My only social exposure was in environments my parents had selected for us due to compatibility of beliefs. And if I had to do something with non-Christian kids, such as soccer teams, my parents would coach so that I would still have their guidance. This led to an upbringing in which thinking outside of the box was discouraged, and even punished, and where every single belief I was taught was sacrosant. There were no other religions – there was no other way or interpretation or compass of right or wrong. Everyone one else was gravely mistaken, and also, they were all going to hell. Any questions or thoughts I had to the contrary were systematically crushed. This became increasingly difficult for my parents to manage once circumstances changed and they could no longer to afford to keep me at home, and I entered public school at the age of fourteen.
In high school, when a friend of mine said to me in class, “You know I’m gay, right?” I said, “No, I didn’t know that,” and smiled. Internally, though, I was freaking out. I knew many gay people, by that point – but this was the first time I’d become friends with someone with no preconceived idea of what their sexuality meant. They were just my friend, someone who made me laugh, and I was shocked to discover that here I’d befriended someone who was gay without even knowing it. They were supposed to morally decayed, soulless, dark and evil. This friend was none of those things. They had a shining heart and a wonderful smile, and with that revelation, they began to shatter everything I’d ever been taught to believe in about what it means to be gay.
I was raised to believe that a gay person was something other than myself – something different and slightly less human. And when I was confronted with the reality of a person who I got to know as just that – a person, before I knew they were gay – it shook my belief about the inherent wrongness of loving the same gender. In the years afterwards, I had several close friends come out as gay. Their stories were filled with recounting years of hating themselves because they went to my church, and they had been taught the same things I had about what it was to be gay. They’d heard the pastor preach that to be gay meant that God hated you - that being gay was the worst sin of all. And when my friends came out, they told me how long they’d tried to change, how they’d wanted to die because they knew they couldn’t.
They were the bravest people I knew. They faced a lot of people saying a lot of terrible things about them. They lost friends, they were disowned by family members, and that was when I realized – this wasn’t a choice. No one would make this choice if they had any other means of going about their life. And when I watched my friends form lasting, supportive relationships, I realized that it wasn’t about being right or being wrong. It was about being happy.
This isn’t to say that I changed overnight. It took me years of examination, of confronting my belief system, of challenging myself when I was uncomfortable. I didn’t go from being afraid of what was different than me to championing equality in one weekend. It was hard, and relearning my inbred reactions to it was hard. But as I’ve said before, I firmly believe that once someone you love comes out as gay (or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgender), that’s the moment that changes everything. Because then you have to face a choice – holding on to a belief system of hatred towards the other, or embracing that which makes you uncomfortable in order to be able to support someone’s right to love and be loved.