The issue of gay marriage leads a bully to introspection and empathy.
Robinson Insider is a Facebook group for my hometown: Robinson, Illinois (population 6,600). The moderators require its members to be eighteen years old or older, and members must be approved in order to join. Many past and present residents of Robinson use the page as a source of news about the town. The discussions on Robinson Insider usually range from the weather and mushroom hunting season to 911 scanner activity. There are often posts asking for prayers from fellow citizens for crises and illness.
I left Robinson in 1986. Sadly, my memories of living there are tarnished by harassment over my sexuality. I’ve lived comfortably in Seattle for over twenty years, but still take some interest in my roots. Even so, once I scattered my parent’s ashes in 2006, the reasons to return to my hometown became few.
Now an outsider, I noticed that Robinson Insider occasionally turns into a very angry soap box that can get out of hand. The forum had an intense discussion about gay rights back in February. Most of the posts were anti-gay:
“…Homosexuality is a lifestyle choice. I find it interesting that so many LGBT people are tolerant unless it is someone with a different opinion. It’s not ignorance, it is a personal preference to not accept gay people. I don’t judge them, but God certainly will!”
I had never posted anything on the page. But as this topic was close to my heart. I wasn’t afraid to voice my opinion:
“…at some point it will be illegal in the entire country to discriminate against people because of their sexual preference. It already is illegal in many states and cities. People need to learn to get along with gay people just like they have to get along with other minorities. You don’t have to like them, but you do need to keep your hateful opinions to yourself because expressing them damages the self-esteem of minority youth, and almost always leads to a negative outcome or violence like a school shooting. In other words, hate breeds hate.”
It was perhaps not the best time to be standing up for gay rights on Robinson Insider. What I didn’t realize as I sat comfortably on the West Coast was that Illinois Senator Heather Sterns had recently presented a same-sex marriage bill, and the senate had just voted 34-21 in favor. Governor Pat Quinn said he would sign it into law if it passed the house. It looked like Illinois would join the growing list of states that recognized gay marriage. The thought that gay couples could conceivably be legally married in Robinson probably rattled a few locals.
A couple of days after the debate, I got the shock of my life. A classmate of mine named Zack from Robinson High School sent me a suspiciously short message on Facebook:
“Good job on Robinson Insider yesterday.”
His message came with a Facebook friend request.
Zack was the worst of my bullies. When we were in the seventh grade, he threw me up against a wall and tried to choke me (a teacher walking by did nothing to stop the incident). As a sophomore, he sat next to me in sixth period science class and told me that I should kill myself because I was gay. On several occasions he stated that nobody would care if I died. The abuse from Zack and other classmates was a daily ritual.
I was worried Zack was trying to play some sort of sick joke on me through Facebook. It was inconceivable to think that someone so filled with hate could have changed. With the sting of the gay rights debate still fresh on my mind, his private message confused and frustrated me. I assumed he grew up to be just like the bigots I tangled with on Robinson Insider a few days prior.
I skeptically composed a message to Zack thanking him for his support. Yet after three decades, I struggled to figure out what else to say. I was no longer afraid of him. I didn’t feel like I needed an apology. But I decided to challenge his “friend request”. I wrote a list of ten incidents of his abuse towards me and asked him if he remembered them. I got a lengthy response from Zack the next morning:
“…I kind of remember calling you names, but I was so ignorant that I don’t remember any malicious or hateful intent. It sickens me to think that I could have been so cruel to you. It’s amazing how powerful words can be.
Your message to me and all the things you said on the Insider got me thinking a lot. Back in high school in the early 80’s, I had no idea what it meant to be gay. I have said for years it would be very difficult even now to grow up gay in a small town like Robinson. I wish I had half the courage you have to stand up and speak out like you did.
…I also wanted to let you know that I feel very strongly about same sex marriage and am proud that you stood up for what you believe in. I’m married and I love my wife. I can’t imagine not being able to marry her.
Please accept my most sincere apology for any harm I might have caused. I consider myself more than just tolerant and open minded. I’m eager and willing to make amends.”
I believed he was sincere and accepted his Facebook friend request. It was a much better feeling to have him as a Facebook friend than to harbor bitter memories from thirty years ago. I felt satisfied and I hope he did, too.
There’s now a Facebook page for the Robinson High School Class of 1983 Reunion. I’ve never been to any of my class reunions. This time, thanks to Facebook and all the new (old) friends I’ve made, I plan to attend. Despite the riff on Robinson Insider, I’m told that my hometown isn’t as homophobic as it used to be. Perhaps Zack is the measure of that.
I hope to see my other gay classmates and their spouses at the reunion.
Photo by Joe Shlabotnik