Editor's note: This was a column written last year before the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage in the U.S.
Any day now, the Supreme Court will issue a decision on same-sex marriage that will directly affect millions of Americans. It comes at a time of growing public acceptance and support for equal rights. But no matter what the Court does, issues of equality are hardly settled across the country. Today it remains legal in most parts of Indiana (though not South Bend) to fire someone simply for being gay, and bullying still contributes to tragically high suicide rates among LGBT teens.
Still, our country is headed in a clear overall direction, and swiftly. Today 57 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage; just 15 years ago, the reverse was true.
Experiences with friends or family members coming out have helped millions of Americans to see past stereotypes and better understand what being gay is — and is not. Being gay isn’t something you choose, but you do face choices about whether and how to discuss it. For most of our history, most Americans had no idea how many people they knew and cared about were gay.
My high school in South Bend had nearly a thousand students. Statistically, that means that several dozen were gay or lesbian. Yet when I graduated in 2000, I had yet to encounter a single openly LGBT student there. That’s far less likely to be the case now, as more students come to feel that their families and community will support and care for them no matter what. This is a tremendously positive development: young people who feel support and acceptance will be less likely to harm themselves, and more likely to step into adulthood with mature self-knowledge.
I was well into adulthood before I was prepared to acknowledge the simple fact that I am gay. It took years of struggle and growth for me to recognize that it’s just a fact of life, like having brown hair, and part of who I am.
Putting something this personal on the pages of a newspaper does not come easy. We Midwesterners are instinctively private to begin with, and I’m not used to viewing this as anyone else’s business.
But it’s clear to me that at a moment like this, being more open about it could do some good. For a local student struggling with her sexuality, it might be helpful for an openly gay mayor to send the message that her community will always have a place for her. And for a conservative resident from a different generation, whose unease with social change is partly rooted in the impression that he doesn’t know anyone gay, perhaps a familiar face can be a reminder that we’re all in this together as a community.
Whenever I’ve come out to friends and family, they’ve made clear that they view this as just a part of who I am. Their response makes it possible to feel judged not by sexual orientation but by the things that we ought to care about most, like the content of our character and the value of our contributions.
Being gay has had no bearing on my job performance in business, in the military, or in my current role as mayor. It makes me no better or worse at handling a spreadsheet, a rifle, a committee meeting, or a hiring decision. It doesn’t change how residents can best judge my effectiveness in serving our city: by the progress of our neighborhoods, our economy, and our city services.
We’re moving closer to a world in which acceptance is the norm. This kind of social change, considered old news in some parts of the country, is still often divisive around here. But it doesn’t have to be. We’re all finding our way forward, and things will go better if we can manage to do it together. In the wake of the disastrous “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” episode here in Indiana earlier this year, we have an opportunity to demonstrate how a traditional, religious state like ours can move forward. If different sides steer clear of name-calling and fear-mongering, we can navigate these issues based on what is best about Indiana: values like respect, decency, and support for families — all families.
Like most people, I would like to get married one day and eventually raise a family. I hope that when my children are old enough to understand politics, they will be puzzled that someone like me revealing he is gay was ever considered to be newsworthy. By then, all the relevant laws and court decisions will be seen as steps along the path to equality. But the true compass that will have guided us there will be the basic regard and concern that we have for one another as fellow human beings — based not on categories of politics, orientation, background, status or creed, but on our shared knowledge that the greatest thing any of us has to offer is love.