Our nephew, and his fiancée, judge the kindness and character of a person, based upon whether they return their empty grocery cart to the store/assigned area, or leave it sitting in the middle of the parking lot.

I was impressed that two 30-year-olds created their own criteria to observe and discuss the benevolence of others. “The Grocery Cart Test.”

“What’s the kindest thing you’ve ever done?” my friend, Alan, asked me over coffee at Stork’s, as I discussed with him an idea for a new book.

My mind immediately went to the most amount of money I had spent on another person, but that was more about generosity, although kindness was involved.

Probably the best example of true kindness would be picking up someone else’s dog poop in the dark, with no expectation of acknowledgment. True kindness, for me, is doing the right thing when I don’t feel like doing it. My friend’s favorite memory of kindness was driving teenage strangers three hours to their destination because he overheard them saying they missed their train, and didn’t have money to stay overnight.

“Did you enjoy it?” I asked. He smiled, and said, “Yes.” I believe kindness is its own reward. Even in bagging someone else’s dog poop, I feel good knowing no one will accidentally step in it. I like the feeling of making life better for others. There are abundant ways to do so daily, including saying “please” and “thank you,” not honking, wishing strangers “happy birthday,” checking in on a friend, dropping off canned goods at a food pantry, picking up litter, etc. Our next-door neighbor blows off our driveway when Ray and I are in bed at night. We bring each other soup, cupcakes, and cookies.

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the components of my success in creating allies out of heterosexual people over the past 47 years. When I began my work as an educator on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer issues, we just called it “gay issues,” and most straight people had never met an openly gay person. I now realize that I had a lot going for me, including self-esteem, self-confidence, shared faith and values, an outgoing personality, a significant knowledge of sexuality and religious beliefs, and a good sense of humor. I was articulate and not unattractive. But, my most effective tool, I believe, was my kindness. Most of us are disarmed by the kindness of others. It’s the bridge that allows people to cross over their fears of the unknown.

What is kindness? Is it innate or learned? Why are some siblings kinder than others? Are some groups of people more likely to be kind, women over men, gay over straight, American over British? My friend at Stork’s thought that people who are secure in themselves are more likely to be kind, which makes sense, but isn’t the opposite possible too? Aren’t some insecure people super kind in the hope of being accepted and esteemed?

I choose my friends by their kindness. If I witness someone being rude or condescending to service personnel, gossipy about others, dismissive of pets and children, or litterbugs, they aren’t people I want in my life. My first live-in boyfriend was an Episcopal priest, so I assumed he was kind-hearted, but I left him because he was a bully; emotionally abusive to me and to others.

True kindness involves thoughtfulness and generosity, without expectation of reward, or acknowledgement. It can be kind to open the door for the stranger coming your way, or from behind you, or it can be a set-up for resentment and hostility. If we feel obliged to be kind, as happens with some cultures, the courtesy they show can feel hollow, and even hypocritical. So, kindness needs to be genuine, from the heart, and without ulterior motive.

As a group, I find lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people to be kind, and my expectation is that they will be. I coincidentally received this morning a Facebook message from an Italian friend that read, “Dear Gay Men, please stop being so much kinder, funnier, and more attractive than straight men. It’s depressing.’ Signed, ‘All Single Women.’” So, it’s not just me who suspects that the kindest boys in grade school were closeted gay kids.

The flip side of that is the hurt of my unmet expectations. I’m often very disappointed by the lack of empathy, understanding, and benevolence found in some members of my community. I am embarrassed by the bad behavior of some LGBT people, especially of some gay men. But, the fact that we, as a community, keep adding letters to the acronym of our public identity impresses me. Gay men in leadership positions were very quick to affirm that lesbians needed their own designation, and that the “L” needed to precede the “G” to better highlight the importance of feminist issues. Both the “G”s and the “L”s embraced bisexuality as an important distinction, so the “B” was added, and though the basis of discrimination seemed different, the plight of transgender people, more often straight than gay, was brought into the fold with the addition of the letter “T.”

People in my Baby Boomer generation grew up with the word “queer” being the most commonly used put-down for being homosexual. We were terrified of being labeled as such, but when young gay people said they preferred the term “queer,” the leaders of our community added the “Q” to the mix. It’s kindness, not political expediency, that motivates these efforts. The addition of the “T” to legislation in Congress is what has held up protections for gay people against discrimination in employment and housing. The empathy-based principles of our community’s leadership please me greatly.

It would be unkind of me not to include mention of the “Q” for those in the process of questioning their sexual attractions and gender identity, the “I” for intersex, the “A” for asexual, and the whole issue of people who are non-binary or gender-queer. It would also be unkind of me not to say that the coupling of all of these issues of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and biological sex overwhelm heterosexual, cis-gender people, as well as many who are gay, bisexual, and transgender.  

Being aware of that confusion, not hostility, and acknowledging it out loud, is what helped me be successful as an educator on LGBT issues.

Being kind requires patience with oneself and with others. It requires love for oneself and for others. It helps if you genuinely like other human beings, unlike the “Peanuts” character, Lucy, who loves mankind but doesn’t like people.

In this fractured, uncivil culture of ours, kindness requires forgiveness, as well as the benefit of the doubt. When we find the empty grocery cart in the middle of the parking space that we’re trying to enter, we can immediately get angry at the selfish person who we imagine left it there, or we can accept the possibility that the cart is there because the mother of three small children who unloaded her groceries and her family into the car, placed it safely out of the way, and it rolled out after she drove off. I can pick up someone else’s dog poop with indignation, or I can allow for the possibility that the dog owner was mortified to realize that for the first time ever, they left home without a plastic bag.

That happened to me the other night. I was about to beat myself up for leaving home without a poop bag. Instead, with kindness to myself, I breathed slowly and deeply, forgave myself, and used my handkerchief to clean up after Lincoln. In answer to my friend’s question, maybe my greatest act of kindness has been to laugh with myself at my imperfections. Doing so makes it easier for me to build bridges to the imperfections of others.

Two Guys and A Dog is a semi-regular column from Brian McNaught, who has been a leading educator on LGBTQ issues globally since 1974. Visit Brian-McNaught.com to access his books and DVDs for free. “No one has done a better job of chronicling what it is like to be gay in America.” –  Former U.S. Congressman Barney Frank.