This one feels good.
As someone who attended school and lived in North Carolina for a total of six years, today's announcement striking down the state's gay marriage ban helped bring about an overwhelming sense of joy. For the first time in a long time, I actually felt a glimmer of hope in today's gridlocked, antagonistic, and often compassionless political landscape. As I sit back and appreciate what will surely be a fleeting moment of euphoria, I can't help but think how my time in the Tar Heel state helped make me who I am today.
I came from an apolitical New Hampshire family. My father was a Reagan-era conservative who voted for both Bushes. My mother was the more liberal of the two but she was was never into politics, going so far as to giving yours truly her vote in the presidential primaries. Like most parents of millennials, they both simply didn't understand what it meant for someone to be gay. For my mom, it was a relief when I watched Britney Spears music videos in middle school because "it meant I wasn't gay." For my dad, it was established that if I "ever turned gay I'd get thrown out of the house." My parents aren't bigots, but unfortunately like many parents of their era, they were simply uneducated when it came to this particular issue.
Growing up in my suburban high school, there were only a handful of students who were openly gay. Unfortunately, that this was fifteen years ago and there still existed a strong homophobic culture in schools. In terms of my graduating class, I remember when had one openly gay male cheerleader and one brilliant student who graduated in the top-ten of our class and ended up going to Stanford. For myself, besides having an occasional class with these gay students, I hardly interacted with them and didn't have any close gay friends for the first eighteen years of my life. It was not until college that I first became exposed to both gay culture and openly gay individuals.
I ended up going to Wake Forest University, a small liberal arts college in North Carolina. I entered my freshman year not knowing a single person on campus, so I was fortunate that I had a chance to meet people from different backgrounds, beliefs, and ethnicities. My freshman year during fall break, I hopped on a Greyhound Bus to visit a friend in Washington, D.C. This friend was someone I had worked with for four summers in Maine, so it was a good chance to visit with him and he was kind enough to let me crash at his apartment for a night while I was in the city. We went out to one of his friend's homes for a house party that night and the next day he dropped me off near the Kennedy Center so I could meet up with another friend in the city.
Two months later, as I was home for the holidays, I told another one of my camp friends about my trip to D.C. He remarked how cool it was that I went and that he had no idea that our D.C. friend was gay until recently. I did a double take. What do you mean he's gay? My friend told me that our D.C. friend was gay and was honestly surprised I had no idea. It honestly had never even occurred to me that he was gay. He didn't exhibit any gay "stereotypes" and I just assumed that like myself, he was just going through a temporarily unsuccessful phase with women. As I began to consider this idea, what stood out to me is that my D.C. friend was still the same person I had known for four years and that as "different" as it still was for someone like him to be gay, it wasn't something that I felt could and should have any affect on our friendship.
Throughout the next four years at my small, liberal arts school, I ended up interacting with several gay men and women, a lot of whom I met through my fraternity of all places. In contrast to the traditional view people have of Greek life, I found that the organization I was a part of was extremely welcoming of not only gay visitors to our festivities but also in the membership of the gay brothers themselves. We prided ourselves in the chapter motto of "Style varies, quality doesn't." By the time of my graduation, I found myself becoming a strong proponent of marriage equality and it is because of Brokeback Mountain not winning the 2006 Academy Award for best picture that I have refused to watch the Oscars to this day.
While a student, I was fortunate to have a remarkable academic adviser in the area of social studies education. My adviser not only cared about preparing me for a career in the teaching field, but he also cared about who I was as a person. Throughout my time in the program, he would bring us in food for class and would open up his home to us during the holidays. After graduation when I chose to stay in the same city to begin my teaching career, my adviser expressed his desire to keep in touch with me and he would invite myself and another first-year teacher from our program to his home for monthly outdoor moving screenings. It was at one of those screenings where he superimposed the name of himself and his partner of the screen as a way to introduce the feature film. When asked who this person was, my teaching friend informed me that this was our adviser's partner. Once again, I ended up having a good friend whom I had no idea was gay.
Over the next two years, I would talk to my adviser a lot about equality issues. Even after I left the state to pursue teaching in California, I would still converse with him about what it meant to be a gay man in the south. For him, the biggest concern was always the legal rights he was being denied. My adviser ending up leaving teaching to become an educational consultant and he would often travel to advise schools and school districts in the surrounding states. He knew that if anything ever happened to him on the road, his partner would have no legal right to come visit him in his time of need. Hearing him speak of this, and seeing how North Carolina codified hate in 2012 by passing Amendment 1 which made it unconstitutional for the state to recognize same-sex marriages, only further drove me into the marriage equality corner, where I remain to this day.
All this is why today's announcement meant so much to me. Because I have seen marriage equality denied to a loving couple that I personally consider dear friends. Because marriage equality, rights, and an overall peace of mind have been denied to thousands of couples like them throughout the state. Because children in schools are still bullied, criticized, and ostracized because they are different. Because people have been yelled at, spat at, shoved, pushed, kicked or even killed for being who they are.
Today's ruling doesn't solve everything overnight. The religious reich will surely raise hell. The state's Tea Party government will surely issue a statement. Thom Tillis will surely send out a fundraising email this evening vowing to "defend the sanctity of marriage" or something along those lines. Yet, something is now a reality that I would have never envisioned when I first entered the state for my first semester in the fall of 2003 nor when the state passed Amendment 1 in the fall of 2012. That something is the fact that the state of North Carolina now has marriage equality.
As much as you would expect those affected by the ruling to be wildly celebrating, that is not the case. In touching base with my adviser this evening, he remarked that he was excited that now all the gays in North Carolina could marry their dogs (he has a delicious sense of humor). On a serious note, he was genuinely excited about the ruling but he did not feel the need to excessively celebrate the occasion. Instead, he planned on staying in for the evening to have a nice, relaxing evening with his partner, whom he has been with for seven years. When it comes down to it, it sounds like a pretty typical Friday night for any couple that has been together for seven years.
Only now, the state of North Carolina can no longer deny this couple equal rights.