I grew up in a town of about 3,500 people in rural South Carolina. Actually, I didn't even grow up in town; our house was in the countryside about a 20-minute drive from anything resembling civilization. There was one grocery store and no movie theater. There were two traffic lights, and as I recall one of them just blinked yellow all day.
I didn't know any gay people there in Bishopville, but I knew there was something different about me. It wouldn't be until I was in high school that I began to figure out what was going on inside me and put a name to it. It would be years later before I was able to say the words out loud -- "I am a gay man" -- and take the necessary steps to live an authentic life.
That was 2001, and things were different then. In making the decision to live a life that reflected who I really was, I believed I had to accept a few basic things -- among them, I would never be able to get married, never be able to have children, and never be accepted fully in the same way I would have been had I lived the lie I was perpetuating. Of course, now I know better.
This week, NPR host Terry Gross got into a heated exchange with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that has been characterized by many in the media as Clinton being pressed on the issue of gay marriage and refusing to answer the question after repeated tries by the host. But the fact is, she answered it the first time it was asked -- and she answered it in a way that reflects how most Americans got to the place where we now find them, believing that marriage is a foundational human right of our democracy.
Clinton said quite forthrightly that she has evolved on this issue, and it caused me to reflect on how my own evolution occurred on marriage. Indeed, it was not a given for me. For a number of years -- even after coming out -- I did not embrace the notion that marriage was an important issue for the gay community. The homophobia and "otherness" that permeated the culture in which I grew up was so pervasive and so deep that I'm not sure I believed I deserved to have these things -- that marriage and family were privileges reserved for "normal" Americans, but not for me.
Thankfully, there were pioneers already working to ensure equality for me and millions of others. Eventually, as I came to a better understanding of myself and what it means, and does not mean, to be gay, I came to understand marriage as an American value -- an institution I should be able to access just as much as anyone else in this country.
The problem with Gross' interrogation of Clinton was not that she was trying to press the former secretary to pinpoint the date of her evolution. It's that she was trying to get Clinton to admit that she had always believed gay Americans should be able to be married but had kept her mouth shut for fear that she was outside the mainstream of electoral politics. That line of questioning did not ring true for me, because my own evolution was a difficult one. How much more difficult must it have been for someone like Clinton, who came of age three decades earlier in a much more hostile time in the fight for LGBT equality, to evolve to a place of acceptance and inclusion?
None of us knows if Clinton will run for president in 2016. But if she does, let's put this issue to rest. Hillary Clinton supports the freedom to marry. And while she has not always supported it, that puts her in no different category than President Obama or any number of other high-profile Americans who have come to understand marriage as a fundamental right. It also puts her in the same category as me.