It'd be an understatement to say that I have a bad case of wanderlust. I'd lived in New Zealand, Chicago, Toronto and New York City by the age of 25 -- never mind vacations. But as my aunt points out whenever the subject of my residence is breached, New Richmond, Ohio is my home. It's where I was raised. It's also where I visit a few times a year when weddings, funerals, graduations and holidays take their turn in the calendar of life.
And just as I continue to grow and change, home does too. You wouldn't know it to look at it. There are mostly the same shops, the houses and the same faces, give or take a wrinkle or two. It's different for me, though. The time I spent growing up there was turbulent at times. I was young, emotional, ambitious and stubborn. I didn't have the patience to accept others for who they were, mostly because I didn't think others had the patience to accept me for who I was. There were the usual challenges a young gay man faces before coming out, and I don't mean for my brevity to belittle them. They're brutal. But this isn't a coming out story. This is a coming home story.
I walked into a local bar on Friday, November 27th. I should probably say the local bar, since there isn't much in the way of options for a drink in my hometown. I was with my brother and an old friend and we were greeted by some of the faces that once shared the halls of our high school -- people I have known for years, if not decades, but have never been especially close with. If this were a movie, it would be the scene where the gay boy from Manhattan arrives wearing all black, the bar falls silent and the audience cringes.
That's not this story though. I was welcomed with, "It's good to see you." "You look great!" "Can I buy you a beer?" It feels like home. It feels good. And if you described this scene to me when I still lived there, I wouldn't have believed it.
How does this happen? How does a teenager who's too terrified to identify his sexuality as simply as he might identify his height or hair color become a 26-year-old who runs a website for coming out stories, lives in Manhattan and is welcomed home with beer? The key, in my opinion, is familiarity. Once people realized that my sexuality is just a small part of my identity, and that I should be judged on my actions, thoughts, aspirations and beliefs, I was once again familiar. The same. Human.
There aren't a lot openly LGBT folks where I'm from. Residents who live there and have beliefs that don't favor equal rights have the ability to form those opinions without having to look at a gay neighbor every day or bring their children to the classroom of a lesbian teacher. The same is true, largely, of people of color and other nationalities. And these sorts of bubbles are not unique to small towns in the American Midwest and South. They happen everywhere. We live in a highly segmented society, mostly of our own volition, because we seek some sense of normalcy in our lives.
And this, I think, is the crux of the issues we face as a culture and, perhaps, as a species. The issues I faced as a young gay male in New Richmond were very different than those faced by a young black boy in Ferguson today, but they both stem from a lack of familiarity. If my visits home have taught me anything, it's that people can surprise you. People are capable of kindness you may never have thought possible, but only if given the opportunity. Only if faced with the humanity of the policies we argue about in the news and online. Your uncle who thinks Donald Trump is a good candidate because he wants to keep out those Syrian refugees? He probably doesn't know any Syrians or refugees. Your cousin's date who postulates that police violence against black people is probably warranted assuredly doesn't have any black friends with graduate degrees who have been abused by a cop, despite being innocent.
The answer to these problems is familiarity. It is understanding. It is empathy. And though I am just one voice among many, I hope reading this will help you to be part of the solution. ComingOut.Space is a website I built with friends to act as a resource for the LGBT community, our friends and our family. There you can share your own story, read those of others, and help me build a world where sexual identity is nothing more than a trait we might identify like our height or the color of our hair.