Thirty-one years ago, when I was fourteen years old and living in Forest Hills, New York, I had an experience that would forever change the way I think about the basic decency of people.
It was a tough year. It was the Summer of Sam, and his hunting ground was my backyard.
My parents were fighting constantly, and I knew that they would eventually divorce (they did, a year later). The friends I had grown up with split off into cliques, and one of them -- with whom I took every class -- decided that I was no longer worthy of their friendship. They never taped a sign to my back that said "kick me," but they might as well have, and I don't really know why.
But beyond all this--beyond Son of Sam, and the death of Elvis, and the heat waves and the garbage strikes and the blackout and the divorce--beyond all this, I had to cope with the fact that I was beginning to feel a lot different than my friends. Again, I really didn't know why.
I never thought that it was a particularly obvious difference. Until one day, while I was sitting in class with my former friends behind me making some sort of snarky joke at my expense, my math teacher (not her real subject), Mrs. Epstein (not her real name), wanted to know if it was true. If I was gay. When I didn't respond--when I just wanted to put my head down on the desk and make believe I wasn't there--Mrs. Epstein looked past me, and asked the rest of the class. Again.
It was, in retrospect, preposterous. I was fourteen years old, and I had no words for what I was starting to sense about myself. But in fact, it was not preposterous. It was my young life that she was talking about. Mrs. Epstein, standing in front of me, with her crazy Janis Ian hair and her John Lennon glasses and bell bottoms and cowl neck sweaters, had painted a scarlet letter on me. The target practice that my former friends had used me for would be a little bit sharper: they now had something definite to aim for, because it was sanctioned by an adult who happened to be their teacher, and an authority figure.
Over the years, I have thought a lot about Mrs. Epstein, and the fact that I had to sit in her class every day, day after day, for an entire school year. But ultimately, she was right: after dating men and even being briefly engaged at one point, I realized that I couldn't try to be something I wasn't, anymore than I could try to be tall and skinny, or to have green eyes.
I could no longer try to be a straight woman, when I was not one, whatever the consequences.
So today, with the overturning of the ban on gay marriage in my state of Connecticut, I found myself thinking about small-minded, mean-edged bigots in positions of authority, and how, when "different" kids are left in their care, they can make their intolerance somehow "official" and actually incite the cruel bullying of the young people that our taxdollars pay them to care for and instruct.
Certainly, and thankfully, we are living in a vastly different world than we were back then in 1977, when I was a fourteen year old girl in Mrs. Epstein's class. As a forty five year old woman in a settled, committed relationship, I would love to have a chat with her now to ask what she says to and about young people in her class whom she suspects might be gay. Maybe she's grown wiser over time. Maybe she understands that it is simply a civil rights issue. And even if she doesn't approve, perhaps she's more tolerant, like Sarah Palin.
As for me, when I stand up before the justice of the peace; when I hear the absolutely unthinkable--my name and the word "marriage" used in the same sentence; when I look into the eyes of the woman I love, and can safely demand and expect the same rights accorded to every tax-paying citizen of this country whether I am liked or I am not; I'll be thinking of 1977, and Mrs. Epstein, and I'll likely weep for joy, but also for that young, frightened woman she taunted, who never thought that she would ever be deserving of marriage.