The small town where I grew up was—and still is—an anomaly, even in the surrounding county. Though not everyone looked the same, everyone looked the same. Some of us had blonde hair and blue eyes, some brown hair and green eyes, some black hair and brown eyes. But all of us shared the same small range of skin tones, and at the time I graduated from the local high school, not a single African-American had ever attended the school.
The nearest Catholic church is still twelve miles away, in a town that also has some African-American residents. The nearest synagogue is over 30 miles away. White and Protestant throughout my childhood, my hometown remains so to the present day. And yet that town has the same issues that face the rest of the country—unemployment, poverty, and drug addiction that is so pervasive it has become the subject of a documentary chosen to premiere at next month’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
In the absence of an intimate relationship with someone who is different, human beings tend to form their opinions by falling back on stereotypes. As an avid reader in high school, I glimpsed characters whose lives were very different from my own. I watched the Civil Rights Movement unfold on our television screen, but it seemed far removed from my own life in an all-white town. And only as an adult did I learn that some of my childhood classmates were gay and lesbian. That, too, seemed far away. Though I grew up in evangelical churches, no minister ever felt the need to preach a sermon aimed at homosexuals because no one ever openly acknowledged a sexuality that didn’t conform to the social norms of the community.
This week the United States Supreme Court will take on the issue of same-sex marriage. Journalists and commentators have speculated for months on the outcome of the justices’ deliberations, and while they disagree about how the justices may rule, they seem almost unanimous on one thing: Americans’ views on this issue are changing.
Just last week Rob Portman, a Republican congressman from Ohio, announced that he had changed his mind and now supports same-sex marriage. Why? Like a host of politicians before him, his views are changing because someone he knows and loves—his son—is gay. It is impossible to hold fast to stereotypes when we know someone intimately who defies that stereotype.
Whatever the Supreme Court’s decision, it will not change the hearts and minds of people who make judgments from a distance—those who know not a single friend or family member who is homosexual. We know this from history. Giving women the right to vote and hold office did not lead to a flood of women elected to public office. Granting African-Americans civil rights did not lead blacks and whites to live in the same neighborhoods or to come together in our houses of worship. Granting citizenship to immigrants has not led us to understand that a person who is Muslim or Hindi has the common bond of humanity with us.
So even if the Supreme Court rules fully in favor of same-sex marriage, we still have a long way to go as humans living in concord and understanding with other human beings.
Since I left that small town to encounter people who have a wider range of differences than my hair and eye color, I’ve found that my life has been enriched almost every time I’ve been open to the colorfully diverse human beings around me. Yes, sometimes they disappoint me by being very like the stereotypes. But far more often, when I get past the surface of our differences, I’ve found something of myself in almost every person I’ve met.
Human that I am, I sometimes latch on to my first impression—not so much on appearances, but on the tone and color of the words that come out of a new acquaintance’s mouth. I’m far more apt to judge that I don’t want to get to know someone whose views, rather than skin color, land far afield from my own.
And even then, when I don’t shut the door and pull down the shade of my mind before looking more deeply, I sometimes find that hearing others’ life stories can make a difference. I don’t always connect in a way that makes me want to call that person a friend, and at times I still feel I have to oppose that person’s views in order to be true to my own conscience and sense of justice.
But I believe that if anything can make us live together in peace and come together to tackle the issues that face all of us, it is the power of personal narrative. So invite us now to sit at your feet and hear your story.