I am lying.
I’ve been told that normally, I’m not very good at it — my right eye twitches, and the corners of my mouth turn up into a faint smile. Sometimes I stutter or lose track of my story. But at this particular kind of lying, I’m what you might call an expert. In fact, I’ve been practicing all summer. So when Lauren asks me if I have a boyfriend in college, the lie slips easily out of my mouth.
Lauren, one of my coworkers at a summer camp in rural Minnesota, is not the first person to ask me if I have a boyfriend. Almost everybody at YMCA Camp Kici Yapi has heard about Mark, a sophomore from Los Angeles whom I’ve been dating for seven months now. I’ve told them about his summer in China and that he’s a cognitive science major. I’ve even boasted, once or twice, about his GPA. Perhaps the lie comes so effortlessly because it’s not entirely untrue: I have been dating somebody at Yale who fits Mark’s description in almost every way. Every way, that is, except for one minor detail. Mark is actually Miriam.
Lauren and I are sitting at the edge of Camp Kici Yapi’s little swimming pool, watching as screaming five-to-twelve-year-olds take running leaps into the glistening cerulean water. An eighth-grader paid to help me wrangle my group, Lauren has stringy hair dyed black and wears Vans decorated with skulls and crossbones. Unlike the other savagely hormonal junior counselors at camp, she’s unusually quiet and thoughtful. We know each other pretty well by now, so I can’t quite explain why I don’t just say, No, I have a girlfriend.
I’ve never been the kind of person who makes any special effort to come out of the closet. Most people at Yale don’t even find out I’m gay until I accidentally make a joke about it or my girlfriend comes into my room to say goodnight after rehearsal. Now, in rural Minnesota — where most people I encounter have never met somebody who’s gay — I’ve become the kind of person who makes a special effort to hide my sexuality. I’m just not sure how people would react.
The lifeguards blow their whistles, and it’s time for us to collect our sopping, crabby group of six-year-olds, reapply sunscreen and bug spray, and head back into the woods. As we wait for the kids to change, I make small talk with Lauren about her own friends and family. She asks forlornly, “Have I ever told you I have two moms?” My stomach twists. “It sucks. Everybody here’s so dumb about it. They make these jokes. They’ve, like, never met anybody who’s gay before, so they think they’re all…you know.”
Before I can respond, Kevin pokes his head out of the locker room. “Lauren, I can’t find my pants,” he says. She goes inside to help him look, and I’m left marooned on the pool deck.
The thought that simply being honest about myself could have changed someone’s life consumes me. Lauren wouldn’t have judged me if I’d told her the truth. In fact, I think, she probably would have appreciated hearing that I was gay, too. It might have made her feel less alone. There have been countless similar moments: times that summer when I could have told those same people who tease Lauren about my own wonderful girlfriend. There have been simpler moments, too, like the time in Central Park when Miriam and I decided not to hold hands because it was too uncomfortable in a public place, or the time at the train station before break when, feeling the other passengers watching us, I gave her a hug instead of a kiss.
We’ve reached a point in the gay rights movement where our last remaining battles, are, for the most part, battles against ignorance and isolation. Gay teenagers commit suicide because their classmates bully them, and they feel alone; more than half of all Americans cling to the belief that homosexuality is an immoral choice. Even the last vestiges of legal discrimination, such as the prohibition of gay marriage, are rooted in ignorance and fear; the Proposition 8 campaign ran on a strikingly successful platform that exploited peoples’ fears about their children being “turned gay.” Bloggers on the National Organization for Marriage website have written extensively on the supposed link between homosexuality, pedophilia, and prostitution as part of their anti-gay marriage campaign. Sometimes, we look to big, sweeping legal decisions or protests to counter these prejudices. We assume that people are activists only if they take part in such mass movements.
I don’t go to gay pride parades, or protests, or marches. I’m self-conscious, intensely private. And I used to feel a bit guilty because of it. I’ve been troubled because, although I care passionately about equality, I’ve often felt I simply don’t have the personality to be an activist.
But those moments where I passed up the chance to tell people the truth about myself — the chance to help a teenage girl feel less isolated, to combat the ignorance of the people who taunted her, to give people in Central Park a glance at a happy, healthy gay relationship — have made me think of a different kind of activism.
This November, Pope Benedict XVI traveled to Spain to speak out against gay marriage laws. Within the church’s walls, the Pope called homosexuals “intrinsically disordered.” Outside, 200 gays and lesbians made out with each other in a mass “kiss-in.” I wonder, sometimes, when I consider the stereotypes and lack of understanding that fuel the comments of the Pope and his supporters, what things like this accomplish. The answer, I think, is very little. The kiss-in did not change anybody’s mind; in fact, for those many people who believe that gays and lesbians are promiscuous, or hate religion, it probably only served to further solidify their assumptions. It did not demonstrate love, or compassion, but espoused — as many protests do — only contempt and confrontation. This is the “activism” that is so heavily promoted in the gay community, the kind I once felt guilty for not participating in.
I’ve realized, through my missed chance with Lauren, that what truly creates change is much smaller in scale, and less glamorous. When a son, or niece, or best friend comes out, people may not change their minds about homosexuality being a choice. Instead, their compassion, and their love, transcend their prejudices. When they see gay people picnicking in the park, or dropping their children off at school, they may slowly begin to think of our love as being equally normal, as well as equally extraordinary. When they learn that a coworker or friend or classmate is gay, they may not feel like they are quite as alone or helpless.
As a community, we do ourselves a disservice when we assume the only way to fight for gay rights is by standing outside with a sign, or dancing on a float in the street — or kissing strangers in front of a church. We discount the importance of individuals. Sometimes, we pass up the chance to truly effect change.
That day at summer camp, I missed my chance to be an activist. I’m not going to make that mistake again. A few weeks later, I staged my own kind of kiss-in. Standing on a busy subway platform, I took my girlfriend’s hand, and I told her I love her. We kissed goodbye. I waved as the train pulled away.