I think about my story all the time. Often, I'm not always sure what's important about it. You've probably seen or dealt with something in your life that makes you see the world a little different than yesterday. Something that makes getting out of bed each morning a victory. Maybe you're compelled to put a smile on the face of someone who needs it, or leading a movement or playing some role in eradicating oppression because you've seen it ruin lives.
You just have to care.
I remember the first time in my life feeling real fear. I was maybe 8 or 9 years old. My mind was puzzled by the biblical story of creation and how seven days couldn't possibly render an accurate picture of the beginning of life. I ran into my Dad's bedroom one night and interrogated him relentlessly about my discovery. He was twice my height and the smartest and most caring person I knew. Surely he'd have the answer?
I don't recall everything he said that night, but I remember being so upset and crying in his arms because still, it wasn't making sense. It was my introduction to death. I think he knew it. It was the first time I challenged religious doctrine based on my experiences and the information I had available. He and my mother taught my siblings and me to ask questions when we didn't understand. I know it hurt him seeing me so scared and frustrated because he hugged me as close as he could for the longest time. I was growing up, thinking, and he knew it. Do you remember your worst fear or the best hug you've ever had?
I have long left the days of fear of death, and today I understand and relate to the Bible in a much different way too. Perhaps that moment was one of the best steps for my thinking about religion. I am a follower of the ministry and teachings of Jesus. That's my definition of Christianity; nothing supernatural really.
My experiences with uncertainty have helped me build empathy for others. Death, loss, joy, rejection -- life is an unpredictable journey. Think about your own life. If we sat down together, I'm sure you'd be able to etch the brutal details of your most transformative moments.
As I keep trekking forward, one thing is clear: Everyone should have a shoulder to lean on. But not everyone does.
In my interest to understand, I talk to people, and ask a bunch of questions. Many times people are enthusiastic to share. I've talked with gay Iranian exiles whose lives were turned upside down because there wasn't much empathy for them back home. Men and women who were tortured, abused and psychologically damaged because the dominant culture in that theocracy fears including them in the public life. I've heard from African activists and religious leaders who have asked how can we bring good American Christians into their countries? "Good" being Christians who don't advocate or contribute to a culture that promotes killing queer people. How can we help address issues of health and education in a way that also teaches younger generations to understand and respect diversity? Think about countries like Uganda that promote legislation to kill people for no other reason then being gay or lesbian.
What would you do if these were the fears of your child?
There are dozens of societies today, who are destroying the lives of their gay, lesbian or transgender citizens. In our country, there are 50 different states and the District of Columbia, with 51 different legal definitions of human equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Yet both foreign and domestic issues are related. This isn't about marriage -- this is about life and death around the world; defining religious freedom and discrimination; and uniting our civil institutions under a consistent framework of how we as Americans (and a global community) value human dignity.
A few weeks ago, I was reading Eleanor Roosevelt's "Tomorrow Is Now," which was recently reissued by Allida Black, a mentor and former college professor. President Bill Clinton and Dr. Black wrote in its introduction how it was one of ER's most important books. While I was reading it, I was blown away that half a century after her death, she still has the power to speak to the challenges of a dangerous and uncertain world.
"Learning to be at home in the world," she writes, "is, I believe, the surest way we have of reducing our fears. For fear, after all, is too often fear of one's inadequacy in the face of the unknown."
If we care enough, we can give ourselves permission to journey into the shoes and lives of others we don't understand. You choose the language and identity that you are most comfortable speaking: "I'm queer, Muslim, Christian, Iranian, American, South African, straight, trans, male, female, black, white..." it really doesn't matter. What matters is that underneath these identities and within these beliefs is a real intention to "be at home" in the world.
"[We] must learn to live with other people," ER writes. "If [we] are going to belong to a world society [we] must be trained to cope with it, neither to follow nor to dominate, but to cooperate as mutually self-respecting human begins."
The U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to rule on the Proposition 8 and Defense of Marriage Act cases. Countries around the world continue to enact or consider public policy that puts the lives of young people and adults in jeopardy. What role can you and I play in this picture?
We can care. Care enough to open our arms to hold and listen to the LGBTQ people of our world.
Follow Joseph Ward III on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JosephWardIII