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Michael Pettinger

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Lincoln, Nebraska -- Behind the Midwestern Smile

Posted: 06/06/2012 11:22 am

It's not nice not to like your hometown, particularly when that hometown has a reputation for being a very nice place indeed. Lincoln, capital city of the state of Nebraska, is a clean-cut, green oasis on the prairie. It's a well-educated town, with a respectable state university, as well as several smaller colleges. It has a history of cultural and political innovation. The Nebraska statehouse is a daring Art-Deco jewel that makes other state capitols look dowdy by comparison. It houses the only unicameral legislature in the U.S., a successful experiment in non-partisan efficiency. But more than innovation, Lincoln prides itself on good manners and friendly, Midwestern smiles.

So you can imagine how surprised my Mom must have been a number of years ago, when she asked me if I'd ever consider moving back. I looked her in the eye and said, with my best Midwestern smile: "Mom, if you and Dad didn't live here, I would never set foot in this state again."

"You don't mean that, do you?"

"Yep. I do."

I'm sure there are a lot of LGBTQ people who have similar feelings about their hometowns. For my part, I feel like my anger is justified. Behind Lincoln's Midwestern smile is a stone-hard meanness that kills. It's the meanness that made Nebraska the third state to amend its constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage -- another bit of brave, political innovation. It's the meanness that drove Brandon Teena out of his high school -- my alma mater, Pius X. That meanness didn't stop until it drove him out of town and into an even worse place. And it's that meanness -- or is it shame? -- that seems to have forgotten Brandon in his own hometown, even while the rest of the country knows damn-well how that story ended.

But that was twenty years ago, right? Lincoln has grown and changed, or so I'm told. I'd really like to believe that. My feelings have actually softened since that conversation with my Mom. Maybe it's because, after years of only seeing the city dead and grey at Christmastime, I started visiting Lincoln in summer, and remembered how beautiful the place is when the trees are in leaf and the flowers are blooming. Maybe it's because I started to reconnect with old friends who had stayed in Lincoln, people who might amaze outsiders with their level of hip coolness. And it's true that strangers really will greet you on the street with a big smile. So long as you're not too weird looking.

But this hard-won affection for my hometown is a fragile thing. I showed up in Lincoln for Memorial Day weekend this year, not long after the city council had passed a "fairness ordinance," one that essentially says that your sexual orientation is not the business of either your employer or your landlord. It seems like a protection of that most treasured of Midwestern values -- privacy. And yet, last week, a petition with over 10,000 signatures was filed by opponents who wanted to put that ordinance to a vote of the people.

As the saying goes, it was déjà vu all over again. In 1982, when I was a junior at the University of Nebraska, I came out of the closet. That same year, an openly gay city-council member, Eric Youngberg, convinced his colleagues to pass a similar ordinance. There was a referendum that year too. The ordinance went down to overwhelming defeat. I was working as a host in a restaurant back then. We had a regular customer, Gladys, a retired high-school teacher, who showed up every week with a posse of elderly ladies. I liked Gladys -- she always had a big smile and a dirty joke. Somehow, the conversation turned to the referendum, and I expressed my disappointment at the results. I still remember what she said.

"What? Are you one of Eric Youngberg's little friends?"

Frankly, I had always thought of Gladys as a friend. Midwestern smiles can deceive you like that. What could I say? I was a good kid, who had been taught to respect his elders. Besides, had I defended myself, had I simply told the truth and said, "Yes, as a matter of fact, I am one of Eric Youngberg's little friends," I would have lost my job. Defend myself? The people of Lincoln had decided I didn't have the right to do that.

So I walked away from her. And two years later, I walked away from Lincoln.

In the Bible Lot was told to walk away from Sodom and not to look back. That's a hard command to keep, especially when your elderly parents are still living there. The truth is that the Lincoln I knew had all the faults of Sodom. It was well-to-do and suspicious of outsiders -- i.e., people from the Coasts -- who might somehow destroy its pristine way of life.

And yet I'd like to believe that those Midwestern smiles do not conceal hearts of sugar-frosted stone. And my own stony heart needs to be healed as well. Who knows, if Lincoln votes for fairness, I might live to see the prophecy of Ezekiel fulfilled in myself and in my old hometown: "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." (Ezekiel 36:26)

 
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