They've been repeated a thousand times, in a thousand different ways. The nuance doesn't matter in the end; which groups he may or may not have actually cited is immaterial, really. Martin Niemöller was a German pastor who was arrested for defying Hitler and his campaign of hate. To this day his words stand as a poignant reminder of the peril of political apathy. But today, to me, they are more:
First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
I always thought those words meant that I had to speak out when I saw injustice. They do. I always thought they meant that I had an obligation, as part of the human family, to defend the dignity, rights and ultimately the humanity of others. They do. And I thought that that was where my responsibility ended. It wasn't.
A few nights ago I had a conversation that changed everything. (Funny how one interaction can do that, how talking to one person can trip a switch, open a valve, make everything look different, isn't it?) The young man was not what people thought he was, he said. His sexuality was not what it appeared to be. It wasn't simple. The girlfriends whom he had brought home had made assumptions easy, he said. To all the world he looked straight. Why would anyone think anything different? I was glad that he was comfortable telling me. I've done everything I can to live my life in a way that advertises my friendship as a sanctuary, as a safe space. But the fear that he had made me sad.
"I hope that you're not giving enough credit to the people in your life," I said. "They know you. They respect you. They love you. Hopefully their love would be bigger than their fear or even their deep-seated bigotry. Hopefully, if you talk to them about who you are, about how you feel, there will be an open door."
We talked about how situational disclosure tends to be, how it doesn't always feel necessary to lay it all out on the table until there's a relationship involved, until, I suppose, there would otherwise be something to hide. But already this wasn't sitting right with me. The waters were rushing the dam.
Nevertheless, I found my jaded, 42-year-old, formerly idealist self slowly shaking her head at the self-importance of youth. "Ah," she said to herself with a smirk, "I remember the days when I thought that the world waited with bated breath for my every pronouncement." She wanted to tell him, "Wait, there's no reason to make declarations from the mountaintops. You may well fall in love with a woman, marry her, have babies and then what? The angst would have been for no sake but its own." Thankfully, no one could hear her but me.
But it wouldn't matter for long, because the valve opened, and everything changed. Suddenly it was all crap, all the "wait" and "the angst for no sake but its own." Utter crap.
I found myself wanting to shake him by the shoulders. "Be yourself!" I wanted to shout at him. "Be who you are in all your wondrous, messy, glorious humanity! Love yourself first, and set the example for those around you. Use that love to change the hearts that live in the darkness of fear. Tell them! Tell them that sexuality isn't always linear, that it isn't always simple, that it isn't always what it looks like, and that, for the love of God, it isn't some abstract concept or merely a topic for political theater. Tell them that this is part of who you are, you, the person whom they love. Change the world, my young friend. You can. Only you. And lots of other yous. But one you, one heart, at a time."
And that was the moment, because in pleading with him inside my head, I was judging him for not taking action. And if there's one thing I've learned about judgment, it's that it is nearly always a reflection of what the judger most disdains -- most fears -- in himself or herself.
I married a wonderful man. I had babies. I love him dearly, and I adore my life. To all the world I am a straight woman. And why would they think anything different? And why would it matter either way? Until that moment, it really hadn't mattered.
I believe in equal rights. I believe that gay rights (and disability rights; more on that to follow) are, in the simplest terms, civil rights. I believe that no one ever has the right to impose his or her belief system on another human being. I have talked about it; I've written about it; I've lived it. I have said, "This is what I believe," but never have I said (publicly), "This is who I am."
Well, this is who I am.
Just before I met the man who is now my husband, there was someone else in my life, someone wonderful, someone with whom I had a nearly electric connection, someone who was smart as a whip and funny as hell, someone who was talented and beautiful and who, in turn, made me feel talented and beautiful, too, someone who challenged me and made me think and feel and try new things, someone who pushed me to be a better version of myself, someone whom I adored, and someone with whom my life would have been -- from the outside, at least -- very, very different had time written a different script for us, because, depending on where we chose to live, we might not have had the right to marry, and because there might have been people in my life -- in our lives -- whose preconceived notions about love would have changed their opinion of me. I never had to live that. I have no idea what that really feels like, but only because time wrote a different script for me and the person with whom I ultimately fell in love for keeps happened to be a man.
It doesn't come up much, but there are moments. There are dropped pronouns in stories of my past. There are thoughts left without a voice. And then there are times when I am praised for being an ally to the gay community. It is in those moments that I feel the most like a fraud.
My daughter is autistic. Disclosure within the autism community is a big topic. I've written about it ad nauseam. In 2010 I wrote this:
It's almost inevitable. If enough autism parents are together in a room, one of them will ask.
How did you decide to talk openly about Brooke's autism?
I'll tell them that I'm happy to run through our logic, but that first I must make the disclaimer that it's a personal decision and that everyone has to handle it in the way that they think is best for their child. I'm big on disclaimers, you see. Nothing about autism is a One Size Fits All proposition. So I'll say that none of us can crawl inside each other's families. That we have to trust one other's ability to choose the right paths for ourselves and our children.
And then I'll answer the question.
I will tell them that we believe that the only way to extract the stigma from the label is to demystify it. To make it real. To give it a face, a name, a three-dimensional being.
I will tell them that we believe that awareness leads to compassion and compassion to acceptance.
I will tell them that we believe that ignorance perpetuates discrimination and fear.
I will tell them that we feel that secrets imply shame or fear. Or both. I will tell them that I want neither in my home.
Later in that post I would ask a question of my own:
What if we could bring these kids TOGETHER? What if, instead of labeling them per se, we can give them a tool with which they can identify themselves and EACH OTHER? What if the label is a gateway to the monumental understanding that these kids are NOT alone? What if this group - this incredible group of people - this group that can so easily feel so desperately isolated from their peers - what if they found out that their differences, in and of themselves, are not so damn different after all?
The other night, listening to this young man speak, I thought of the kids coming up behind him, the ones who feel different, who feel isolated, who are afraid of what they're feeling, because it still has this ludicrous stigma. I thought of the ones who would pass right by him without ever knowing that they weren't alone. I thought of the immense power that he had to help smooth the road for them, one heart at a time -- the power that he wasn't using, the power that he, for a million reasons, might not be in a position to use, because bigotry is real, and because coming out can be far riskier than losing friends. It can be dangerous. Hell, it can be lethal.
But it wasn't about him, anyway. I'm the one who said that disclosure is "a personal decision and that everyone has to handle it in the way that they think is best." So his decision wasn't the point. His power, and how he chose to use it, wasn't the point.
The point was my power, and the fact that I was looking in the wrong direction for change. I was frustrated with myself, not with him. I live with the privilege of others' assumption about me. And by allowing those assumption to stand, I also allow ignorance to stand. Not anymore.
To those of you who think differently of me after this revelation, I say the following: You know me. You have read my words. You know my heart and my children and my failings and my pride. You know my fumbling, imperfect faith. And now you know that there is one more dimension to me that we'd yet to talk about, no more and no less, just one more piece of who I am, a bisexual woman who stands up for equal rights, not only because it is unequivocally the right thing to do but because it's time that I say, "They came for people like me, and I spoke out for us."
Jess can be found on her blog, A Diary of a Mom, where she writes about life with her husband, Luau, and their two daughters, 11-year-old Katie and 9-year-old Brooke, who is autistic. She also runs the Diary of a Mom Facebook page, a warm and welcoming community of autistic people, those who love them and some random folks who liked the page and seem to be sticking around just to see what's going to happen next.