I probably surprised many people when I fell in love with a woman. After all, I didn't look like a lesbian, but like an average, long-haired, white girl from the Midwest. My college best friend Lois was probably the most shocked of all, though she hid it well. That is, until I announced my wedding. Then she sent an email, saying how "Congratulations" would be a lie, given that I was walking into darkness and suffering and all.
I was inseparable from Lois in college. I was quirky and loud to offset her soft sweetness. We took road trips across states, ate ice cream every day, studied, joined clubs as a pair. I convinced her to sneak around town at night, writing happy messages in sidewalk chalk. We invented holidays. We threw corn kernels into obscure places to make wishes. She was alternately baffled at my unpredictable fire, and my biggest fan. I was amused at her naiveté, and loved her devotion to me.
Sometimes I went with her to church. I believed in the overarching ideas of loving neighbors and a humanity that was headed somewhere, while Lois was what Rob called a turbo-Christian. Rob and I would know. We gravitated toward the Christian crowd because they didn't party and made reasonably good choices. In whatever time I wasn't spending with her, I dated Rob. He and I skated on the periphery of the Christian circles, unsure together.
We finished college and Lois got married in a way that only God or Disney could orchestrate. I stood up at her wedding wondering if she was savvy enough to be out in the world. Yet she seemed to live in a different world than most of us. The God tentacles then reached into every region of her brain, into every conversation. I admired this. Her faith was a testimony for her magical life and vice versa. She settled into marriage and I filled my life with new best friends.
Calls, visits, updates, our different paths still inspired each other, right up until the email. I wrote responses, some in God language, some not. I never sent any of them.
My life grew in some ways she would have relished: my wedding on a farm near our college, with a double rainbow; my efforts to become a writer, an undertaking she began long before I did; the shared transition into motherhood, as we both started families.
I also didn't talk to Lois about my move to a neighborhood and country that struggles with inequality in ways that take my breath away. Each morning in the car I see hundreds of black South Africans walking miles from township to suburb to work for white people. I squirm when the servers in the restaurants are all black, the management and patrons all white, and when housecleaners are referred to as "domestics." I heard a rumor that white South African women have babies by C-section, because they don't want to give birth the way black women do. I collect scenes when I witness genuine camaraderie across racial lines. In two years, I can still count these on two hands.
On the day Mandela died, the air in the country resonated with loss for their leader, love pulsing and gathering. Signs and billboards bidding him Hamba kakuhle grew out of the ground like weeds. I saw teens weeping in each other's arms. My family and I drove out of our complex, and waving to our black guards, Joseph and Shaka. We went to Soweto, to the street where Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu once both lived. Joseph and Shaka were stuck at work.
Vilakazi Street was filled with parading, dancing, singing and celebrating. We were among very few white faces. Everyone except us knew the words to the resistance songs, the stomping and spinning, the call and response orchestrated like they'd been rehearsing for weeks. In reality, these songs were simply etched in their story. Some of these people sang in the same streets when apartheid raged.
We sat at a crowded outdoor restaurant and from within the celebration a woman approached. Her poster showed a picture of an older Mandela, fist in the air, and the words Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. She sat and collected herself while the songs and colors swirled. "Thank you for coming to Soweto to be with us," she said.
"There is nowhere we would rather be. Thank you for sharing your leader with the world." I smiled.
"This is all Mandela wanted," she replied. "To have whites and blacks sitting at a table together."
A few months later my father contacted me with news that Lois had called, crying, saying she needed to talk me, to apologize.
That evening I sat on the couch, looking at my wife, feeling so tender, so protective. I suddenly sensed how deeply the taproot of discrimination sinks in, through layer upon layer of self. With Lois, I was preparing to face a judge about to pardon me, when I had no reason to be on trial in the first place. I fumed with resentment that her judgment my marriage seemed smaller, less than hers. There was no way I could ever feel she respected me, not with her words in our past.
What surged in me that night was a new shade of empathy for black South Africans. After being beaten down for generations they were told, "Our bad. You can be equal now." That those in power could grant equality demonstrated that they were, in fact, superior. Steps like these, in the right direction, are still embedded in the systems they try to erase.
Accepting an apology is costly, in ways I hadn't dared imagining. My heart knotted each time I passed Joseph and Shaka at the gate, knowing they must have similar moments of gathering their pride in the stale air of unfairness. I wanted to hug them, to yell from the rooftops, You have always been equal! Instead, I lamented on my couch for my own tiny drop in the injustice bucket.
After a few days of looking around with a wider, more sensitive heart, I called Lois. Not because I wanted to. I called because I felt a kinship to the black people in this country who still held their heads up high.
I recognized every nuance of her voice. "I need to ask your forgiveness. I don't want to break relationships. I've learned a lot about God's love in the last few years ..." On and on she went. I remained guarded, but relieved she was growing.
I told her I forgave her. I told her how the past few days had stretched my heart in ways I was ultimately grateful for. I asked what changed her mind.
"I still believe you what you're doing is wrong. I'm just sorry I said it in a way that hurt you. Maybe this is a topic we shouldn't discuss."
My heart stumbled and I looked around the room, trying to figure out what conversation I was actually in. She wanted to be friends, but ignore that I had a wife and kid? "Well," I said, "if you ever learn about love in some other new ways and want to talk as equals, I'll be here. Happily married and willing."
"God's word is unchanging," she said.
"But... we are always learning. And there are many new lands still ahead for each of us."
I hung up, sweating, filled with a victorious sense of self-preservation. And shortly afterwards, guilt. I was the gay person in Lois's life. Didn't that make it my responsibility to show her the goodness of my marriage, to schlep her heart across to that other shore? Though she lived in Tennessee and I in South Africa, wasn't that my assigned role in advancing human rights?
I called Rob, now a lawyer for the ACLU. He told me not to worry, that people like Lois were his job. Again, the landscape shifted in my heart. With a few words, an atheist ex-boyfriend showed me the power, the aching gratitude, buried in solidarity.
I thought of the men at my gate and the people in the country around me. When it comes to equality, I stand on one side of the struggle as a gay person, but on the other side every day as a white one. Both of these positions are hopeful, daunting, and powerful, on every shore I call home.