I was a very young man when I first realized my mother was in love with the woman that she, my brother and I were spending a lot of time with. It was the late 80s, and I could still count my age on two hands. I have a distinct memory of hearing the word lesbian for the first time and assuming it was some kind of alien.
Those of us who were there – even if we were still in elementary school – likely remember that time period as not a very good one for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Society was still wrapping its collective head around AIDS being more than a “gay disease.” Ellen DeGeneres was a standup comedian still more than a decade away from coming out on her nationally televised sitcom. I remember my immediate reaction to learning my mom’s secret and later talking to her about it being one of accepting love but public shame; I was terrified of what would happen if someone found out my mom loved women.
I spent years of my life keeping my mom’s secret as my secret, even flatly denying it when my dad pointed it out to me while I was in middle school. My dad, being my dad, was telling me a truth I still wasn’t ready to fully grasp, a truth I’d already discussed with my mom, and my natural reaction was “That’s not true.”
A couple years later, I lived at Mom’s house here in Northern Virginia. At the time, she was living with her girlfriend, and I got to be really OK with all that entailed, lucky enough to be in a loving household no matter which parent’s roof I lived under. But even at that, my fear that others would know remained. Kids in the neighborhood knew, and teenagers being teenagers, I suffered plenty of insults related to Mom’s sexual orientation. I still had that public shame, and I guarded the secret fiercely when I could.
After the Supreme Court decided June 26 that same-sex couples had the right to marry nationwide, I posted a message of support for my mom and all the LGBT people in my family and circle of friends. Several good friends of mine from the high school I attended when I lived with Dad told me they never knew my mom was a lesbian; it hammered home how much that shame kept me from sharing something important about my life even with people I was close to.
Even as an adult, a period during which I’ve befriended many amazing LGBT people all across that spectrum, I’ve swung like a pendulum on oversharing that information and keeping it close to the vest. When do I tell a girlfriend? Will she think it’s weird and go away? These are questions I asked myself even after I started dating my wife.
Why was I feeling that shame? If I was proud of my mother and loved her unconditionally – I was and I did – why did I care if my friends knew she was at a gay pride parade? Society itself, back then and even now, has looked down on LGBT people and treated them as different. I know the bullying that came from just being the child of a gay woman; I can’t imagine what it’s like for an LGBT person.
That’s why moments like the Supreme Court’s decision matter. As someone who has been closely attuned to the issues LGBT folks face throughout my life, I have been constantly amazed by the progress that has been made over the past three decades, from allowing gay men and women to serve openly in defense of our nation to the first states allowing same-sex marriage. But the decision written by five of the court’s justices floored me. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so happy to see justice come to this country I’ve loved all my life. I talked to Mom that day and tears came to my eyes.
No matter how an individual views LGBT people, our government is supposed to be open to all, and denying one group the right to have their love recognized by the state they live in flies in the face of principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. “Liberty and justice for all” is a phrase so important that it ends the pledge schoolchildren still recite throughout this country, and it means a little more now that families can be families in the eyes of the law.
Yes, this decision means a lot to the LGBT people it immediately affects, but there are ripples spreading ever outward. The acceptance that I have seen come in my lifetime inches ever forward. Kids growing up in same-sex households already don’t seem to deal with the shame I hated in myself. Pride isn’t just about parades or TV shows; it’s also about living life authentically, and a step like the one that’s been taken allows people to do just that.
Over the weekend, I thought a lot about my daughter. She’s growing up in a world that’s changed dramatically over the past 30 years. I grew up hearing about equality and the dreams of the great civil rights leaders, but at the same time my mom, my uncle, my cousins and millions of others still had a long way to go. But for my little girl, I think about how she gets to live in a world where she loves her grandma and is proud of her wherever she goes, not worrying about who knows or what she’ll have to put up with if they do. Thinking about how that will be so much different than my own experience fills my heart with joy.
A whole lot of people woke up in a better America.