But tonight I’m wondering what to say to my hairdresser? A gay man, not yet thirty years old, a restless soul who came to Arizona – like me - in pursuit of sunny days. By all accounts, he is doing well. He has been promoted four times in one year, he has a full clientele, and he is contemplating owing his own salon. In Arizona. As more states legalized gay marriage, he and his partner, Ian, changed wedding plans and finally settled on Hawaii, an intimate ceremony in front of close family. He wants to raise children with the man he loves, and until today, he envisioned doing so in Arizona. But at what cost?
As he styled my daughter’s hair this evening, I asked him what he thought of SB 1062. He told me he was shocked. At the beginning of the year, he was beginning to believe that the times really were a-changin’, that we were genuinely celebrating each other’s differences, and slow as it was, change was being embraced.
As a boy, he had been bullied, beat up, and ridiculed in small schools in small towns in Indiana. At about 10 years old, he knew he was different, but he wasn’t sure how. By 13, he knew he was gay and the snide comments and the name-calling taught him that who he was, was somehow not okay in our world. In school, the place where he should have been safest, he was scared all the time. His teachers never intervened to halt the bullying. Not once. He was kicked out of his church youth group. Then one night, when he was about 15 years old, two big men came to the basement where he slept and took him away to a behavior modification program. For twenty-two months, he was assigned to a “family” of 25 boys. Constantly under surveillance, he started with nothing. His shoelaces were taken away, he had to earn salt and pepper and the right to make a phone call, and occasionally a candy bar; he had to request permission to speak, to go to the bathroom. He was designated to “the black cloud,” a kind of solitary confinement where essentially, he didn’t exist. He wasn’t taught how to operate in the real world and so even after being released to his family home, he would call out “crossing” when he crossed the line from hallway to bathroom.
Four times, he attempted suicide. Four times. He failed. Why? He tells me that, of course, he didn’t know what he was doing, but more importantly, while he doesn’t subscribe to institutionalized religion, he believes there’s something to be said about the undaunted human spirit, and his just wasn’t ready to leave. He forgives the Mormons who coaxed him to “pray the gay away.” He forgives the teachers who turned a blind eye to his tormentors. He says all of it has made him a stronger, better man, one who can champion for other children today, children who deserve a place at the table. Barely a month after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, it pains me to know we are having these discussions in Arizona. It’s wrong. On so many levels.
When I look at this young man, his easy smile tempered by doubt, I could weep for those who don’t know him, who will designate him as less than acceptable, put him in a box where he is neither seen nor heard.
Really. I traded Northern Ireland for this?