Thirty years ago — yikes! — when I was in high school, I had gay classmates.
One was a quiet guy who, because he fell alphabetically near me, shared the same small homeroom for four years. He was polite and smart and more or less kept to himself, surrounded by us heterosexuals from Newport, Hartland, Corinna, Etna and Dixmont. I was an O. He was a P, and for most of my high school journey he sat in the desk directly behind me.
I liked him, but I was more of an outgoing sort, and though we were always polite to each other we were not close friends. I sort of lived by the seat of my pants and often would depend on him to remind me of the homework assignment. He got A’s; me — not so much. He was a responsible kid who seemed to get a kick out of my more frenzied, chaotic personality. Had he been straight we might have actually made a good couple.
It was a different time. During the late fall many of the cars and pickup trucks in our school parking lot were equipped with gun racks with fully loaded rifles belonging mostly to teenage boys who would get a couple of hours of hunting in before and after school.
As students in a rural school we were not searched for weapons or thought to be at risk of a school shooting.
Another guy was a pretty close friend who was a good musician, outgoing and a hell of a lot of fun to hang out with on school band trips. Seemed everyone knew he was gay, but no one ever talked about it. He accompanied female friends to proms, was popular, never really dated, but was always in the middle of high school society.
Another guy was a year older than I. He was a bit less obvious. He had a lot of friends who were female, including me. He was a bunch of fun, loved rock concerts, had great parents and a lot of friends.
I suppose some of us questioned occasionally whether he might be gay, but for the most part it seemed irrelevant in our frantic, fun-filled lives.
They knew all of those years ago, without a White House proclamation, what “don’t ask, don’t tell” really meant. I suppose, as their classmates, we did too.
The first classmate I referred to died of AIDS. We post a small memorial to him and other deceased classmates at every reunion. The second is a wildly successful lawyer in London who travels the world with his partner and no longer feels the need to hide his sexual orientation.
The third, to whom I was the closest, I saw last week at 6 a.m. at the Portland Jetport as my family and I were headed to Washington, D.C. He introduced me to his friend and said he, too, was headed to D.C. and would be attending a human rights conference where President Obama would be the keynote speaker.
Turns out that was the conference where Obama promised to abolish the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the United States military.
That conference was followed by a massive gay rights parade throughout D.C. on Sunday.
My family and some friends got caught up in that parade traffic as we tried to weave our way to Arlington National Cemetery on Sunday morning.
During our stay in D.C., several gays and lesbians gathered in our hotel lobby each evening. They enjoyed a good beer or soda, ate peanuts and nachos and discussed the day’s events and their plans for the next.
Just as my family did.
My kids hardly blinked. On Wednesday, our first day back from our long weekend, my 13-year-old son and I left Interstate 95 and came to a stop behind a car on Broadway. The young man in the driver’s seat had a cap on sideways. His female companion had a hooded sweatshirt gathered up around her face.
Both had the window cracked just an inch or so. It was cold. A baby was strapped into a seat in the back. Both were smoking and making quite an effort to blow their smoke out of the cracks in the window. They had a sign in the back of the car that said “Baby On Board” and another bumper sticker advocating the use of condoms. Cigarette smoke billowed around the rear window where the baby sat.
My son looked at me, and I looked at him.
After five days among the most active gay and lesbians in the country, he said of the young heterosexual parents in the car ahead of us, “Now that’s offensive.”
To him, smoking in a car with an infant on board was much worse than being a gay parent. I suppose to some a student coming to school with a loaded rifle in the back of a pickup might be of greater concern.
Many of us grew up sitting in the backs of big cars on Sunday drives while our parents chain-smoked in the front. We rode with our friends untethered in the back of pickup trucks, we drank Tang — who knows what that had for ingredients — and we sat next to teenage boys who carried loaded guns in their trucks.
Condoms were rarely thought of, and a husband beating up his wife was considered a private family matter.
From all of that, I hope we have learned.
For me? I still love to ride in the back of a pickup. I don’t think I’d like Tang, but I certainly wouldn’t be afraid to ride around with a good-looking guy with a loaded hunting rifle in his truck.
I definitely don’t like in-car smoking, but I certainly don’t have a problem with anyone enjoying a smoke on their own time and in their own company.
Times have changed. Families have changed, and our kids’ views have changed.