Good Answer, Mr. President

When I was twelve years old, I developed a crush on a boy who was in a number of my classes.

At the time, I was a sixth-grader in the Deep South whose family had recently moved across the county into a new school district.  It felt like we had moved across the country.  At the smaller elementary school I had left, Umbro and Nike shorts were popular, but in this new junior high school, khaki shorts, Birkenstocks, and polo shirts were prerequisites for coolness.  The boy I noticed fit this fashion to a T.

I believed without reservation the crush I was developing was wrong.  I loved church, and I had an understanding that, if you were a boy, liking other boys was a very bad thing to do.  I had no doubt that I was in the wrong, and I prayed every night—literally—that the feelings would go away.  And, eventually, they did.  I breathed a deep sigh of relief.  I felt as if I’d dodged a bullet, with God’s help.  From that point, I went on having crushes on girls as I had until that point, and I’ve gone on having crushes on girls since.

But many other kids weren’t so lucky. Their “illicit” crushes kept on coming. Several kids in my school endured years of bullying and teasing because they were gay or appeared to be gay, and many times I stood idly by, doing nothing to stop it. Even today, their faces, usually with angry expressions, come to my mind. Back then, I believed homosexuality was a sin, but I also knew it was wrong for kids to be bullied like they were. I remember thinking that the bullying, as terrible as it was, was an unfortunate result of sinful behavior, equating it with the Fall of Man since the Garden of Eden. And, after all, I thought, if I’d prayed and gotten over my crush, why couldn’t they?

Several years later, when I visited Harvard for the first time, my views on the matter were “evolving.”  It was a sunny spring day in 2004, and I was dragging around my mother and grandmother, along with all our heavy suitcases and Southern accents. The first thing I saw when I came up out of the Red Line at Johnston Gate was a huge, white banner across the street, hanging from the edifice of First Parish Cambridge. It read, in all capitals, “WE SUPPORT GAY MARRIAGE.” The banner blew in the breeze, and the sunlight brightened it so one needed to squint to see it.

I was stunned to see this banner, and, somewhat to my surprise, I was also overjoyed. It had been one thing in the past to observe gay pride parades in all of their dramatic and colorful energy; it was quite another to see this declarative, bold statement draped from a church building, in the public square, in plain view.

I was a high schooler, and this very issue had been weighing on my mind for some time. I was reading a book by the late Reverend Peter J. Gomes, who was Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Minister of the Memorial Church until his passing last spring. The book, called “The Good Book,” recounts in part Rev. Gomes’ experience revealing himself in 1991 to be what many have called a contradiction: a gay, African American, Baptist minister. He had become minister in 1974, and his book was in my backpack that day thirty years later. The banner at the First Parish Church filled me with sheer joy that something good was happening, something I could not have imagined just a few years back when the thought I might be gay was terrifying to me.

Politically, the particulars of my views on the issue have continued to “evolve” since then: Ideally, I think only civil unions should be granted by the government while churches take care of the “marriages”; I think the “defense of marriage” advocates are right when they say marriage is traditionally a religious institution between one man and one woman; I think churches should handle explicitly religious institutions, while the state grants contracts that guarantee hospital visits, joint taxes, etc.

But it was not until Wednesday, when President Barack Obama became the first sitting President of the United States to express full support for same-sex marriage, that I felt again that same stunned joy I’d felt back in 2004. Obama’s unprecedented announcement is an unequivocal victory for civil rights and equality, and I believe fewer kids will be bullied and teased because of it.

I don’t know whether Obama and Gomes crossed paths when they were at Harvard in the early 1990s. ButI wish Gomes were still here with us today to offer his thoughts on Obama’s newfound support for gay marriage. When I first heard the news, I could hear Rev. Gomes’ voice begin to echo in my head. In his old Religion 42 course, Rev. Gomes once said, “There are no bad questions. There are some very bad answers.” Of Obama’s reply to the ABC News interviewer’s question on Wednesday, I believe Gomes would have raised his eyebrows in restrained surprised, nodded his head, and called it, in his beautiful manner of speaking, a very good answer.

Seth A. Riddley ’12 is a History and Science concentrator in Mather House.

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