Several weeks ago after church, I met a woman who told me a story about growing up in Chattanooga.
Growing up gay in Chattanooga.
"Every night, I would search the newspapers," she said.
It was the '90s; we were still a two-newspaper town. Each night, she would shut the door to her room, and read every line from the day's papers, looking, searching, praying for a reference -- a story, an interview, even just a few words -- to someone else out there like her. Someone, anyone, out there who was gay.
"Anyone like me," she said.
This is what difference feels like: It is to experience life as an outsider, never quite certain how firm is the ground around you, never quite sure where you fit in, if at all.
Nothing wounds the heart like isolation. Hours are spent behind closed doors, searching newspapers or the web, hoping for anyone to find you. It is like lighting a bonfire from the shore of a deserted island, hoping you'll be spotted, hoping your question -- is there anyone out there like me? -- is met with some loving response.
The entire social history of America is one long struggle with difference. Our first colonists sailed here to find protection for their religious differences; more than 100 years later, we crafted the Bill of Rights, giving the world a model of how to protect difference.
From then to now, the struggle has continued, as others reached and keep trying to reach the table of acceptance: women, black Americans, native Americansd, immigrants, the disabled, the deaf and blind, gay Americans.
Difference implies normality, and the standard by which we've defined who's different and who's not has always been this: white, straight, able-bodied, male, Christian. In other words, people just like me. The soul-work that America continues to endure is a widening of this standard -- where a disabled, gay Hispanic immigrant has as much social legitimacy here as I do -- and when we fail, it can be monstrous.
Eugenics. Jim Crow. Genocide.
This is how part of the human spirit responds to perceived difference, especially when egged on by political propaganda and outspoken bigotry. We eat our own.
We refuse to see others who are different as equal.
In Nashville, Rep. Sen. Mike Bell has introduced SB 2566, legislation that would allow businesses in the state to refuse service to gay couples who want to marry.
"Any services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges," the bill reads. "Counseling, adoption, foster care or other social services."
When the day comes and gay couples are able to marry in Tennessee, this bill would allow a florist to refuse to sell wedding day geraniums or bed and breakfast owners to turn away a honeymooning couple -- no room in the inn! If a business owner holds religious convictions that run counter to the idea of gay marriage, then this business owner does not have to serve any gay couple, and cannot be sued for it either.
(One wonders if Sen. Bell would have written similar legislation against interracial marriage had he been around in the 1960s).
The bill goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee today.
Kat Cooper, the Collegedale detective who helped her city become the first in Tennessee to offer domestic partner benefits, is asking people to call both Bell (615-741-1946) and local senator Todd Gardenhire (615-741-6682), who's a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and ask them to withdraw the bill.
"If this gets passed, it would legalize discrimination," said Cooper. "I don't know why people feel the need to discriminate against people who are not like them."
Humanity is not monochromatic; our struggle is not against a Paint-By-Numbers Creator, who only makes plain Jane stuff, nor with a natural world that only operates with some single vision: just brown butterflies, only flat deserts, nothing but white people.
Life is magnificently different, and our struggle is to realize those who may not seem like us -- the disabled or dyslexic, the dwarfs and giants, the transgendered and gay -- belong just as fully at the American table as anyone else.
So if you're out there, locked in your bedroom, searching the papers or Internet for some wisp of acceptance and community, then I hope you read this column, especially this last line.
Thank you. For pushing us towards a wider America, for reminding us that difference is beauty and beauty is truth, for the bravery of being yourself in a lonely world, thank ... you.
Contact David Cook at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.