As society moves toward a greater acceptance of people’s differences, what is becoming more shameful than anything is small-mindedness.
Last week, following college football player Michael Sam’s announcement that he was gay, a Dallas news anchor, Dale Hansen, slammed many in the NFL for their ridiculous, homophobic response.
On surface appearance alone, Hansen, with his white hair, crisp suit, and thick drawl, seemed an unlikely champion for gay rights. Still, he spoke eloquently and thoughtfully about how baffling it was that a homosexual player wouldn’t be welcome in a league—or a locker room—where rapists, drug addicts, and violent criminals are apparently acceptable.
He went on to say, very honestly, “I’m not always comfortable when a man tells me he’s gay. I don’t understand his world. But I do understand that he’s part of mine.” Of course, we could say, “Well, what’s there to understand?” but that wasn’t his point.
His point was that another person’s sexuality or lifestyle doesn’t have to make sense to him—all he has to do is respect it. He quoted civil rights leader, Audre Lorde: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” That right there, says it all.
I’m a privileged, white, heterosexual woman. I’ve never faced poverty or racism or homophobia. I’ve talked to friends about those struggles, I’ve read about those struggles, but can I really understand those struggles? How could I really? Sure, I can empathize, I can listen, I can be aware, and I can be sensitive. It’s not my experience though. It’s not my history. I’m a spectator, not a player.
Here’s what I do know: We all have our own stories, tied to the color of our skin, our religion, our sexual preferences, and our place in society. They’re tied to our cities, our families, our childhood friends, and our first loves. They’re tied to our homes, our jobs, our kids, and our pets. They’re tied to our tummy pooches and squooshy breasts, our runner’s legs and yoga arms, our freckled skin and frizzy hair. They’re tied to our grandmother’s tuna casserole or yellow curry or chilaquiles. They’re tied to our holidays, our traditions, and our dinner tables.
Our unique stories deserve to be recognized, accepted, and celebrated. Our differences make each of us who we are. Our differences keep things interesting. Our differences are colorful and rich and heartbreakingly beautiful. They are our memories and our path. And they are our humanity, available in all colors, shapes, and sizes. Although it’s our differences that define us, it’s our common ground that connects us.
I think a lot about the world that my children are growing up in. Yes, there are terrible things happening all the time—wars and disease and violence and starvation and oppression. A white man can still shoot an innocent black man dead and get off because he felt “threatened,” punished with nothing more than public scorn. Still, I look around at the kids in their school, in their playgroups, in their classes. They come from all walks of life, all races, all cultures, all religions. Some have two mommies, two daddies, or no daddy in the picture at all. Some little ones, adopted from Africa and China, look very different from their white parents.
It comforts me knowing that for my kids, it will all be normal…or there won’t really be a “normal.” What’s that anyway? Diversity will be a part of life for them, not an anomaly. I want them to see and appreciate that every person is different, that every family is different and, yeah, so what?
I want them to recognize, accept, and celebrate a friend’s brown skin or how another speaks to her mother in Thai or that another has a Daddy and a Papa. It should just be one of their friend’s many qualities, as simple as his love of baseball or her willingness to share snacks. A part of who he or she is, with no good or bad, right or wrong attached. My part is to raise loving, accepting children.
I have identical twin boys who look exactly alike, but they are not the same. They are more than just twins, although that is part of their identity. They are unique and separate little beings and I acknowledge those differences and encourage them. Those distinctions—big and small—help give them a sense of individual self, they give them place, and they make them feel one-of-a-kind.
It’s important to embrace what makes you unique when you look, well, identical. And it’s important to embrace what makes you unique when you look different as well.
I fully admit that I might be naïve, especially because I live in an incredibly liberal city, and am surrounded by like-minded people. Still, I’m optimistic about this new generation’s future. I believe that the times are changing. Brave athletes like Michael Sam and Jason Collins are stepping into the spotlight and saying, “So yeah, this is me.” Actresses like Ellen Page are doing the same. Outspoken newscasters look into the camera and ask the bigots of the world, in so many words, “Hey, what the hell is wrong with you?” Injustices are now more often front-page news, not tucked away in small print.
As more people are standing up and speaking out, it’s the racists and the homophobes and the everyday haters who retreat into the closet. At least in the public sphere, those who hate seem to arouse far more criticism than those who choose to marry—or not marry—the man or woman they love. These days, it’s embarrassing to be small-minded.
Today, the mainstream is becoming more colorful, bright, and vibrant than it’s ever been, embracing all of our cultures, lifestyles, and special needs. Maybe we’re just taking two steps forward and one step back, but I truly believe that we’re moving toward acceptance, even celebration, of our differences.
The world is big, but it’s also small, and we’ve all got to live in it.
Jennifer Benjamin is an LA-based freelance writer and editor with over thirteen years of experience writing for national magazines and websites like Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, SELF, Parents Magazine, The Stir and Daily Glow. More important, she’s a Mommy to identical twin boys, as well as an avid cook, a terrible housewife, and a loungewear enthusiast. Find her on Twitter @JennyBenjamin or Facebook.