April 15, 2016
If your 21-year-old self stopped by with a message for your 45-year-old self, what would that message be?
A few weeks ago, I was suddenly reminded of a moment in my past, and it grabbed my attention like a 24-year cicada buzzing by.
I don’t typically publish my opinions, but there have been a few exceptions and this moment in 1992 was one of those rare times when I took a stand. In response to a column in the Marquette Tribune that was inflammatory toward gays and insensitive toward people with AIDS, my college roommate and I wrote a letter to the editor of the Marquette Tribune, in support of gay rights.
My long-term memory isn’t worth much. Up until a few weeks ago, if you had asked me to describe the circumstances that prompted my friend and I to write that letter to the editor, I would have muddled my facts. I would have guessed wrong about who my co-author was. And I certainly wouldn’t have recalled the name of the student who wrote the harsh sentiments in the campus paper that spurred my friend and I to pen a response.
So, when the author of that opposing column and her college writings made headline news in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I didn’t see the connection to my own story. She was then a Wisconsin State Supreme Court Justice and a candidate for a 10-year term on the court. The opposition to her campaign dug up her Marquette Tribune opinion pieces, and she was asked to account for them. She said she was embarrassed by what she wrote. I didn’t recognize her, and I didn’t imagine that her story had anything to do with that-one-time-I-published-my-opinion-in-college. That is, until I clicked on the attachments in the online article and was startled to see my name in one of her letters. Among the pieces giving her political heartburn was a strongly-worded rebuttal to what my roommate and I wrote.
Memory behaves strangely. Even though I had forgotten some of the details, I have long carried an emotional imprint of the courage it took to submit our letter to the campus paper. I remember I was very, very nervous about publishing my views in support of LGBT issues, which were still somewhat new to me. I was raised in a conservative Catholic environment. I am not sure what we were taught about gay people, but mostly I think we weren’t sure whether gay people really existed, and if you don’t believe in people, you tend not to worry about their rights or their feelings.
At college, I made new friends. Over time, a number of these friends identified themselves as gay or bisexual. Some of them came out to me. Some of them confided what they went through as they came out to other friends or family. From listening to their experiences, I developed more sensitivity. Marquette is a Catholic University, and its anti-discrimination policies were a matter of public discussion. The second thing I remember about writing that letter is that it felt good to stand with my friends, and on the side of inclusivity.
Seeing my name pop up in the this backstory brought that past moment into this one, and made my heart pound. I wondered what our letter said, so I contacted the Marquette campus library. The nice archives lady who answered the phone happened to have a scanned copy handy. She said I wasn’t the first person to call her looking for this item.
I hoped like hell that whatever we wrote wasn’t too embarrassing and that whoever else was reading it would be forgiving. We were all so young.
The archive lady sent me the pdf by email, and I took a deep breath before reading.
We opened our letter the same way that the opposing writer opened her column, talking about ignorance and folly on college campuses. Then we talked about the fight against AIDS and how it was deservedly a bipartisan effort. We walked through the reasons that AIDS victims are deserving of compassion, and closed by making the case for gay students to be supported by the student association. (I noticed there was another name attached to the letter in addition to my roommate and me. Neither one of us can recall his involvement.)
Though it wasn’t fantastic, I was relieved to discover it was a pretty even-handed response. I can’t say how much of the letter was my co-author and how much was me, but I feel a stronger connection to this last line – “Social justice includes compassion, understanding and respect for humans of every race, religion, age, sex and sexual orientation.”
I was relieved to know that overall it was a positive message, and one I stand by even now.
I’ve heard that life isn’t as linear as we like to think it is, but actually more like a spiral. So the same past lessons will circle back around. This seems especially true for those of us cruising through our 40s.
Reading the letter made me think of my college student daughter, who is now nearly the same age I was then, and of all the conversations we have had on related topics. I thought about the time a few years ago, when Carolyn asked to go to the gay pride parade in DC, saying “This is the civil rights issue of our time.” I replied that it was definitely one of them. At the time, the US Supreme Court decision on whether to make gay marriage legal across the country was in the news. We went together to the parade.
My daughter takes the lessons of inclusion a bridge further and she has taught me a lot – like how to be respectful to her friend who is transgender and how to handle which pronoun to use, something I stumbled with at first. “It’s really not that hard,” she said. “It’s all about accepting the person.”
For me, the sudden reminder of this particular past moment was profound, as if my 21-year-old self had just dropped by to tell me something.
I chose to wait until the coverage of that news story in my home state died down before writing here about what that might be. I didn’t want anyone to misconstrue this post as a commentary on the election. (If you are wondering, she won.)
Nor did I want to weigh in on the debate regarding the value of excavating past writings of public figures. I do feel certain that for the rest of us, there is something to be said for the ‘right to be forgotten.’ Not every word needs to live forever. People do change.
But there is another reason I hesitated. I actually posted a version of this piece and then lost my nerve and took it down. I showed it to at least three people for a second opinion, which I don’t normally do with my blog writing. And then, in a moment of quiet, I realized what my problem was. I was dancing around the heart of the matter — that I am just as much a chicken now as I was when I was 21, just as anxious about what others will say.
And that, I think, is the pop-up message from the past Amy. She would like to remind me, and actually all of us, that it’s not your job to play it safe to make people like you. It’s your job to be you. Sometimes that means speaking your truth, and standing up for tolerance and understanding. Words have power, and there will be detractors. That’s okay. Compassion will stand the test of time.
So, set your fears down. Let love be your guide. Keep doing what you do. Keep writing.