Years later, as he recounted the story to me, I saw what happened that day in a completely different light.
Andrew and I were grad school classmates, part of a small group of executives earning our Masters at a prestigious university. We had two difficult years ahead of us. From negotiation to leadership, onerously long term papers to scathing speech critiques, fate or Providence had made us compadres.
I had fallen in with Andrew a couple months into school, along with a few other kindred spirits. He and I rode the train to Evanston, Illinois from the city on Fridays and Saturdays. We walked and talked on our way to campus, braving below zero temps and more than one wicked thunderstorm.
Andrew had been with his partner for years. I didn’t think twice about it. Homophobia has never been among my many faults. It was 1995. Ellen DeGeneres had yet to come out. Recognized gay marriage was years away. The United States was not yet really facing the issue of gay rights head on.
Remember the times–Scott Amedure, a gay man, was shot to death by a straight man after Amedure revealed a secret crush on him during a taping of The Jenny Jones Show. Commissioners in Hillsborough County, Florida were busy repealing the county’s gay rights law.
Being gay, even in a big city like Chicago, could hurt you.
The woman who owned the editorial agency I used was a lesbian. She had a long-term partner and a daughter. And I kept my mouth shut about her sexual orientation, lest it hurt her status with the Old Boys Club at the company I worked for. I made merry with her and her family at the holiday party. We exchanged gifts each year. And I kept her secret.
Crazy, eh? That it had to be a secret. But her livelihood depended on it.
I knew Andrew was gay and it really did not matter to me. Gay or straight, short or tall—I could have cared less. I would have protested had he lacked a sense of humor or a knack for the written word, perhaps if he had fallen behind on projects. But what went on his bedroom? I cared as little about that as I did about anyone else’s bedroom antics.
Andrew came out to the class a few months into school. I did not realize he was going to do this, nor did I realize he had sported sweaty palms all morning. As he brought mention of his partner into an oral response, I was looking right at him—which is generally what I do when someone has the floor. He locked eyes with me for the full five minutes he spoke, not looking elsewhere for even a second. While I thought it odd he did not break the stare, I did what I usually do—I held a steady gaze. I smiled at him, nodded. The usual normal bits.
It is probably a sign of my 20-something naiveté that I did not understand how momentous this was for him. He was laying himself on the line with people who could make or break his grad school experience–and his career–for the next 20+ months and beyond.
Years later, he told me he could not have come out like that without knowing I was right there. Without feeling my friendship, my lack of judgement, my support. He said if I had broken his gaze, he would have stumbled. He got strength from the connection.
I was brought to tears when he told me that. I had no clue at the time, or immediately thereafter. As I look back, I realize what a huge risk it was for him. There were a few conservative types in our class who could easily have shunned him. They did not–whether because they had open hearts or because the rest of us made clear that shunning was not an option I’ll never know. But, I’m glad Andrew was just Andrew for our two years together. No label was attached other than that. And when he met my very reserved mother at my wedding, and proudly introduced his partner, I could not have been more proud of her. She had heard me speak of Andrew many times and knew his friendship was something I valued. She took his hand, smiled genuinely, and said, “I am so glad I finally get to meet you, Andrew. Kris has such high regard for you.” For a woman in her seventies, I thought that was just about perfect.
I recently came across the blog of someone who had been complimentary of mine some time ago. When I read her blog for the first time, my mouth dropped open. In it, amongst the copious misspellings, was the main thrust of her story—encouraging her readers to boycott clothing designers who are gay. Why? Because God counts being gay as a sin, she said. And then she went on, McCarthy-style, listing names of gay designers that no “good” Christian should buy from.
My first thought: “Really? Are we still here? In this ugly, unenlightened place?” My second: “How do I address this?” I felt inadequate to address it, as I don’t believe we change each other’s views with a war of words.
And then, I thought of Andrew—and it hit me. My steady gaze. Don’t back away. Don’t be hateful. Just do what you do.
I responded to her blog thus: “Oh my. I do not believe we share a Christ. Mine preaches unconditional love.”
I left it at that. Because sometimes, all we have to do is hold that steady gaze.
I don’t plan on wavering.