My lack of tolerance for intolerance of the LGBT community found its roots in a conversation I had over 35 years ago. That conversation was the timid coming out of my neighbor and friend Mary Stremple in her driveway before she headed out with her family for their annual family vacation on Catalina Island. Mary was about 17 at the time and she couldn’t even say the word “lesbian” – she merely opened the dictionary to the page that lesbian was on and told me she was something on that page. My response to my first known lesbian friend coming out was nothing that I would say was profound. I recall it to be something like, “I’m cool with that.” At the time, I didn’t recognize how powerful that simple statement was. At the time, I didn’t understand how a lack of acceptance from others would later essentially cost Mary everything.
Mary was raised in a devoutly Catholic household. It was not unusual to see priests and others higher up in the Archdiocese visiting her house for supper. Mary’s upbringing in the Catholic Church imbued in her a sense of connection to the community and commitment to the values of the church that were evident in her everyday activities. I knew every time Mary and I went somewhere together that our plans could be interrupted at any given moment by one of her spontaneous acts of kindness. Frankly, as a teenager it used to drive me mad. We were constantly stopping to help someone – be it by virtue of giving them a ride home when they were laden down with grocery bags, giving them the extra money for groceries, or in one case giving them shoes – literally. That is a classic Mary story – she literally gave a woman the shoes off her feet because she had none. God bless Mary – she always understood how to live her faith. It wasn’t until I was older and recognized how many folks were not like Mary that I fully appreciated how powerful Mary’s day-to-day kindnesses were. They talked about those kindnesses at her funeral. Everyone knew her soul was better than most – that her loss was more than sadly tragic, it was the loss of a true role model who practiced what she preached everyday.
Mary died in 1996 when she was hit by a truck as she tried to cross a California freeway. The details on the specifics of her death were never completely clear, but Mary had become involved with drugs in her later years and struggled in an abusive relationship. Somewhere along the line Mary came to hate herself and lost sight of the possibilities open to her. Mary’s partner was excluded from her funeral service by Mary’s family. The funeral service was more about the Mary that existed in folks’ minds – the woman that was good, thoughtful and kind – it was completely divorced from her identity as a lesbian. Of course, that word was never uttered at the funeral. The “L” word was a word of shame in her family – they never could (indeed never have even now) accepted that piece of Mary. This made me angry then and still makes me just as angry today.
Acceptance was big in Mary’s life. Her family and her faith didn’t believe in homosexuality so she tried to be straight. There was a series of boyfriends where she threw all her energy into wild partying and rampant promiscuity to try and find a place where she could live with others’ reality for her. At the end of the day, she kept coming back to the same place – an emptiness that couldn’t be filled and an identity that would not be accepted by the people and church she loved. So Mary changed and the loathing others evidenced toward her sexual preference eventually became her loathing for herself. It was just a few short steps beyond that point to drugs and an abusive relationship.
One of Mary’s favorite songs was Supertramp’s The Logical Song. When she first took a shine to it I really had no idea why, but later I came to understand why she liked it so much. The song is all about a shift in one’s understanding of what is – a query on what identity should be. As I said, Mary struggled with that for awhile as who she believed she was stood in contradiction with her faith and family beliefs. These days I consider The Logical Song to be Mary’s anthem…a symbolic capture of the confusion caused when who you are at your core is not accepted by those in the world you inhabit. Can you imagine how painful that must be? I cannot imagine that in the first person, but I saw it played out in Mary’s life.
I have The Logical Song on my iPod. Every time I hear it I think of Mary and the damage intolerance can cause. Consider the below excerpt of the lyrics from the song and tell me if you too can hear Mary’s plea for understanding and acceptance.
When I was young
It seemed that life was so wonderful
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical
And all the birds in the trees
Well they’d be singing so happily
Joyfully, playfully watching me
But then they send me away
To teach me how to be sensible
Logical, responsible, practical
And then they showed me a world
Where I could be so dependable
Clinical, intellectual, cynical
There are times when all the world’s asleep
The questions run too deep for such a simple mind
Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned?
I know it sounds absurd but please tell me who I am…
Take a good look around at each and every child you encounter for the next few days and remember that we know from statistics that about one out of every ten will find their identity squarely in the LGBT community. Are you willing to cast off that ten percent? Will their potential change as human beings because their sexual preference changes? Is the value of a human soul defined or redefined based upon sexual preference? Can you live with the fallout of your intolerance?
Mary may have been hit by a truck in 1996, but her spirit was killed long before her actual physical death. I believe Mary would still be here today and the world would be a better place had she been accepted for who she was. Her death stands in my mind as a constant reminder of the toll that intolerance has on a soul that places value and credence in the thoughts and opinions of others.
Understand the way your lack of tolerance affects others who value what you think…understand that intolerance for an identity that a human being is born with and cannot change (whatever that may be) can be crippling. In Mary’s case the judgment of the Catholic Church ratified by her family caused her to eventually hate herself (it is telling that she didn’t turn that hate toward her family or the church). That was, in my opinion, the real cause of her death.
So my lack of tolerance for intolerance has deep roots and at my core I now carry the message Mary’s life and death taught me. I hope you too will carry Mary’s message forward – remember one in every ten children will struggle like Mary did – don’t let their stories end like Mary’s.
Day eight hundred and ten of the new forty – obla di obla da