"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter."
- Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
As a public elementary school fourth grader the thought never entered my head that I should hate, change or disrespect my best friend Jane Ann because she attended one of the four Catholic schools in our small Northeastern Ohio town. Our neighborhood playmates occasionally teased her about high knee socks, drab uniforms, abusive nun stories, rosaries and the intimidating portrait of Jesus hanging above her bed. We had yet to be exposed to intentional contempt. Along with a dozen or so children on our block we rode our bikes, played street football and acted out scenes from the musical Grease on backyard picnic tables. The only thing we argued about was who would play Danny or Sandy next. We were different sizes, colors and shapes but we didn't care.
Years later Jane Ann moved to another city. Adolescence slowly matured to teenager. Right in the middle of a semester a young man from a local Catholic school transferred to our public junior high. He was bullied for being gay. Even his teachers reminded him he was going to hell. Heaven and Hell was and still is a foreign concept to me. In my mind he wasn't a sinner who would spend eternity in a fiery pit of torturous demons. He was a young kid like any young kid except he was getting the shit kicked out of him for being "different". I was a quiet, diplomatic introvert who tried to get along with everyone. He was loud, straight forward, creative and made me laugh so immediately I adored him. We listened to the same music. We loved art, animals and movies. We wrote silly, slutty notes to each other in study hall. We were band geeks. We were best friends.
During high school some students continued to taunt him but he knew who had his back. One of our teachers felt ridiculed after my friend challenged him on the answer to an open question. The class was really enjoying the exchange. Both sides offered up valid commentary. We were captivated by the thoughtful ideas flying back and forth like an intense intellectual ping pong match. The debate became so heated our teacher completely lost his composure screaming, "Go to hell you smart ass little faggot." in front of the entire class. Frozen in time, our collective gasp. My friend grabbed his book bag, walked out into the hallway and waited for me until the bell rang. Without a word, side by side we walked to the office where my friend asked the secretary's permission to use the phone. He called his parents to tell them what happened.
"They're on their way." he reassured. Tears filled my eyes as I imagined the pain he might be feeling. "That teacher is an asshole." I sobbed.
" You are so freaking sensitive. You need to toughen up." he laughed.
" You don't deserve to be treated like this." I said snapping back." And yes, I'm sensitive. Tough shit. That's why we're still friends."
Smiling, he looked directly into my eyes, "Yeah, I know." he whispered.hugging me,
" I love you too."