It’s been funny working with Andrew’s Round Table. We have been talking about the same stuff for well over a year and it just doesn’t seem like I have anything new to say. So last night, I gave my speech (I will share it at the end) for MN United for all Families to rally the troops and I have realized that the hard part has only begun. We HAVE to talk. I guess it just feels like old hat to me. I am kind of sick of myself. BUT…after my speech, an older gentlemen walked up to me and started discussing growing up in rural Iowa. He said, “I am going back to my 50th class reunion and there are now five classmates who have come out. I can only imagine what life must have been like for them 50 years ago.” And a good friend told me that my story was boring in the best sort of way. Gay is gay and my family just kept on moving. Sadly, we have had more drama in our lives than we needed, but ousting a family member for who they are was not part of it. So those little comments, those observations by others, those connections that people make to people in their lives when they hear my story is what this is all about. As sick of my own talking as I am, I will keep at it.
Here is what our local paper had to say about the event.
By the way, thanks mom and dad. Your gifts keep on giving.
I am so excited that tonight is finally here. It is an honor to speaking for Winona’s Chapter of Minnesotan’s United for all Families.
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Lisa Gray and I am here because I am a part of Andrew’s Round Table, an organization that was formed shortly after Andrew Wilfahrt, cousin to my husband, was killed while serving in Afghanistan on February 27th, 2011. He was among the first acknowledged gay soldiers killed after the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Jeff and Lori Wilfahrt, Andrew’s parents, failed to prevent the amendment from passing despite their tireless efforts in both the house and senate. Feeling raw and hopeless, they reached out to people they had met along the way, people who had been touched by their story, and asked if we could do something. Was there room in our state for some people to speak out on behalf of those who no longer could, such as Andrew, or those who simple felt threatened? Specifically, they wanted straight people to talk, to show that this amendment matters to us as well. In Andrew’s honor, we wanted to promote an intelligent, hopeful conversation about the inclusion of all people in our society. Everyone in our organization has a story. Everyone in our organization has been touched by a loved one who is gay, bi-sexual, or transgender. And everyone in our organization wants as much for our loved ones as we have for ourselves, which includes the freedom to marry.
But my journey to this moment began well over twenty years ago in a small rural community in northwest Iowa where I grew up with my 3 siblings including two brothers, and a sister, Angie. I watched Angie live through “coming out” to people who never spoke about being gay. Night after night during our teen years, my sister would cry as we prepared for bed and ask, “What is wrong with me?” Usually, I would shrug in a noncommittal way because while I knew she was extremely shy and struggled to fit in at times, I never really saw anything that was wrong. In the mid- 1980’s in rural Iowa, the only knowledge of what being gay meant centered around AIDS. I can’t honestly tell you if I ever uttered the word gay while in junior or senior high school. Angie would follow me to the same college though it wasn’t the right place for her. She would enter a deep depression, drop out, and find herself at the Art Institute of Chicago where someone invited her out to a well-known gay club. She looked at them as if to say, “Why would I want to go there?” Their reply? Well, you’re gay, aren’t you? It was a moment of self-discovery- the synthesis of all that finally made sense. But the largest hurdle beyond that personal admission was the one she needed to make to our parents. After Angie confided in me, she told mom who responded exactly how my mother always responds when she hears news that is unsettling. She said, “Oh Angie”. There was no disappointment in those two words….just concern. “Oh Angie” meant she wanted her to be happy and safe and that this road would be hard. But, “Oh Angie” also said I love you and I will be here for you no matter what.
But what would dad say? He was prone to using colorful, racially derogatory language at times. As my sister and I had gotten older and went to college and learned the ways of the world, we got bolder by calling him on it, but neither us could ever recall discussing gay rights or issues. We just didn’t know what he would do or say. So, understandably, Angie asked mom to tell dad. Angie and dad were close in the way that anyone is close to my dad. She can talk tractors and engines and cars and weather with the best of the Iowa farmers– but how could she talk being gay?
When I look back, how my father responded to Angie’s news was nothing short of a miracle. This man, whose views on the world seemed limited especially at that time, took the news from my mother in silence. After an hour or two, he did this: He picked up the phone and called Angie and said, “Hey Ang? I love you whatever you are.” Nothing changed in their relationship- they still talk on the phone when bad weather strikes Minneapolis or northern Iowa or when her truck isn’t running properly. Bill Gray, my dad, gave Angie, and ultimately all of his kids, the gift of total acceptance and love and that is how I earned my spot at this event.
I have seen and felt that love is indeed love from the most important people in my life, and I want nothing less for everyone which is what this kick-off event is all about. We want to encourage others to share their stories.
For every story that is shared, more lives are validated and we chip away at the root of fear, which is the basis for this amendment. For every story that is shared, we alleviate the willingness to dilute a document designed specifically to protect as many people as possible. For every story that is shared, fewer will become threatened by semantics. Love is love and amending the constitution to define marriage as something that only occurs between a man and woman is the exact opposite of love.
I know my dad wasn’t thinking about Angie’s freedom to marry back in 1990, but he would proudly march her down the aisle today in any state that would allow it. We can move in that direction, but first we must tell our stories and explain that voting No protects everyone. Voting No embodies what it truly means to be Minnesota Nice.
If my father, a man with limited life experiences in a small rural community understood total acceptance well over 20 years ago, then surely the state of Minnesota can reach the same conclusion in 2012.