When my daughter asked why our friends are gay, it reminded me how far we've come.
My wife and I count two different gay couples — one female, one male — among our closest friends.
We see these friends often, and they are important people to our two young daughters.
A few weeks ago, we saw both couples in one day. In the morning, one couple came over to celebrate our daughter’s second birthday. We ate cake and drank coffee on the roof deck while the children played. Later that day, we went to the other couple’s house for dinner. There we ate more cake and drank beer while the children ran around the backyard with the two dogs.
On the drive home, our 3-year-old must have suddenly noticed the difference between gay and straight.
From the backseat, she asked me and my wife: "Why are some sweetie-pies men and men? Why are some men and women? And why are some sweetie-pies women and women?”
My wife and I smiled at each other. “It just depends on who you love,” I said.
Our daughter said OK and asked no more questions. Simple as that.
The ease of that brief conversation left me with a rare kind of satisfaction. My kids inhabit an America that is, by one measure, far more humane and decent than the one where I grew up.
I must have been about 12 when I learned that my mother knew a lesbian.
She refused to name this person when I asked who she was. Did I know her? Had I met her?
“You don’t know her well,” my mother said. “But you’ve met her a few times.”
I begged my mom to tell me who this person was. Instead, she made a pledge: When the lesbian died, my mom promised to say who she was. From then on, every so often I’d ask, “Is the lesbian dead yet?”
A few years later, Anne, mom’s elderly church friend, passed away.
It turns out that the mysterious lesbian was Anne’s daughter. Anne shared her secret with my mom, who promised to tell no one. And when Anne died, my mom decided to share the secret with me.
Then, it was like being gay was a stain so deep that only death could wipe away its shame. That was the lesson. I wondered and worried if this thing could happen to me, too.
Being gay seemed like an infection that could quietly enter the body and corrupt the soul. My dad said not to worry, then. I sure hoped that he was right.
It was around this time that I watched Pat Buchanan’s 1992 opening speech at the Republican National Convention with my family.
Buchanan railed against gay people, and I recall being a bit stunned by his anger, but not by the essential message of homosexual deviancy. Back then, that notion could just float weightlessly in the air.
Someday, I hope to talk with my daughters about all of this.
About how things used to be. About a world where a common cruelty simply existed among people who were otherwise quite decent.
That many parents now speak to their kids about sexual orientation without a veil of shame is a welcome reminder that some good changes are underway, however incomplete.
Yes, look at what is happening in North Carolina. Progress is rarely linear.
But I am quite certain that my daughters, like so many children of their generation, will never need to ask such a regrettable question: “Is the lesbian dead yet?”