On Trashing a Dream

I closed a chapter in my life today twenty years in the making, and, in the process, I trashed a dream.

I went to law school with the idea that my legal career would involve civil rights. I was fascinated by constitutional law, and, be it through the academy or a litigation practice, I envisioned myself fighting the good fight for gay rights. I could articulate the arguments that, to me, seemed so obvious, but, to others, were less so. I saw myself marching toward a meaningful career that fused personal and professional interests.

It never really happened.

I guess my first mistake was attending a law school known more for its focus on corporate law than civil rights law. I wrote a few law review articles on gay rights, and they got some attention. But central Kentucky was not a hotbed of civil rights jurisprudence, and I definitely was not linked in to the gay rights movement. In an odd (and dispiriting) twist, when I did travel to Washington, D.C., to interview for a legal job with the nation’s most prominent gay rights advocacy group, one interviewer told me that, in my subsequent interviews that day, I should lose the “aww-shucks” Kentucky accent. I came to interview to fight for equality, and was told I shouldn’t be myself.

I ended up taking a job clerking for a judge with a federal agency, never again to seriously flirt with a job in the academy or the civil rights movement. For the next fifteen years, though, tucked away in a trunk, I kept my law school text book for my civil rights litigation course, as well as my class notes and final exam outline. A few times a year, I would pull it out and thumb through the pages. I’d wonder about roads not taken. And I always returned it safely to the trunk, thinking to myself, “Who knows?”

Then, today, I found myself cleaning out the garage. As we prepare to move into our new home in nine months, I decided to rummage through some crates and trunks and make room for packing. When I did, I came across my course work again, but, this time, I made a different choice. For my psyche, it was a moment of reckoning. The materials represented a dream, my thrust to go to law school, my idealized version of the attorney I thought I would be. In the end, though, it wasn’t the attorney I turned out to be. And, in some ways, I was never fully accepting of the direction of my career, and, by keeping the materials in the trunk, I held out the possibility that the career I imagined might, one day, come to fruition.

But as I stood there in my garage, sweat dripping, and flipping through the course text book for the hundredth time since law school, I realized that, rather than holding out the promise of a dream I wanted to chase, the course materials were getting in the way, literally and figuratively, of me moving on with my life. When you think about what might have been, you stop yourself from accepting, embracing, and appreciating what is. In fifteen years I had not taken one step toward that old dream, and, if actions speak louder than words (or old text books), it was time to admit to myself that that dream was not alive. Moreover, I was okay with that.

So, today, the course materials didn’t go back in the trunk; they went in the trash and recycling. As I slid the trunk back into place, I felt fine. I’m happy, I’ve got an amazing husband, we are growing our family, and I’m making room for even more wonderful memories to come in our new home. It’s time to focus on the present and the future, not the past and what might have been. Time for some new dreams…

 

On Being Told To Jump Off A Bridge…With a Heavy Rock Tied Around Your Neck

I’ll never forget the time a resident of my hometown told me I should jump off a bridge with a heavy rock tied around my neck. Okay, he wasn’t talking directly to me. But he did mean me, and he was serious.

In 1999, my small hometown debated an ordinance to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Predictably, it caused quite the stir. Press conferences were held where the local dry cleaner opined on the Constitution, large assemblies were held in junior high gyms where people prayed and chanted about protecting the family, and some neighbors talked to each other for the last time, to this very day. Three members of the five-member city council supported the measure, and, after multiple meetings and hour upon hour of impassioned pleas from all sides, the council passed the measure. My little town would not discriminate. If you listened to most of the loudest voices, you knew life itself was coming to an end.

All these years later, I don’t remember a lot from those days. Flashes here and there. With unfettered clarity, however, I recall sitting in my junior high school auditorium one night as a large man clad in camouflage sauntered to the microphone to share his views on the nondiscrimination ordinance. Spoiler: he wasn’t a fan. His rousing finale was: “[This town] would be a better place if all the homosexuals here would tie heavy rocks around their necks and jump off the bridge.” At the time, the violent sincerity of his words made the biggest impression. Now, I’m haunted by the fact that I cannot recall him being rebuked or denounced. I can’t recall boos or hisses or gasps or any other reaction.  Maybe every one of the hundreds gathered was in shock. Maybe lots agreed with him but didn’t have the guts to unsheathe their prejudice quite so proudly.

I know the man was an idiot. I knew it at the time. But I still remember his words. I thought of them the day I graduated law school. I thought of them the day I was married. I thought of them every time I came home for the holidays. It’s not post-traumatic stress. It’s how you know some people truly, deeply, greatly, wonderfully hate you for no other reason than who you are.

It’s a different time now, but I’ll never forget my camouflaged friend.  If hubby and I have a large wedding ceremony one day, I already know my toast. After thanking so many wonderful people for being in my life, I’ll share this story. How, to come from sitting in your junior high school and being told, in effect, you are worthless, to being married, having a family and amazing career, living openly and honestly, well, it doesn’t get any better than that. And I’ll mean every single word.

My hometown quickly repealed the nondiscrimination ordinance when new commissioners were elected. Families were spared the evil of equality, the “right” values prevailed, and morality was maintained. But I didn’t jump. I didn’t jump.