The privilege to be weird, and the right to be normal

Berlin (Germany)GermanyBerlin Wall's Fall (1989)Same-Sex MarriageNPR

Last week, while driving to work, I heard an NPR story that included snippets of an interview with a woman who had just applied for a marriage license. This would not have been newsworthy if not for the fact that she was gay. On Nov. 6, voters in Washington, Maryland and Maine approved marriage equality laws. Last Thursday was the first day that gay and lesbian couples in Washington state could fill out forms and exercise their new right.

It was a very long time coming, so I would have forgiven the woman for screaming with joy or drenching the microphone in tears, but that's not what she did. I didn't catch her name or what town she was from, but give or take a syllable, she said something like this: "It feels good to finally be normal," happily and wearily, as if she had finally set down a very heavy weight.

To hear someone express such relief after obtaining a right I've taken for granted was humbling. I have never wanted to be "normal," but that grateful stranger helped me realize it is largely because I was born above the safety net that comes with being acceptably straight and male that I've felt so comfortable being a weirdo. Traveling abroad, challenging a retired British major general to a water balloon duel, playfully spanking my German host mom on her living room floor — not everyone is so lucky. I have had a strange and privileged life.

One of those privileges is knowing I will never be told that I am wrong to love someone or that our attempts to plan a life together go against the laws of God and man. Yet I do have some experience being set apart against my will. In my Thanksgiving column, I explained how I spent my senior year of high school in Germany as an exchange student with a family outside of Hamburg. This was 1997, just eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was deliberately placed in what had been West Germany, since the West had more experience with foreigners. My host parents, however, were from the East and sent me to stay with friends all over, including a family near East Berlin.

My tour guide was one of the family's two daughters, Julianne, a beautiful young woman who was exactly my age. During one of my first full days in town, I went with Julianne to school and felt so comfortable around her and her classmates that I accepted their offer to attend an event that night, a costume party with a cross-dressing theme. (When in Berlin, right?)

She went for a 1920s gangster look: suit; pencil mustache; short, slick hair. Not that anything could hide her figure, but I digress. Short on options, I ended up wearing one of her mother's old house dresses atop my Timberland boots.

I was one of the uglier women at the party, but it was all good fun until I noticed that some people were not in costume. A few boys ditched the theme altogether in favor of black boots and black bomber jackets, shaved heads and black jeans. They glanced at me, the only black person in the room. Then they stared. At Julianne's prompting, I hid in a classroom. No one was hurt, but at the end of the night we were escorted to our car by the police. Fearing for my life while dressed in drag, I saw firsthand how hard some people work to create spaces where others don't feel safe. That night, a small piece of the globe was stolen from me, so I empathize with anyone who is told, "Not you. Not here. Not now." And I'm happy to see how the map of states giving same-sex couples full access to their rights is expanding.

Contrary to what some people predicted, it is mostly a calm, peaceful change. Growing up in conservative Christian circles, I heard people argue that "the homosexual agenda" would be the downfall of American society. For decades, they shouted the anti-gay equivalent of "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" I'm glad they were wrong. From where I stand, the view has never been better.

Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. Email: lionel@lionelfoster.com. Twitter: @LionelBMD.

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