Estimates for how much of my childhood was spent in the car on long road trips range from 30-80%, depending on which trip I’m remembering. Every summer of my childhood, my dad – or both my parents – got invited to minister at week-long church camps called “reunions.” Over the years, we travelled by car to reunions in at least half of the lower 48 states, and several Canadian provinces as well. When my parents became empty-nesters, they got invited to places like Tahiti, Australia, and Hawaii. But I’m not bitter.
One of our trips back when I was five or six years old took us through the Black Hills of South Dakota. My recollection is that Dad had taken some “No Doz” so he could stay awake (Red Bull hadn’t been invented, and he didn’t drink coffee), and he was driving – and vibrating with caffeine-induced jitters – through the night across the other-worldly landscape of the Black Hills.
At some point in the wee hours, I woke up to find that Dad and I were the only ones awake in the car. I looked outside and asked quietly, “Where are we?”
“We’re driving through the Black Hills of South Dakota.”
“What kinds of animals do they have here in the Black Hills?”
“Oh, let’s see. Buffalo. Antelope. Maybe mountain lions. Bears. Deer.”
“Which is the biggest one?”
“Probably the buffalo. But bears get pretty big, too.”
I looked out the window again. It was the darkest dark I had ever seen, even with our little headlights, and the occasional lights of a passing truck or car. For whatever reason, I was suddenly obsessed with seeing a buffalo. I squinted hard and peered out the window. I made circles with my hands, and used them as pretend binoculars. I scanned the horizon.
“Psst. Hey Dad,” I whispered. “I see some buffalo out there.”
“Really?” he whispered back.
“Yeah. They’re huge!”
“Wow! What are they doing?”
“Um. Uh oh. I think they’re running toward our car. Go faster!”
“I can’t do that without getting a ticket.”
I looked up ahead, then behind us. No police car in sight. No cars or trucks of any kind. No other signs of life, except for all those buffaloes of unusual size I was sure were chasing our car. The humming in my head became a roar. Ohhhhhh noooooooo. Hurrrrry uuuuuuuuup, Daaaaaaad. Drive fasterrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Come onnnnnnnn. Goooooooooooooooooooooooo.
I crawled over my sleeping brothers and found a spot behind my dad. I reached up over his seat and started rubbing his shoulders. He liked when I did this during long distance drives, and it was a way for me to feel connected to him without bothering him. It also made me feel a little safer.
After a long silence, punctuated by Dad’s murmurs of gratitude for the shoulder rub, I said, “I’d sure like to see these buffaloes better. When will the sun come up?” “Not for a few hours, Joybells. Why don’t you get some sleep?”
I thought to myself, “But what if the buffaloes aren’t out there when I wake up? What if this is my only chance to see them? Why are they chasing us? Why are these stupid Black Hills so dang BLACK??”
I drifted back to sleep for a bit. When I awoke again, we were driving through that pre-dawn darkness that feels so full of hope and possibility (or dread, if you’ve stayed up all night studying for an exam or writing a paper). The long and ridiculously dark night was almost over. My dad had stayed awake. And the buffaloes were STILL there!
I perked up and waited eagerly to see my first real live buffalo. I used my hand binoculars to get a closer look. I couldn’t believe what I saw. I slowly put the hand binoculars down in my lap and looked out the window, unaided. I swallowed hard, first in disbelief, and then in embarrassment.
All those enormous, scary buffaloes I had seen before were trees. Gnarly, hump-backed, buffalo-shaped trees. They dotted the landscape as far as I could see. The lighter it got, the smaller and more ordinary the trees appeared. By the time the sun was all the way up, I couldn’t figure out how the trees had ever looked like rampaging herds of buffaloes to begin with. And yet my middle-of-the-night certainty and the fear it inspired were so clear and fresh and real.
This memory was playing like a movie in my head when I awoke in the wee hours yesterday morning. As I lay there trying to fall back to sleep, counting the buffaloes/trees, I remembered that October 11, is “National Coming Out Day” here in the U.S.and in several other countries (it’s on October 12 in the U.K.)
When National Coming Out Day was founded in 1988, I’d be willing to bet that very few people in the queer community, or our allies, friends, or families, envisioned where we’d be now: same-sex marriage is legal in 10 countries, as well as six states in the U.S. You might think that such a trend would render National Coming Out Day irrelevant.
My hunch is that National Coming Out Day and the AIDS Memorial Quilt were among the many things that helped to pave the way for the momentum we see now for same-sex marriage. Back when we queer people were mostly just shadowy gigantic buffaloes of people’s frightened imaginations, same-sex marriage was unthinkable. Even civil unions weren’t on the map, for the most part. As more and more of us started coming out – along with our families, friends, and allies – it was as if the sun began to rise. Lo and Behold! All along, those gnarly buffaloes were just ordinary trees.
I have fewer people to come out to these days, but I have friends and family who are not so lucky. I still have plenty of friends and family who are faced daily – usually multiple times each day – with the exhausting battle of whether or not to come out, how to come out, and to whom. Each decision is freighted with worries that include, “And what if they hate me? And what if they hurt me?”
Even as It Gets Better, it doesn’t necessarily get easier. Kids still get bullied for being suspected of being queer. People are still killing themselves, or being killed, for being queer. Thirteen years ago today, Matthew Shepard died of injuries sustained when two men beat and tortured him for being queer. That seems like only yesterday to me.
So this year I have a different take on National Coming Out Day. For the first time in my life, I am hearing it as an invitation to straight people who are our allies, friends, and families. Because even in a world where more of us can get married, we still have a long way to go until every queer person can live a life of openness and integrity without fear of losing our jobs, our families, our children, our homes, or even our lives.
This past summer, the hospital where I work started a Be An Ally program, which encourages ALL hospital staff to put rainbow stickers on our badges as a sign of support and welcome to all queer people and their friends, families, and allies who are on hospital grounds. It’s an amazing thing to see so many rainbow stickers everywhere. That’s one way to come out.
So come out, you allies, friends, and families of queer folk. Come out, come out, whoever you are. We need your help, because we can’t create a safe place on our own. As an example, right now the presidential candidates from the Republican Party are busy shooting daggers at each other over who is a Real Christian or a Real Conservative. PW and I were talking recently about what a relief it is to have their wrath focused elsewhere.
Eventually, though, many politicians of all affiliations and many of the religious folk who support them will start shooting at the queers. They do this in every election cycle. It’s exhausting to be so regularly and so predictably dehumanized. So we need you straight people to come out now more than ever, and we need you to do it daily, as many times a day as you can. To paraphrase the queer writer Audre Lorde, your silence does not protect us. We need your active and vocal support to help us shine the light through people’s fears and anxieties, so we can all see our rampaging herds of midnight buffaloes transformed into the benign, shade-giving trees of morning.
Lyrics to “Always” by Blind Pilot
Holy road we are on tonight
Catch as catch can till we get it right
Always… in this dark light
Tell me more than what you can guess
Feel like thunder then quick to forget
Always looking for what is not yet
Lock the keys in my house tonight
Hit the steps for the morning light
Always looking for a new light