Aaron had something to say. His legs were jittery. His face was pale, distracted. His sentences were delivered carefully, laboriously, as if trying to wrestle each word to the ground. I suspected that the “Mind Erasers” (a toxic turquoise libation native to the Oxford, Ohio, bar in which we sat) were starting to run his motor skills off the road. But it wasn't that.
He couldn't bring himself to actually say what he wanted to say. Instead, he used hints and insinuations, hand gestures and eye-rolls only to watch his nuances and subtleties bounce off me like a brick wall.
The conversation devolved into an absurd cross between Mad Libs and The $100,000 Pyramid. Let's see, things that Aaron likes. Uh, sports! Pizza! Um, the A League of Their Own soundtrack! It went on like this for several minutes until I slowly began to recognize some common themes. My mental fog began to lift. And then it hit me.
He never used the words “gay,” “homosexual” or “Cher.” In fact, he never technically told me. But I eventually understood what he was trying to say. I wasn't shocked. I wasn't stunned. But I was surprised.
Sexual orientation wasn't exactly a common topic of conversation in our small Oregon hometown. I was aware that gay people existed in the same way that I knew people from North Dakota existed. I was pretty confident they were out there somewhere, but it seemed unlikely that we'd ever cross paths.
Aaron didn't exactly fit my perception of a gay man, either. He was an all-state athlete, a proverbial All-American male, a frat boy who loved sports and whose last serious girlfriend was an exceedingly attractive young woman. Then again, he did really like musicals.
Never before and never since have I seen Aaron as frightened as he was that night. An uncertain future awaited him and, once he crossed that threshold, there was no going back. That was nine years ago. Now, he's comfortable and confident with his sexual orientation.
Not that there haven't been difficulties. One of Aaron's first serious boyfriends was scared straight by his conservative parents—who sent their son to one of those biblical “reorientation” programs—and is now living a good Christian life with his wife and kids.
Then there was the time that some slack-jawed yokel spray-painted “Fag” on the side of our dad's house. I didn't want to give the perpetrators a lengthy dissertation on tolerance. I wanted to tie them to a train trestle and shatter their kneecaps with a ball-peen hammer.
That said, by virtue of Aaron, our family has adopted the cause of tolerance and equality when it comes to discrimination by orientation. Still, Aaron and I had a similar reaction to the state Supreme Court's landmark decision earlier this month.
Cool. Is the Padres game on yet?
“I don't want to downplay the importance of it,” Aaron told me, after several prompts. “There are people who have fought for that right who feel that this is really important. It is. But maybe I'm just disenchanted with marriage in general because it just seems like a good way to ruin a perfectly good relationship.”
Aaron, like me, has a more measured response to the decision. The fact that the November ballot initiative still looms or the fact that federal recognition is still a long way from becoming a reality tempers the enthusiasm. But there is acknowledgment that there has been a tangible shift in the cultural mindset.
“There's always going to be challenges for any minority group,” Aaron says. “But it does feel different. Maybe it's the same feeling people had when women received the right to vote or when Brown vs. Board of Education was passed. There's just this feeling that progress is inevitable.”
I don't know if Aaron and his “other half” Travis will get married. Like any marriage, the ritual is more about symbolism than anything else. But it's good to know that they can. And regardless of how things turn out in November, even I—a born skeptic and full-time pessimist—have a feeling that the wave has crested and the shore is within reach.