I received the news yesterday that a friend from my early college years had passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. Out of respect for his friends and family and their need to to mourn, I'll simply refer to him as Tyler. I hadn't seen or spoken with Tyler in 20 years. It was only in the past year that even I learned of his illness, but when I heard of his death I began to think more about the profound impact he had on my life.
When I first met Tyler I was 19 years old and still living in the rural section of small town, southern Pennsylvania in which I was born. Like many, my world view at age 19 was formed very much by my surroundings - and my surroundings were not home to much diversity. I met Tyler through mutual friends while I was working at a record store (the MP3 was still nearly a decade away).
What I remember most about Tyler is that he was always happy. He just genuinely seemed to enjoy life. Shortly after meeting him I found out that he was gay. At that point in my life I had never been friends with anyone that I knew to be gay - that was not a conscious choice but rather a reality of small town life two decades ago. My initial reaction was, if I recall correctly, "yuck." Understand, at that point in my life my entire understanding of what it meant to be gay was based on stereotypes and a society that was not accepting of homosexuality.
But the initial discomfort passed quickly. I knew Tyler, I liked Tyler, Tyler was... normal. That he was gay quickly became a non-issue. During the time that I knew him, Tyler had a steady boyfriend and our group of friends would often go out. Those of us dating members of the opposite sex were free to hold hands, and flirt, and do what couples do. In public, Tyler and his boyfriend had to play it straight. They were not free to be themselves. In private, hanging out in someones apartment, the two could feel free to show affection and to not hide their relationship - but only in private.
I find myself thinking so much about that time now, because of the profound effect it had on me. I was torn by the fact that society and the "values" with which I was raised told me that Tyler's lifestyle was wrong and that he should keep it hidden. But that understanding of the world was upended by the simple reality that there was nothing wrong or different about Tyler. To put it as simply as possible - I liked girls, he liked boys... so what? It came to bother me a great deal that he had to live a life in secret for fear of the harsh judgment of others. When I heard the jokes and rude comments that were all too common then they were no longer about some foreign concept of homosexuality; rather they were a direct attack on a friend.
Knowing Tyler, changed who I was and how I saw and understood the world. Not because he was an advocate (he certainly wasn't in the way we understand the term), but because he was just a person, a friend, and he deserved the same shot at happiness and acceptance as anyone else. That he lived his live and that I saw that life - made him the greatest advocate I have ever known.
I'm saddened by the fact that I had not spoken with Tyler in 20 years (to all you young folks out there - be warned - twenty years passes by in a flash) but I am most saddened by the fact that at the time of his death society was still engaged in a battle over the very basic concepts of true equality and acceptance for all. I support and argue for the rights of same sex couples today because I knew Tyler then. This November, voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington will have a chance to become the first folks to endorse marriage equality at the ballot box. It has the potential to be a watershed moment in the quest for equality. I hope that it is.