I have a friend who is a successful businessman, and a couple of years ago he won an award for his business success. It had been a while since I had spoken to him, so I used the opportunity to congratulate him as an excuse to renew the friendship and get “caught up.”
We chatted for a minute, and he graciously accepted my congratulations. But my friend, who happens to be gay, used the phone call as an excuse to chastise me for a short speech I gave in front of the Board of County Commissioners in Mecklenburg County, N.C., where we both live. The commissioners wanted to include the words “sexual orientation” in the county’s non-discrimination policy. I opposed the change, and I opposed the way some of the commissioners were speeding the decision through the process. I begged the commissioners, “Please consider this move more carefully before you make it.”
I thought it was a respectful and reasonable request. After all, out of more than 30,000 cities and towns across America, only about 150 of them had made this move. I believe there are good reasons the other 29,850 have not made this decision. I wanted Charlotte to think a little longer before joining the ranks of San Francisco and Aspen. The commissioners chose to ignore my request. They voted to change the policy. Oh, well. I took my shot. I lost. I’ll be back to fight another day. That’s the democratic process at work.
But my gay friend had a very different interpretation of events. “Why do you hate gay people?” he asked.
I was taken aback. “Tom [not his real name],” I said, “how can you say that? Do you think I hate you?”
“Well, no,” he admitted. And I knew I had him on that one. For while Tom and I disagreed over much, we had known each other for more than a decade, had done business together, had shared meals together. We had genuine affection for each other.
But he persisted: “Then why do you say the things you say?”
“Tom,” I said, defensively, “All I said was that the commission should take more time before making this move. That’s not unreasonable.”
“Yeah,” he said, “but I knew where you were going.”
That’s when the light bulb went off. What my friend Tom was responding to was not me but his fears about what he considered to be “people like me.” He put me and Fred Phelps (the “God Hates Fags” guy) in the same bucket, even though he knew in his heart we are very different. But because he was afraid of where my arguments might lead, he felt he could concede me no ground. He accused me of a hatred that he knew I didn’t have just for the sake of his ideological position. He could not accept the possibility that I considered homosexuality to be not just bad, but bad for him. He could not accept the possibility that I opposed homosexuality because I cared for gay people. “You’re playing with dynamite, Tom,” I said. “If I really hated you, I’d just let you keep playing until you blew yourself up.”
Tom had heard me say that before, and he had a ready answer. That launched us into a generally respectful 15-minute debate, with many points and counterpoints. I won’t burden you with that conversation. You can probably guess most of what we both said. But I will tell you this: When we both exhausted ourselves, when it came time to hang up, I made sure my friend understood at least one thing. “Now, Tom,” I said. “I just want you to know I love you. You know that, don’t you?”
He laughed and said, “I know, Warren. I love you, too.”
That’s a start, anyway.