When I was 8 years old (circa 1960), my family took a vacation trip to Washington, D.C., and Williamsburg, Va. I have many fond memories of that trip, but the incident that sticks in my mind more than 50 years later is not so fond.
We were in a public facility somewhere in Virginia – it may have been a bus station or a visitors center, I can’t recall exactly. I needed to use the bathroom and saw that I had two choices: “Men’s Room White” or “Men’s Room Colored.” Being an innocent and somewhat naive 8-year-old, I thought the distinction referred to the interior decor, and naturally I chose the “colored” option. Why enter a room where everything is a boring white color when I could enjoy what I imagined to be a bright room with multi-colored walls and fixtures?
The reality of course was quite different. Not only was the “colored” room not brightly colored and pretty, but it was dull, dirty and generally quite unpleasant. How could the signs be so wrong?
After completing my business, I left the “colored” men’s room and immediately complained to my father that the signs were misleading. Whereupon he explained to me that, unfortunately, in the South, black people were still required to use separate bathroom facilities from white people and that the distinction in the signs related not to the interior decor, but to the color of one’s skin. I recall being befuddled by this answer, but I knew in my head and in my heart, even at the young age of 8, that it was just plain wrong to discriminate against a group of people because of who they are.
Fast forward to the 1990s. I am now a senior executive with UNUM Life Insurance Co. and have been asked to take a leading role in UNUM’s Diversity Awareness initiative. We organized a series of conversations designed to help all employees better understand the perspectives of various minority groups employed at our company and a part of our community. One of these conversations involved several members of the gay and lesbian community. We asked questions, they offered information, and it was an intense and extremely educational experience about the kind of discrimination that gay people face, and the fear they live with daily.
Among other things, we learned that this is not a lifestyle “choice,” but that being gay – or not – is a characteristic we are all born with and is therefore an inherent part of who we are. During this conversation a young woman described her experiences as a gay woman in our society. I will never forget the tears in her eyes, or the pain in her heart, as she described the experience of being completely rejected by her parents and most of her family when she told them she was gay.
Fast forward one more time to the present. This November, Maine residents will vote on whether to allow gay couples to marry. State ballot Question 1 will remove a remaining form of unjust discrimination against a group of citizens simply because of who they are. Critics say that, if passed, this measure will undermine the institution of marriage and confuse our children. I couldn’t disagree more.
At the age of 8, I was confused by the presence of discrimination, and would have fully embraced its elimination. We should be teaching our children tolerance, acceptance of those who are different, and the evils of discrimination. As far as the institution of marriage, well, I have been married for 34 years and I know this will not weaken my marriage. With 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce, and Hollywood celebrities changing spouses almost as often as the seasons change, the institution of marriage does need to be strengthened.
And it will be strengthened when we open it up to all loving couples by passing the Marriage Equality referendum this November.
Russell Anderson is a Falmouth resident and business consultant.