His cold, blue eyes — that's all I remember.
It was the late 1990s, at my high school. One of my friends called another student a "weird faggot." We didn't really know the boy's sexual preferences, but we thought he was gay. I can't recall the subsequent reactions or anything else from that day; all I can remember about that moment was seeing the boy's eyes. They were filled with pain and fear, anger and resentment. His blue eyes, the same color as my own, were cold and distant.
I chose to do nothing at that moment. And for years afterward, I continued to stand by and allow people to taunt, bully, and ridicule others based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Sometimes, even if in jest, I engaged in this bullying behavior when I told others they were "faggots" or "homos" or said, "That's so gay," when I saw something I thought was beneath me.
Even as I aged, got educated, and learned other perspectives, I remained silent when others spewed words of hate and bigotry toward people for being who they are. As one who stood by and watched others endure this kind of pain, I was part of the problem.
Although I believed in equality and supported LGBT rights, I rarely mustered the courage to voice my concerns. I was fearful of others calling me gay or questioning my masculinity. That insecurity perpetuates the problem. Many heterosexuals quietly support lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. Many also support anti-bullying measures, LGBT adoption, same-sex marriage, and the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. Despite their tacit support, when it comes to speaking up about homophobic comments or behavior, many choose to remain silent.
Coming out as an LGBT ally can be difficult, but it pales in comparison to the difficulties LGBT folks can experience when they come out. We don't face discrimination in the workforce, in public places, or in schools because of our sexual orientation. We don't have politicians and religious figures vehemently speaking out against us and our personal lives.
I grew up in a socially conservative environment, so I recognize that for many, coming out as an LGBT ally is a challenging process.
In 2011, I decided to confront my insecurities, and I created a group called Straight Against Hate. I wanted to partner with local LGBT groups to end discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The group has worked in Kentucky, Mississippi, and soon, I hope, Tennessee.
Straight Against Hate is a small step, but it is progress. The more we advance LGBT rights, the more we advance human rights and help move America toward the dreams it promises.
In Tennessee, people can be fired from their jobs and denied housing or public accommodations for simply being perceived as LGBT. Only Davidson County, Knoxville, and Memphis have any protective ordinances. In American schools, LGBT students are more likely to be bullied and more likely to attempt suicide.
It's time for straight people to wake up. There are millions of silent ally voices that need to be heard. President Obama recognized June as LGBT Pride Month, but will those straight allies awake and show support?
Coming out as an ally, whether it is in the workplace, in school, in church, or at the dinner table, can be difficult. But voicing your concerns, signing petitions, and getting involved in advocacy will not only help you, it will help your fellow citizens.
Imagine your school as a place that ensures a safe, positive learning environment for all students. Imagine your place of worship as a holy sanctuary that is open, affirming, and welcoming of all people. Imagine local, state, and federal governments as appreciative, compassionate, and protective of all people.
Imagining these wonderful things might give you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, but without action, it simply isn't possible.
I was part of the problem, and now I'm hoping to be part of the solution. If you haven't done so already, I hope you'll consider doing the same.
Emory Williamson is a local teacher and founder of the group Straight Against Hate.