Finally, The President Says ‘I Do’
This was going to be a different kind of column.
My friend Jackie, through a mutual contact, arranged for me to interview 20-year-old Tyler Winkler, a gay student born and raised in North Carolina and going to college there. Tyler and I were going to talk about his home state’s constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and how he felt after the overwhelming majority of his fellow citizens voted for it.
By the time he called me back, the conversation had to change.
“How do feel about what the president just did?” I said.
Tyler had no idea what I was talking about. “What did he do?”
It was a thrill to deliver the breaking news: President Barack Obama had just told ABC News that he now supports same-sex marriage.
“Oh, my God,” Tyler said. “Oh. Oh. Are you sure? Oh, I’m flabbergasted.”
“I’m sorry I’m stumbling here, but I never — this is not something I expected to hear. I think the president’s job is hard enough as it is, but the fact that he did this, that he stood up for us-”
“You want a few minutes to think about this?” I said. “Maybe we could talk about you for a little bit and that amendment.”
Tyler laughed. “Yes. Yes, that would be great. I’m sorry. I’m just overwhelmed. What he did, what the president did, well, it makes this amendment so much easier to take.”
Too many political pundits to name predicted Obama never would do this before the 2012 presidential election. Most immediately memorable is Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza’s insistence Monday that the president’s support for same-sex marriage “simply will not happen between now and November.”
Maybe this president is just too brave for Beltway journalism.
In the days and weeks ahead, we all are going to hash out what this means for Obama and his campaign. For a few moments, though, I want to relish my conversation with a young gay man in North Carolina who had just discovered that his president has his back.
“This changes everything,” Tyler said.
Tyler Winkler has been through a lot in his young life, which is the story of so many gay kids. He was raised in a Southern Baptist home where the list of things that would land you in hell was long and committed to memory. Homosexuality was way up there. Throughout high school, he tried to pretend he liked girls.
“I did like them, you know,” he said. “They were a lot of fun to be around. They were my buds. I just never wanted to kiss them, to touch them. When I started to have feelings for a boy, I asked myself, ‘Am I gay?’ I told myself, ‘No, no, I’m not gay. I’ll be burned at the stake right here if I’m gay. I can’t do that.'”
It took him years — and getting away to a college town — for him to come to terms with who he is.
He never even considered leaving North Carolina. For now, he still won’t.
“I know right now that people see this state as full of bigots, which makes me sad,” Tyler said. “Part of me says we deserve that. But another part of me knows so many straight people here who love me to death, and I love them to death.”
That includes his parents. They divorced when he was 10, and they both struggled with Tyler’s sexual orientation. Over time, though, they’ve come to accept him — and the man he loves, too.
“My family means everything to me,” he said, “and this is a beautiful state. I hope to be married here someday. At home. In the mountains.”
I asked him again about the president’s support for same-sex marriage. This time, he knew exactly what he wanted to say.
“This must have been a big step for him,” he said. “I’m going to be right there with him.”
After we hung up, I called Jackie to thank her for setting up the interview. She and her partner, Kate, are two of my closest friends. They’ve been in a committed relationship for almost 20 years. I asked her how she felt about President Obama’s news.
“What news?” she said. She’d been in meetings all afternoon.
When I told her, she gasped.
“Oh, my God,” she said.
Her voice softened. “Oh, my God.”
Then she started to cry.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.
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