Every Sunday morning, a middle-aged man and his father would take their usual seat in one of the front pews of our small town New Hampshire church. They lived on the square in one of the oldest houses in our little village of about 3,000 people and belonged to one of the original families in town.
As with many others I knew when I was growing up, I didn’t think much about them at the time. They were fixtures, part of the framework of my existence with their constant, quiet presence. It wasn’t until years later when I first watched Ken Burns’ series “The Civil War” that I began to put pieces together.
These two men were descendants of the young soldier around whose writings much of the documentary was based and it was through the extensive and careful archiving of their family history that we were able to see the experience of our country’s great struggle through the eyes of a patriotic and courageous young man. These ancestors of a fellow whose letters had given shape and depth to an important piece of our history sat next to each other each Sunday listening raptly to the sermon, gleaning wisdom as carefully as they had with the lore of their own family.
Recently, my mother added a piece to the puzzle that allowed me to reframe their role. It seems the son, who worked as a librarian and archivist at a small local liberal arts college, was gay. I’m not sure what that explains exactly, other than that it allows me to connect dots I hadn’t considered before and examine what it would have been like to be a gay man in the ’70s in a small New England town.
In those days, there was really no talk about homosexuals though I’m sure there were many others in our town. But they were also hidden, simply living their lives and participating in our community. Back then, other than the occasional speculative whisper, there was no acknowledgement of gay people, let alone the idea of marriage. I wonder now what would have happened if this man had made an issue about who he was. I wonder how those trusted people of my youth would have reacted.
When I look through the lens of hindsight, remembering my own life there as a hidden gay person, the fear of being ostracized by my community drove my energies in other directions as I sought to perfect aspects of myself that would be above disparagement. The last thing on my mind was committing “sin” against my community by engaging in relationship with someone of the same sex. Perhaps, like this man, I wanted to prove my worth by being devoted to my neighbors through my presence and contributions among them.
Today, all these years and changes in perception later, rather than thinking of homosexuality as a sin, I choose to reframe it as a sensibility. If we are all made in the image of God, then we are all creators, though some of us don’t necessarily fit the traditional definition as creators of other human beings. A great many of us are artists and performers whose creations take the form of reframing history and showing a new vision for the world.
In my updated vision for what would have happened had my dad lived a longer life, I see that church crowd standing high on the hillside where Dad had married many couples before under the wide open sky of what he once described as “God’s Greatest Cathedral”, using the powers vested in him to wed that devoted young man to the love of his life that, together, without shame, they might continue to create new visions of our past to help reshape the future.