Permission to Exist: On becoming an LGBT ally

Permission to Exist: On becoming an LGBT ally
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This piece was originally published in June 2015.

My boyfriend and I talk about getting married—not excessively but probably sooner and with greater frequency than most people who have been together just a year would. We talk about where it could be and who would be there and, most importantly, what we’d eat. Regardless of whether or not it happens, the privilege of even daydreaming about marrying the one you love was, up until three days ago, not an option for countless same-sex couples throughout the country.

But that all changed last Friday when the Supreme Court granted that same privilege to all Americans in a landmark 5-4 ruling in favor of nationwide marriage equality. It’s a ruling that I think is just and right and long overdue. It’s a ruling that grants more than just the right to marry; it grants gay Americans permission to exist unapologetically and as they are, equal in the eyes of the law.

I joined in proudly as my social circle erupted in celebration. I cried watching texts pour in from my friends all over the country, waved to cars donning the equality flag and dropped that rainbow filter over my Facebook picture so everyone would know exactly where I stood.


Katie Levans Facebook

But I wasn’t always a vocal LGBT ally and I share what follows in an uncomfortable attempt to show others who resist Friday’s ruling that there is room for you to grow into new space.

I remember my first exposure to an opinion on homosexuality very clearly. It was the mid-90s and I was watching VH1 at home while an adult extended relative lamented, “Oh Melissa Etheridge… She makes such great music; it’s too bad she’s gay.”

She whispered that last part in an attempt to avoid young ears, but it had already landed on me, and that moment cemented my formative understanding of what it was to be gay: a shame.

To be abundantly clear, I was raised in a loving home and wasn’t taught to embody or embrace hate. But I also grew up as many American kids did, using the word gay as a synonym for “stupid,” completely unaware of the of the pain we were causing people who used the word gay as a synonym for “self.” At one point a lesbian couple moved into the neighborhood and we made them the butt of all the jokes we no doubt didn’t even understand. Kids are brutal but malleable so remember that when you speak around them.

As I got older and the country became more progressive, I remember watching Will & Grace and hoping for a token gay friend to come into my life. Although that show did tremendous work to bring LGBT issues into mainstream media and this was a step in the right direction for me personally, I’m not sure what’s worse: avoiding homosexuality altogether or reducing all gay men to the role of Jack McFarland.

rainbow cake

It wasn’t until college that I finally had gay friends and to be clear, they are not tokens; they are my family.

I’ll never forget driving aimlessly in circles trying to buy one of my best friends the time he needed to finally utter the words, “I’m gay.” I knew that’s what he wanted to talk to me about that day but I didn’t know that saying it to me was secondary to him hearing it out loud from himself for the first time. He cried and I said “nothing changes” and he exhaled the weight of a lifetime of carrying secrets. I was the first person he came out to and he was my first gay friend. That moment changed my life and I am forever indebted to him for giving me the honor of being the one in the car that day. It has made me a better person.

Three of my very best friends from college are gay and it was only by their grace and patience that I was able to fumble through my misguided assumptions about their existence and to come out the other side standing firmly and unapologetically as an ally. I believe strongly that it was always less about me accepting them and more about them just loving me through the process of understanding.

Katie Levans pride DC

It wasn’t immediate or easy though. In fact, I remember saying in confusion and frustration to one of my straight friends as I struggled to reconcile my old narrow way of thinking with a new, much broader one: “I support them and I love them but I don’t necessarily know that being gay is right.” [Cringe.] You see, carrying a lifetime of misguided preconceived notions is a heavy pack to unload too, and I dropped that sucker like a bomb that day.

I’m sure the friend I said that to has long forgotten it and I’ve never said it to anyone else, but that one sticks with me and hits me like a dagger to the heart because what I know now that I didn’t then is that “love but” isn’t love. Love isn’t conditional and love doesn’t discriminate.

The “I love you but” dialogue in the gay marriage debate is an attempt to appear open minded without abandoning your old ideals. And I know this because I used to say it, too. But here’s the thing: you can’t have both. You can’t love someone and simultaneously deny their existence in its entirety. Friday’s ruling sees gay Americans, among them some of my best friends on earth, in their entirety and as equals in the eyes of the law. That is a monumental occasion, not just for gay citizens but for all of us.

Recently I’ve found myself getting frustrated and aggressive towards people who are rejecting Friday’s ruling, somehow forgetting that my own journey to this opinion was met not with hostility but with patience and love.

I didn’t always see it like this, but I changed my mind and I picked love. Period. I would encourage everyone to do the same.


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