This Thanksgiving my husband and I traveled to his hometown in the Deep South to celebrate with his family — they've always been very accepting of our relationship. I consider his parents and siblings to be my own family. This year we had a new visitor: my brother-in-law's best friend. I'd heard stories about him for years, but we had never met. We'll call him Tommy.
Tommy is in his 40s; a compact, muscled factory worker who still lives with his parents. We were introduced in the kitchen among a flurry of chopping, grating, and sautéing. We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries before sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner.
I had heard a lot about him: stories of high school and college shenanigans, of career achievements and family tragedies. It turns out he hadn't heard much about me, save the fact that I'm gay and living with his best friend's brother.
Over dinner, I noticed Tommy eyeing me warily. At first, I assumed he was admiring my No Shave November handiwork, which made me look like a mountain man (I'd even donned some flannel to allow for better assimilation down south). But after noticing his furtive glances, I realized he was deeply uncomfortable.
The topic of conversation turned to classic holiday movies, with each of us spouting off our favorite quotes and ribbing those who couldn't place the reference. Then Tommy busted out his best Aunt Bethany imitation (and he was pretty spot on): "Is Rusty still in the Navy?" I seized the moment and picked up right after him with: "Don't throw me down, Clark!" Then we were all laughing ... together.
We had something in common! As thousands of Griswold enthusiasts had done before us, we had bonded over what is arguably one of the finest holiday films ever made: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Almost immediately I sensed Tommy relaxing. He was laughing more easily and actually initiating conversation with me ... "the gay."
The rest of the trip consisted of fire pits, a Duck Dynasty marathon and more than our share of beers. Before we left, I made sure to shake Tommy's hand again and even drew him in for a bro hug, which was reciprocated.
It wasn't until after the Thanksgiving feast that my husband confided in me that Tommy had been vocal about not supporting our relationship. It had been a long time since I'd been around people who were against my "lifestyle." I suppose I take my own acceptance of family and friends for granted.
I like to think that my husband and I caused a small shift in Tommy's worldview. I don't think he'd ever met an openly gay man in his corner of rural South Carolina, let alone one with whom he could break bread and exchange laughs.
That's the best way to change the hearts and minds of people; not through legislation and yard signage, but through interaction, the exchange of ideas and a little bit of grace.
"Grace? She passed away 30 years ago."