We had lived in Pasadena an entire year but that day was a day I would never forget. Our routine of a simple morning coffee run was met with a simple act of kindness through a greeting card. An act that impacted me far greater than I ever could have imagined. Reading the card my emotions were anything but simple, taking me back to a period that changed my path forever. A period I had hoped to forget, but one so profound it became the pillar of my existence and a determination that one day things will change.
As I looked over the crowd my anxiety seemed to wash away. Up until that moment I honestly hadn’t the slightest idea of what I was going to talk about. As an International Educator traveling the globe was my very existence. I had been traveling since backpacking in Europe the summer after high-school graduation. A ten year period that brought forward a positive effect on my level of patience and open-mindedness, a negative effect on my college credit card debt.
An area church had seen in the local paper what my organization was doing to better the lives of a group of abandoned and abused girls at an orphanage in Guayaquil, Ecuador. They had a calling to help and recognizing they didn’t have the means to travel abroad they immediately began donating goods and supplies for us to take down for them. After a number of trips they called asking to help again. This time it was in the form of a speech, requesting I speak to their church ladies group in the interest of gaining more attention to the cause.
Arriving that night I honestly thought I was speaking to a small gathering of ladies. Keynote speaker to a group of 200, however, was not on my radar. Nor was my sexual orientation as a gay man on theirs. Seeing the attendance and my name in bold print, anxiety was a natural reaction, but as I stood there preparing to speak the thought of those girls washed those fears away. A group of girls whose voices were taken from them, desires and dreams stripped away, and in that moment I realized I was their voice. Over the course of the next 45 minutes I gave my version of “I have a dream”. I spoke of my missionary mother traveling to Central America when I was a kid. All I saw at the time was a mom taking toys to somewhere far away, to the kids who received those toys they saw an act of kindness they didn’t know was missing in their life.
Finishing my speech I felt on top of the world. The audience’s response was mixed with tears, smiles and hope and was summed up by one person’s statement – “This was an inspiring message, and I think I can speak for everyone here that we all feel called to help even more.”
As the priest approached the pulpit you could still feel the energy in the room. An energy I had helped to create. He thanked me for the incredible message and thanked his congregation for being open in supporting these girls whom lived so far away. He then said there is also so much we can do right here in our own backyards. First, we can all start by going to the polls on Tuesday and voting against gay marriage.
My heart sank. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. A few minutes prior I had felt as though I could speak for days, but in that moment I felt nothing but speechless.
Travel has taught me so much over the years. It’s brought me a level of patience when waiting for a bus in Latin America, a level of understanding of a culture when asked if I was “a gay” in the Philippines, a level of flexibility when respecting that even a hetero couple should avoid public displays of affection while traveling in Dubai. Ever since that speech and over the year’s I’ve continued to travel. Opening up to another culture and understanding their background and stories leading up to that moment in history provides us with the power to respect anyone for their differences. Recently on a trip to Greece with a group of LGBT educators one of our travelers asked the tour guide if she is open to LGBTQ student groups. The woman without skipping a beat, and in her second language of English, responded – “Of course. I love all visitors to my beautiful country. I have done tours for gay and normal groups.” The use of the word normal sent our group cringing with anger.
Too often we react to something that appears to be negative, and instead don’t recognize the genuine nature of a cross-cultural learning moment happening right before our eyes. This tour guide was using a language that is not her native tongue, but wanted us to know she welcomed all and has done a variety of tours, regardless if they were a random group of travelers or one promoted as LGBT. It was an opportunity to educate both parties. Educate her on the misuse of the word normal when using the English language and educate us on the recognition and patience that if speaking in Greek we may have felt vastly differently about the conversation. Was her use of the word normal showcasing a lack of openness to our community or a simple misuse of a word when using a foreign language? Traveling the globe brings forward these opportunities on a daily basis and even more so as a LGBTQ traveler. Our guards are already up. They don’t have gay marriage so they must hate us, being gay is punishable by death so we better reserve two beds in our hotel room so they’ll never figure us out. It’s human nature. We fear the unknown and question anything that appears to be different. But if we are closed off and showcase a level of anger when hit with something hard, are we any better than them?
It is common knowledge that we are made up of a world of varying beliefs, backgrounds and cultures. But there is one similarity we all have, and that’s the ability to change. For generations we’ve seen religions open their doors to our community, laws knocked down and wedding doors open to us. It’s our opportunity through travel to understand, respect and learn from those differences but never forget that simple similarity.
Back in Pasadena we had a card to open. A card that was given to us by a priest and his 4 friends who every morning met for coffee. A group of friends who only a year earlier stopped a man, his husband and their son and asked “How did you get him?” while pointing to our adopted son. They had never seen two men with a baby, well maybe the movie, but never two gay men walking with a stroller into their Starbucks. We educated them on our story, and they educated us on how far things have come in their lifetime. Our shared story could’ve been so different had I reacted with anger when he asked me that question, but my travels taught me differently. The card was congratulating us on our marriage. It was the day after the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage and was signed by the priest and his friends. And for the second time in the last decade, I was left speechless.
This post was originally written for the May 2017 edition of “Options” magazine. Check out the original article and more in the “Options” archive: http://optionsri.org/archives/2017-archives/
By: Scott Tayloe, IEP Founder & Executive Director