A Lesson in Empathy: My One Night as a Gay Man in Southern Missouri

I was being judged, and it made my butthead gene kick in. Bring it on!

She took one look at the four of us and with disgust turned and walked in the opposite direction.  My brother was left standing there holding the door handle.  He looked at me with confusion as we continued in the restaurant.

We were on our way home from our grandmother’s funeral.  It had already been a long and tiring day.  We left home around 7 a.m. to make it to the church in southern Missouri in time to visit with family and be a part of the celebration service.

Throughout that entire day I watched as my loved ones went to the casket and said tearful goodbyes, I love yous and Thank yous to a woman that had meant so much to them.  I watched as they slowly walked past and into the waiting arms of family members and then listened as people recalled stories and laughed over those precious memories.

After the service was over we drove to the grave site.  It was down a couple of gravel roads in the middle of nowhere.  As we got closer to the little church and graveyard, a herd of cows saw all the commotion and started charging at all the cars.  One brave bovine actually escaped and sauntered between all the parked vehicles.  My kids who have never been that close to a cow thought it was terrifying and hilarious.  We all commented that grandma would have thought that was the funniest thing ever.

It was cold and rainy.  The weather mirrored our hearts and spirits.  By the time we got back in our car for the trek home we were all weary.

So into the car we packed my two children, my brother and me.  My wife had to work and his family was out of state.  So it was just us two guys taking care of the kids.

We drove into the night and went as far as we could before we had to stop for gas and food.  It just so happened that we came to this little town in Podunk Missouri to fill the gas tank and our bellies.  Of course the kids wanted McDonald’s and after such a long day I couldn't have cared less where we ate. 

As we walked up to the restaurant my kids got in between my brother and I and held everyone’s hand.  There was a woman that was walking out as we were walking in.

She took one look at the four of us and with disgust turned and walked in the opposite direction.  My brother was left standing there holding the door handle.  He looked at me with confusion as we continued in the restaurant.

With bewilderment as to what had just happened, we looked at the menu for the most edible item we could find not realizing that others were starting to look at us funny as well.  We even commented to each other about being stared at.

It slowly dawned on us that the people in that McDonalds in backwoods MO thought we were a gay couple.  You could see people whisper to each other about the gay couple with two kids.  Looks of judgment and scorn from almost everyone in the building made me more uncomfortable that I’ve ever been.

Now just so you know my family carries deep within its DNA  a strand that most families do not have.  We have lovingly dubbed it our “Butthead” gene.  And from time to time this normally recessive gene decides that it’s time to be dominant and much like David Banner could not control the Hulk we cannot either.  So my brother and I looked at each other and without so much as a word our hands found each other and our fingers became intertwined.

If you were going to judge us then bring it on!

My brother decided to step it up a notch when I had to take my youngest to the restroom by yelling,

“I’ll be right here waiting sweetheart!”

I walked into that bathroom laughing very hard.  My son looked at me like I had gone crazy but that butthead gene was singing the Hallelujah chorus in my head.

After we came back from the bathroom my brother and I both decided enough was enough and that we should stop egging these people on.  One of two things was bound to happen if we didn’t stop: 

  1.  Someone was going to spit in our food.
  2. Someone would follow behind us after we left, run us into a ditch and lynch us along some God forsaken country road.

Ok, that last one might be a stretch but that’s what it felt like in that place.

As we drove off my thoughts lingered on the children of those parents whispering about us.  What were they seeing?  What were they learning?  What lessons would they walk away from that place with?

Then my thoughts went to my own children.  They were both completely oblivious to what had just happened but something clicked as I replayed it in my mind.  Having never been gay or a minority of any kind I’ve never walked in those shoes.  But that night I got a small glimpse into something I’ve never experienced—prejudice.

And it hurt.  To walk into a room and have everyone judge you immediately, without anyone even bothering to get to know you was deeply hurtful and gave me pause.  Had I been guilty of this in my life?  Had I inadvertently taught my children the same misinformed lessons?  I’m sure I have.  And it causes so much guilt in my heart I can hardly bear it.

I’m talking about empathy.  Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and feel what they feel.  Empathy is to understand that people are people and we all experience joys and pains in our lives.  Empathy is essentially being human and humane to each other.  And without empathy?  We’ll…I’m afraid we’ve lost our way.

We drove several more hours into a cold dreary night with nothing but our headlights to illuminate our way and I understood that if I could get my children to understand and experience empathy that I would be doing them and everyone around them a service. 

The past two weeks we’ve been looking at passing down our legacy to our children.  We’ve looked at a few ways to do that and a few important, at least in my mind, lessons that our children need. 

But I’ll be really honest with you.  That night really opened my eyes.  I’m guilty of glancing at a person and judging them.  I’m guilty of have preconceived notions about people that live differently than I do.  In the darkest corners of my heart I hold onto old prejudices based on nothing more than “he or she looks differently than I do”.  And worst of all, I am guilty of allowing my children to see that.

That night I committed in my heart to not allowing that to happen again.  How can I teach my children the values and beliefs that we hold dear and reserve part of my heart for unjustified judgment towards another human?  Jesus’ words echoed in my spirit that night,  “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” 

That night?  I dropped my stone.  It had just become too heavy. 

How could I throw it at anybody?

 I couldn’t.  Not after that night.  My eyes had been opened and I realized that people are people and deserve respect for the simple reason that they are people.  No more judgment.  No more prejudice.  I want my kids to see me trying to put on the other guys shoes and walk where he has.  I want my kids to see me practice empathy.  That’s a big part of my legacy that I can ill afford to ignore.

 And I owe it all to being a gay couple in Podunk, MO.


James December 03, 2012 at 05:35 PM
Thank you for sharing your experience, Joe. Certainly an interesting one. People do like to make assumptions about others, and here in Missouri, folks making the assumption they apparently did about you and your brother being a same-sex couple, would generally be all too common. I live in a small town, probably not as podunk as that which you experienced but in my town there are certainly quite a few who would have concluded that the two of you were a couple and would have stared, possibly with the disgusted looks. Of course, as the previous commenter illustrates, some people would rather propose excuses and insinuations than acknowledge a reality that a lot of us have had to deal with. Contrived, indeed... It's sad, but some are all too eager to just ignore what they'd rather not admit. For example, there are people in my own family who would claim they're not racists, but yet they still condemn interracial marriage any chance they get. That intolerance, too, is not at all uncommon in these parts. My sympathies for the loss of your grandmother.
Ollie December 03, 2012 at 07:56 PM
As a resident of Podunk Sothern Mo I hope your experience is not the norm. I certainly haven't noticed this behavior and I am more aware of it since my sister is in a committed same sex relationship. I would not judge others by the acts of a few.
Tony Franklin December 05, 2012 at 11:38 AM
I'm calling bullshit on this entire story. And even if it were true you are passing judgement on the "backwoods" people of "podunk" Missouri and assuming they were giving you dirty looks because they thought you were gay. Is this make believe nonsense really what passes for journalism? I guess as long as it fits the narrative, "Dumb hicks hate gays, but I'm enlightened." Oh and you dont have to be gay or a minority to experience prejudice, but again thats the narrative, "Only straight whites can be prejudice, but I'm enlightened." I agree though, I hate how stupid white hicks from the country paint everyone with a prejudice broad brush, maybe someone should do that to them. Oh wait.
ClarissaK December 05, 2012 at 12:11 PM
Beautifully written and so important. Thanks from a fellow writer.
No Necks December 07, 2012 at 05:21 PM
The haters in this thread obviously live in So. Missouri!


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