Sunday, June 12, 2011
Ben Alley misses his parents. He's 18 and just graduated from East Marshall High School in Le Grand, with scholarships to almost cover his costs at the University of Iowa. It's a time for open houses and pride. But he won't be getting that from his once-close family -- the Southern Baptist minister father and the mother who home-schooled him early on.
They're not dead; he's dead to them. In sophomore year, Ben informed his parents that he is gay. They informed him he wouldn't be coming home after school the next day -- or ever again.
"I do miss them," he said after events last Friday honoring him and other winners of the Matthew Shepard and First Friday Breakfast Club scholarships that are given to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender young leaders. "But I've learned to cope with that because there's really nothing I can do." His parents have since moved back South.
Ben's is actually two stories in one. The first is about a kid rejected, homeless and compelled to live independently at 16, requiring him to take a late shift job at Walmart to help cover costs. That meant most nights he didn't start homework until 10:30. It's about a young man raised in a home where being gay was considered "right up there with being a child molester." At age 10 he was told by his mom that he didn't deserve to live anymore, after she caught him experimenting with a boy the same age. Later, when he fought depression, counselors told Ben, "You've been taught to hate everything you are."
But his is also the story of a survivor, staying in school and graduating, in spite of everything, with a 3.25 GPA. And it's about other people who helped pave the way to his self-acceptance and refused to let a kid be alone in the world.
Fonda and Lyle Weber, whose straight daughter was a friend of Ben's, eventually took him in and cared for him as a son. A lesbian he knew from speech and choir had been through the same thing with her family, and helped him through the crisis with advice and contacts. He also got support from a gay young man at school. As he became empowered, he restarted an inactive Gay-Straight Alliance for students.
A story like this makes you appreciate the power of community, gay and straight, and of role models -- even reluctant ones. Before six scholarship winners were presented at the gay men's breakfast club last Friday, Grinnell College's new president, Raynard Kington, spoke of his struggle to come to terms with being a symbol. "Small town embraces gay black president," trumpeted a Des Moines Register headline after his appointment last year, which generated a lot of media attention. "Openly gay black man with kids named Grinnell College president," exclaimed a gay publication.
The curiosity is understandable. Everyone wondered how the East Coast transplant, a medical doctor, and his spouse and two young sons would fare in largely white Iowa, which has seen some pitched battles over same-sex marriage. To Kington, who didn't come here to be a mouthpiece for any group, the attention was a bit uncomfortable. "A research professor assigned me as a topic on various sociological theories," he said. "That was really just bizarre."
Questions were directed to him about Iowa's same-sex marriage ruling, and the backlash it generated, resulting in three Supreme Court justices being removed. He wasn't sure how much to be a spokesman for causes. But he also remembers every day, in his words, that "I am where I am because a lot of other people decided to change the world." Some day, these scholarship winners, who have fought lonely battles against slurs, sabotage and outright rejection, may be able to say the same.
Anyone who has wondered about the value of role models should have been there that day. So should Bob Vander Plaats and every politician using race or sexual orientation in their campaigns to spread hatred, fear and divisions. They would have seen that it can't win.