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Disclaimer: The following stories were told to me by a coworker, who is gay and has lived her entire life in an area of the country where religion rules and equality for gays falls by the wayside. Names have been changed.

Kerry and Susan, recently married in Ontario, Canada, returned to their home in Georgia. In their town, jobs are hard to come by—especially jobs that correspond to their education and interests. As a newlywed couple, they found the first jobs available and moved into a small apartment. They couldn’t afford much–but its coziness couldn’t be matched. Susan found a wonderful little bedroom set on Craigslist for a little over a hundred dollars; Kerry bought a small television at Goodwill. Happiness, for them, came from the love that they share. Their apartment may not have ceiling fans or a dishwasher, but they didn’t care. Susan goes to the library to use the computers. She checks do-it-yourself sites for cheap homemade furnishings and decorating ideas and writes them down. Occasionally, when she gets a few extra coins in the tip jar at work, she prints off some of the pictures—in black-and-white, of course. The color pages at the library cost an extra ten cents to print. Kerry’s position at the local supermarket is less lucrative, but somehow they make ends meet.

Their life together would be much easier, of course, if they didn’t have the legal fees. You see, Susan was married before and has a young son, Samuel. Susan’s ex-husband, Mike, is a car mechanic and a drunk—and is fighting Susan for custody of two-year old Samuel. The custody battle has been vicious and ugly—and Susan and Kerry aren’t sure if they can continue fighting for custody with their limited income. The newlyweds have a home, but without Sam, their home seemed incomplete.

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Across town, Billie and Jordan have been together for several years and are enjoying financial stability for the first time in their relationship. Billie has been working at the local discount store for several years as a part time employee—it was the only place that hired her after her injury, and even though the pay is low, she remains loyal to the company for hiring her. The source of their financial stability, however, comes from Jordan’s new job as a custodian in the local prison. Benefits, full-time hours: it’s everything they needed in this difficult economy. That is, until Billie fell again.

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James still remembered the first time he saw his daughter.

She took her first breath and unlike other newborns, she didn’t cry. She looked up at the doctor, wide-eyed, and then squinted to shield her eyes from the light that she was seeing for the first time.

The doctor looked at James, “It’s a beautiful girl. Would you like to hold her, dad?”

James, with tears leaking from his eyes, couldn’t muster a response. He nodded as the doctor gently handed over his daughter. They had waited so long for this baby—so many treatments, so many years—and he was finally holding his daughter in his arms.

James thought about that moment as he drove home. Louise, his beautiful daughter, was now finishing her last year of high school. He wiped away tears as he drove. How is he going to explain to her that her mother left? How is he going to explain why she did? He could never show Louise the note that her mother left behind.

James,

By the time you read this, I’ll be gone. You will never see me again, and Louise won’t either. I can’t take it. I can’t raise a daughter that will never have children. That will never have a boyfriend. Where did we go wrong? Where did I go wrong? How could our daughter be gay? Good luck Jim. I guess you can handle her sin, but I can’t and neither can God.

Mary Beth

 ****************

When Billie fell, Jordan panicked. She had to get to work, but Billie could be injured badly and needed to get to a hospital. Billie had a medical condition—every once in a while, she would simply faint. But this time was different. When Billie fainted, she collapsed and her head hit the corner of the coffee table.  There was a lot of blood on the carpet, but Jordan knew that she had to get Billie to the emergency room—she was still unconscious. Billie’s insurance didn’t cover ambulance rides. Jordan would just have to explain to her boss, the head custodian of the prison, that it was an emergency.  She wrapped Billie’s head in a towel to stop the bleeding and lifted her into the backseat of her beat-up Corolla and sped to the hospital.

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Kerry and Susan have come to a crossroads. The judge presiding over the custody case for little Sam has a strict ideology about situations like theirs. Judge Phillips, Susan’s lawyer explains, does not believe that a household led by two women can adequately raise a young boy. The prospects do not look good. Their legal marriage from Canada does them no good in Georgia .There is a likely chance that Susan’s ex-husband will be rewarded full custody of little Samuel, despite the evidence of his drinking. Judge Phillips might also decide to award custody to the State and send Samuel into the foster system. The lawyer has one last idea: if Kerry and Susan live separately, the judge might change his mind. He has some precedent of awarding custody in such situations to single mothers.

Kerry and Susan, despite their finances, find an apartment for Kerry nearby, and tearfully they move her out into a separate home, despite the fact that they can barely make ends meet as it is.

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James wants to send Louise to college but can barely afford it, now that he is a single parent. He still hasn’t told Louise the reason her mother left—and doesn’t plan to. He can’t bear the thought of her feeling guilt over her mother’s absence.

James takes on a second job that takes him away from home almost every night. When his wife left, she took their second income with her.

Louise, having been abandoned by her mother, now rarely sees her father. She cries herself to sleep almost every night, wishing things could go back to how they were.

 ****************

Kerry and Susan can’t afford to live apart. Their two incomes simply don’t support their two apartment payments. Kerry’s parents live in Pennsylvania and they offer to take her back in during the custody battle.

The once-happy newlyweds who dreamed of their life together on their long drive back from their wedding weekend in Ontario now live separately in Georgia and Pennsylvania.

Susan cries herself to sleep every night, all alone in their apartment, as she wishes she could see her son and her wife. She wonders if life will ever be like the dreams that they once shared.

 ****************

Jordan races to the hospital and admits Billie into the Emergency Room. After Billie is taken into an examination room, Jordan calls her boss at the prison to explain that she had to rush her partner to the hospital. He asks her to meet with him early the next morning—and adds that she shouldn’t bother to dress in her normal custodial uniform.

Billie, thankfully, only has a mild concussion and gets twenty-seven stitches. As they drive home, they worry about Jordan’s meeting with her boss the following morning, aware that it will probably be her last day in her new job that allowed them their first taste of financial security.

 ****************

Susan and Kerry have now lived apart for nearly a year and have grown apart. They cannot afford plane tickets and cannot afford the time off work to make the long drive from Georgia to Pennsylvania. They haven’t seen each other since the separation.

After several months of depression about their situation, Kerry and Susan find that the tears don’t flow as easily anymore. They cry less at sappy movies. Their conflicting hours at their jobs don’t allow them to talk on the phone very often, and six months into their separation, the custody battle is still unfinished.

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In most states, an employee cannot be terminated for missing work due to a spouse-related medical emergency. In most states, a gay couple cannot legally become spouses.

Jordan was fired from her job for missing her shift to drive Billie to the hospital.

 ****************

Louise never saw her father after he picked up the second job. She began spending time with people who led her into some bad situations—and even though her father picked up the second job to be able to afford her college tuition, Louise ended up in jail for drug possession after high school instead of a college dorm.

James used some of the money he had been saving to post his daughter’s bail on the night she got booked.

He had been working particularly long hours recently. When he picked her up at the jail, it was the first time he had seen Louise in over three weeks. Neither of them had seen Louise’s mother since she left.

 ****************

Kerry and Susan, after more than a year apart, decided to end their relationship. Living apart, not being able to see each other, and the stress of the custody battle proved to be too much for their young marriage to bear. Not long after, custody of three-year-old Samuel gets awarded to the state, as Judge Phillips deemed Susan an unfit mother due to the fact that she will never have a man in her life to be a father to the little boy.

She still lives by herself in Georgia.

 ****************

Epilogue: If you thought these stories were going to have happy endings, then I am sorry for letting you down. But this is the environment for too many people in this country, a country that claims it is the land of the free. Inequality can be tangibly measured, in things like custody battles and terminations from jobs. It can also be an immeasurable force—such as the devastation a family feels after a mother leaves because she can’t stomach the idea of her daughter being gay.

The state of Washington has a unique opportunity to be on the cutting edge of equality this Tuesday. Legal marriage is just a step to erase the stigma that LGBT people feel every day in this country, but most certainly a step in the right direction.

In speaking with just a few LGBT people here in Georgia and South Carolina, I realize even more fully that the people of Washington state have a huge opportunity. Referendum 74 is a step forward on an issue that LGBT folks here in the South could only dream of.

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A couple weeks ago, I met a very fascinating person.

 

A group of us were in downtown Portland, working with Bridgetown Ministries, and on our first day, we had to live homeless. It was a bit of a silly exercise, as we were returning to the home church that evening for dinner and a place to sleep. During the day, however, we had to get lunch at one of the many food shelters/soup kitchens in the city.

 

As I was standing in line at a neat little restaurant that served and waited on its (mostly) homeless patrons, I began chatting with the person behind me. With short cropped hair and denim attire, the middle-aged person identified himself as Lee, formerly Lisa, and was in fact a transgender person. Born as a woman named Lisa, Lee felt that he identified more as a male.

 

Lee was well spoken, clean, and did not embody any of the stereotypes that often accompany someone who lives on the streets. As we talked, it became apparent that this was going to be a conversation in which I did more listening than talking. I was fine with that—Lee had quite a story.

 

Lee, as Lisa, went to college and eventually got her Master’s degree so that she could become a teacher. She got outstanding grades throughout school and soon became a very good educator. She then officially came out as Lee. Lee was promptly fired from his teaching job and could not find work. Schools simply don’t hire people who are transgender.

 

Lee then began a crusade that got him national recognition. He filed lawsuits on transgender equality and won over $1 million. He began writing a blog, called “Not a Good Queer,” that is now on the Google “most-hit” list on five categories and is in syndication across the country.

 

As he was explaining all of this to me, my first inclination was to be very skeptical and assume that he was either lying or exaggerating multiple aspects of this story. I mean, why would a millionaire currently be eating at a street restaurant that serves the homeless?

 

I (more tactfully) asked as much. I could not have imagined the response.

 

Lee is a lifelong pacifist. So when the United States invaded Iraq, he made the decision that not a single penny of his money was going to pay for the war. He kept his laptop—he updates his blog at libraries and other places with free wireless internet. He then chose a homeless lifestyle so that no property or income taxes could go to the government to pay for the war. He sleeps, with his dog, in a bicycle trailer. He eats at homeless shelters and soup kitchens.

 

I have no idea what Lee has done with the money from the lawsuits, but he is in the middle of another one, and I imagine that most of the money is going toward the legal fees that are incurred when an individual takes it upon himself to get legislation changed through the court system. As he was explaining all of this, I was almost in awe. It led me to think about my dedication (or lack thereof) to certain things in my life.

 

What if those of us (especially me) who call themselves followers of God showed a fraction of the conviction and dedication that Lee shows? I don’t know that I have ever been witness to such a radical life alteration. Imagine what the church would look like if all of those who call themselves Christians (“little Christs”) were willing to make such a sacrifice? What would my life be like if I was willing to make such sacrifices for my beliefs?

 

Lee’s story is both inspiring and challenging: his lawsuits have changed the landscape of transgender inequality. Companies in Oregon are no longer allowed to discriminate against transgender employees. And he keeps fighting for the rights of people like himself so that they may not have to deal with the same things that he went through as a teacher.

 

And he has accomplished all of this while living out of a little bicycle trailer. While spending cold nights at homeless shelters. While eating at soup kitchens.

 

As we ate our lunch, Lee and I moved into other topics of discussion, from politics to sports to Jesus. And I explained what I believe about Jesus—that, despite what many say, Jesus loves him just as much as he loves me. That Jesus stood for peace and nonviolence, just like Lee does. That Jesus is very proud of his willingness to upend his life so that he can exemplify true peace.

 

And I told Lee that he was an inspiration to those of us who don’t dedicate our entire selves to the faith that we profess.

 

Would I be willing to live homeless for Christ, if that is what he desired? Would I be willing to upend my entire life to fulfill what Christ has called us me do? I hope that someday I can live such dedication and conviction, and not just sit and write about it.

 

**Immediately after I got back to the church, I looked up Lee’s blog. Everything in his story that was verifiable rang true. As far as I can tell, he did not even exaggerate any aspect of his story.

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