Back in college, 40 years ago, I lived with Leah (name changed) on the same dorm floor. She was a brilliant woman who, by age, should still have been in high school. An aspiring lawyer, she could already out-argue every professor.
One day, while attending a religion conference together, Leah and I sat in on a session discussing homosexuality and the Bible. The scholar maintained in his lecture that homosexuality was deviant and sinful. Afterwards, I told Leah how impressed I’d been by the presentation. She was strangely quiet. I kept talking, filling the awkward silence, until I ran out of steam. That’s when she said, “You do realize that I’m gay, don’t you?”
I stared at her, stunned, as she walked away.
A year later, Leah and I both took part in a semester-long urban studies program on the South Side of Chicago. We lived with other students in an old townhouse. We weren’t really friends anymore. She didn’t trust me, and I didn’t understand her. She made me uncomfortable.
Late one evening, I was studying in my cold, dingy room in the basement when Leah appeared in the doorway, clutching her forearm. Blood was dribbling fast on the floor. “I’ve cut myself bad,” she said, in a panic. “Nobody can know!”
I didn’t ask questions. I tied a tourniquet, then wrapped her arm in a towel. “We’ve got to get you to the ER,” I said. Fortunately, a hospital was just up the street.
“I can make it there on my own,” she said. She nodded at the floor. “Somebody will see the blood—it’s everywhere! They’ll send me home! Please—you’ve got to help me!”
“Go,” I said, shoving her out my door. “I’ll take care of it.”
I don’t remember mopping up that night. But I do remember the dark trail of blood that led up the rickety steps from the basement into the kitchen; up the steep back stairs to the second floor; down the hall, into Leah’s room.
It was while mopping up that blood that a big part of me shifted. I realized how little I knew about homosexuality. That’s why Leah had made me uncomfortable: I felt threatened by my own ignorance. Now life was inviting me to worry less about abstract debates of “right and wrong” and more about the actual well-being of people—all of them my equals, all as worthy as myself of compassion and respect. I felt my part in Leah’s cutting. Along with so many others who inhabited her world, I’d burdened her with narrow-mindedness and prejudice. I’d made her feel “less than,” to the point she’d sliced open her own flesh in distress. Then, having nowhere else to turn, she’d had to seek my help.
I finished with the blood. Hours later, Leah returned from the hospital, pale and frightened, her arm heavily bandaged. She told me about her family’s rejection of her; about her struggle to reconcile her sexual identity with her faith; about her addiction to cutting, She promised to seek help from professionals. I promised to be a supportive friend.
Somehow nobody else in the house that night saw the trail of blood. I’ve carried the secret ever since. After graduation from college, Leah and I lost touch. I can only pray that the rest of her story has been happy.
How do we learn to accept the “Leahs” of our lives rather than causing them to suffer? We might begin by naming who we’re afraid of, exactly. Then, we might commit to informing ourselves about their lives, from their perspective. If we’re lucky, we can do that in their company, sitting around a table, listening to their stories. If not, we can read books by people similar to them. We can workshop. We can watch films. We can do whatever’s required to disarm our fear.
These days it seems that we’re not very curious about one another. Instead, when differences reveal themselves, we quickly become suspicious or resentful. We think we already know everything we need to know about everybody else when in fact we only know our own opinions. On that limited basis, we judge, exclude, demonize, and attack. By what we think or say or do, we help create the conditions that will make the “Leahs” around us bleed, simply because they’re not like us.
Who, I wonder, will be left to mop up?
I’m a white, straight, progressive, crazy woman writer living in Brookings, South Dakota USA. I’m not alive to make you become more like me. I’m here to be who I am, and to recognize who you are. So tell me what it’s like, being you in this world. I promise to listen with respect. I promise to try to understand. No matter where you may live or how we may differ, I give thanks that you and I are here together, breathing the same air, walking the same ground, with hearts that beat the very same way.