TALKING TO NEIGHBORS: Taking the Conversation Next Door

Guest Blogger: Amy Balliet
(Photo: Jessica and Amy on their wedding day)

The Bible tells us to “Love thy Neighbor as you would love thyself.” This clichéd phrase has been used for better or for worse throughout history, and is used quite often in the movement for LGBTQ equality. Often, when religion is used against me, for example, I reply with “whatever happened to ‘love thy neighbor as you would thyself?’” Generally, when I ask this question, I do not always receive the best reception. Still, it is a question that I can’t help but ponder, and one that had its harshest reality when I was 20 years old and found myself living across the street from a neo-Nazi in Cleveland, Ohio.

As people who are LGBTQ, we have to come out on a daily basis in one way or another. Sometimes, coming out can take so much emotional energy that we put it off. Hell, the other day someone called me a “professional gay,” yet it is still taxing for me to come out at times. What few of us realize is that one of the greatest things that we can do for this movement is exactly what we do every day: Come out. It’s much easier for someone to discriminate against us, when they believe that they do not know one of us. Your cubicle partner, for example, could be someone that you laugh with everyday, go on coffee breaks with, and eat lunch with. This person, in your mind, is perfectly fine with gay people, but you wouldn’t know for certain since you never came out to them. This person could be perfectly fine with you, but think that gay people are scum, since, in their mind, nobody has come along to prove them wrong. In other words, ignorance is bliss, except when it leads to one of the many “isms” or phobias that engender discrimination. Though I had been told this by many people in my life, I was unwilling to believe that coming out would do anything positive for myself or Mr. Swastika across the street.

It wasn’t until the morning that my car wouldn’t start, that things changed. It was an early winter morning and my car was making noises that could only be described as a wombat screwing an owl. It managed to wake the neighborhood up, including the neighbor that I had managed to avoid for 6 months. While cursing at my car, a knock on my side window startled me. I saw the swastika wrapped around his neck and cringed. He was there with a toolbox and a portable heater. He asked me to pop the hood of my car and proceeded to work on it. I stayed in my car with my doors locked. A few minutes of banging and clinging later, and my car was up and running. I drove off without looking up at the guy or thanking him.

When I got home from work that night, he was sitting on my front porch waiting for me. I clenched my keys in my fist and was, let’s just say, less than thrilled to see him. He introduced himself as Nathan, put his hand out for me to shake it, and I just stared at it. This was when possibly the biggest surprise of my entire life came. He said “I know you’re gay. I know you see my tattoos and your scared. I wanted to come and apologize to you for any fear you may have living next to me.” As it turns out, I didn’t have to come out to him, instead, he was coming out to me… as an ex skinhead. He told me that he was an angry kid who needed someone to blame. He had no excuse for his actions, and could only work to spend the rest of his life making up for his ignorance. He was working two full-time jobs to get the money to remove his tattoos and purposely moved into the “gayborhood” (my words not his) so that he could volunteer with LGBTQ youth who were learning how to deal with homophobia.

So what changed him, you ask? Well, if that isn’t your first question I can tell you that it was mine. He changed when his childhood friend, Greg, came out to him; when he realized that his best friend, his neighbor growing up, was gay. Nathan struggled with it at first, but the man that he viewed as his brother, was gay, and Nathan’s “isms” and phobias were blown out of the water.

When people ask me why I think that the conversation of equality will win this movement, I think of Nathan. If someone can go so far as to brand their body with hate, yet wake up one day to find a reason to love, then there is an obscene amount of hope that I have for our movement. The civil rights that we are fighting for will not be won lying down. We need the Gregs of this world to talk to the Nathans. We all need to come out and be visible. Those who oppose us are banking on the fact that we will remain invisible. If we aren’t out there to disprove the stereotypes and scare tactics that they are pushing, then they will win.

Coming out is not simple, but it is a statement that can change minds and build bridges in ways that will draw this movement to a successful end. Nathan’s love of his neighbor changed him. My stereotypes of my neighbor, kept me from speaking with him. When my neighbor, came out to me, my “isms” and phobias were blown out of the water.

Amy Balliett is the co-founder and co-executive director of Join the Impact, a non-profit organization working for full LGBTQ equality. Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Amy is currently living in Seattle, WA working as a search engine marketer as her day job, and Join the Impact during every other spare moment.