As I was headed out to the feed store last week I took a hat from the row of them I keep by my door. As it happened, the one I grabbed was my black one, with a rainbow of squares and the Human Rights Campaign logo across the front. I paused for a moment. What would it mean to wear this hat to the feed store?
So there it was. Again I was looking at the question of “coming out.” That basic, daily decision I face about claiming my identity. In our world, assumptions (conscious and unconscious) about who we are abound. Based on appearance, age, gender, skin color, geographical location, and hundreds of other cues, we make up our minds about one another. And at an early age, I learned to hide certain parts of who I am. Before “don’t ask don’t tell” was a national policy, it was a personal policy.
Over the last 20 years, much has changed for GLBT people. Nevertheless, in many settings, “don’t ask don’t tell” can still seem like the safest way to go. Walking into a fairly rural feed store can be one of those settings. Admittedly, this store is on Whidbey Island, not in eastern Washington. Still, even Whidbey has its divisions – the farther north you go, the more conservative the population becomes. And to get to my feed store I head north.
For a moment, in fact for a few moments, I thought about getting a different hat. Wouldn’t it be simpler to wear the one with the sheep on it? Or to choose from one of the many proclaiming that I am a sheepdog fanatic? Even my Seattle Mariners cap might be a better choice.
That seemingly simple act of choosing a hat to wear to the feed store brought me back again to all of the questions I have carried inside since I was a child. Am I OK? Am I safe? Am I a beloved child of God? The simple act of choosing a hat reminded me again of my own internalized homophobia.
I took a deep breath, reassured myself that I am indeed OK, and well loved by God, put the hat on my head, and walked out the door.
It is about a 20 minute drive to the feed store from my farm, and by the time I got there I actually forgot what hat I was wearing. Well, I didn’t forget entirely, but I did have some moments where it wasn’t the primary thing on my mind.
Arriving, I took another deep breath, and then walked into the store and up to the counter. I ordered eight bales of hay and two bags of chicken feed. As usual, I was sent around to the big barn where the supplies would be loaded into my truck. A young man was there ready to heave 50 pound bags of chicken feed, and then 90 pound bales of hay into my truck. After he had loaded my supplies, he said, “I like your hat.”
It took me a moment to register his comment. Then when I realized what he was saying, I was deeply moved. I remembered all of my fears, and the choice I had made just a half hour earlier to step beyond those fears.
And I also smiled. All of my own assumptions were on display to me. What “feed store people” are like. What the people north of me on the island or east of me in this state believe and feel and experience. What attitudes any young man who loads hay for a living might hold.
In that moment I also thought about this particular young man. What choices had he faced that day? Noticing my hat, he chose to comment on it.
I found myself wondering what his life is like, and what it meant to him to see a “feed store customer” in a Human Rights Campaign hat in the first place. Was it a moment of encouragement in a lonely world? Was it a moment of solidarity? Or did he simply like my hat?
I continued to smile all the way home from the feed store. I reflected again about the value of being real, not only for the sake of our own souls, but also for those around us. I thought of all the assumptions and stereotypes that might get challenged by such authenticity. Even the ones we carry inside ourselves.