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Shawn Vestal: Recent advances in gay rights overshadow long wait for them

I grew up in Gooding, Idaho, a farming town of a couple thousand people that was, in many ways, a friendly place. But it was not then a particularly friendly place to grow up gay, and it has been interesting to see – as we balding and softening children of the ’80s age – the way that the gays and lesbians among us have emerged and found their voices, even as the culture matures.

It’s safe to say that few of us – straight, gay, open-minded or bigoted – expected Idaho to be at the center of the constitutional issue over marriage for same-sex couples. It feels momentous. Monumental. For if there is any sign that this ludicrous wall is truly crumbling, it’s not the arrival of gay marriage in the blue states. It is how the constitutional questions fare where the opposition is great.

“I’ve joked from the beginning that it’s going to be a race for last place between Idaho and Missouri,” said Rick Schneider, a friend from Gooding who now lives in St. Louis. “I thought that Idaho would be the last state to be that forward-thinking.”

Schneider and I attended high school together in the early 1980s. He says he has always known he was gay – joking that his mom has photos of him at age 4 staging a tea party with his stuffed animals – but he lived in fear of that knowledge for much of his youth, and he was by no means out. He said he remembered that when he moved to Gooding in the eighth grade, on one of his first days in class a girl turned and taunted him for being gay.

From then on, “It never stopped. It was relentless. … I did my best to be as invisible as I possibly could.”

I was a year older than Rick, and though I remember him, and though we’ve reconnected on Facebook, I don’t have any specific memories about his experiences along these lines. But I very much remember the assumptions and insults that flowed toward any kid who “seemed” gay, the kinds of taunting that I, like most everyone, either tolerated or participated in. It’s hard for me to imagine what it must have been like to grow up with that extra self-consciousness – given how fraught with self-consciousness those years are for anyone.

He recalls being teased everywhere in town, even when he was with his mother. He felt horrible about that on his mother’s behalf – having to be the mother of “the town queer.” And he tried his hardest to be something other than he was. He remembers insisting to a friend that he wanted nothing so much as to marry a busty, lusty blonde.

“I was trying to fit that mold,” he said.

The wonderful thing about Rick and Gooding is that the story did not end there. It grew. It got better.

Rick did go on to marry a blond woman, and they had a daughter. Eventually, they divorced and he met his current fiancé – Bobby, who he’s been with for 18 years. They are raising Rick’s grandson. He and Bobby plan to marry this summer in Illinois, with both of their mothers present.

In 2005, they returned to Gooding for their 20th class reunion. Rick was full of trepidation.

He remembers the two of them checking in to a small hotel in town, and the clerk telling him there had been a mistake: there was only one queen bed. He told her that was OK.

“She was like, ‘Oh.’ ” Pause. “ ‘ Oooohhhhh.’ ”

He dressed for the first night party – at a dim, pool-tables-and-jukebox bar – the way he would have dressed to go out on the town in St. Louis, including painting his toenails, he said.

He almost didn’t go through with it. “I thought, this is not a place to be this gay,” he said.

But what happened when he saw his classmates surprised him. One of the first people he saw was the girl who had, back in eighth grade, taunted him when he was the new kid.

“ ‘Rick,’ ” she told him, “ ‘I am so sorry.’ … She said her best friend through life has been a gay guy.”

Rick said his classmates were friendly and supportive. Some of the football players and popular kids who he’d feared made a point to say hi and showed an understanding that they’d been cruel to him. Many people had simply lived long enough to come to know and love a gay person in their own lives or, in some cases, to come out themselves. What happened to him in high school, Rick says, was as much about people being young and ignorant as it was about them being hateful. The weekend that had filled him with nervousness turned out to be a warm, positive homecoming. And he and the girl from eighth grade have gone on to form a long-distance friendship.

“I had a great time,” he said. “I had a great time. It was ridiculous.”

Rick thinks that many opponents of gay marriage – as well as supporters – are locked into separate spheres and not communicating. He tries to emphasize that gay marriage is not about the religious covenant, but rather about the legal status of gay couples in terms of the benefits that are afforded straight marriages, from inheritance issues to benefits costs at work.

The flourishing of support for gay marriage has come with such recent speed that it’s easy to forget how long a wait it has been for someone like Rick.

“I never believed it would happen in my life,” he said. “I thought it’s going to be something maybe my daughter will see, but not me.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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