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Wide Awake: Understanding Mark
Growing up when tolerance wasn’t a priority

My cousin Mark was gay. Although, I didn’t really know that when we were growing up. I knew something was different about him, and I knew his life was difficult. People weren’t nice to him. And when we were kids, it seemed he was always getting in trouble. When we were young adults, he killed himself. I’ve always felt I let him down.

If Mark had grown up in today’s world, his life – and its outcome – might be drastically different. He would have role models who are gay. He would watch TV shows with popular characters who look and talk just like him. People would be less likely to judge him. Some people would embrace him and celebrate his differences.

If Mark had grown up in today’s world, I wouldn’t have wondered so often what was going on with him. He always seemed uncomfortable at family events. Looking back now, I have an idea of what was going on in his head, how out-of-place and unaccepted he probably felt. But I only saw a boy who seemed to not like us. I only saw how others responded to him and how they did nothing to ease his awkwardness – even the adults.

I simply didn’t know enough to understand what was going on. Few people were openly gay in the ’70s, and certainly no one in my Irish Catholic neighborhood was (at least not openly). Tolerance wasn’t a common word then, so no one understood the pain of those who weren’t tolerated.

I can’t help but blame myself a little for not trying harder to understand. When I heard of his suicide, there was a part of me that thought many of the people who knew him – including me – should feel some shame. Surely, those who treated him poorly shared in the blame of his depression. But so did those of us who did little to actively include him in our lives.

I don’t think Mark would say I was unkind to him – ever. But I also don’t think he would say I included him in our childhood games like I did my other cousins. I don’t think he would say I sat next to him to chat the night away and fight off the boredom of family gatherings. I did too little. For our whole childhood, and his whole life, I did too little. I don’t think I did anything to make him feel loved.

If I had, it wouldn’t have changed how his life ended, but I can’t help but think it would have changed something. Maybe I would have given him some moments of happiness or a feeling of acceptance. Maybe he could have relaxed and experienced the comfortable ease you can have among friends and family. Maybe I could have made him feel loved, at least by me.

My cousin Karen made him feel loved. She was my age, and my close friend. She was also Mark’s close friend. When we were together, I was aware of the connection she had with Mark, and I didn’t understand it. Now that we’re older, I admire her. At a young age, she was able to ignore Mark’s differences and only see the good. Her instinct was to love him, to show him that, and he responded as anyone would – he loved her back.

Karen acted then as many people do now. But she was able to show tolerance before it became a political issue. She didn’t have to witness social debates or hear public service announcements to understand the importance of accepting people for who they are. She simply loved Mark. That was it.

She knew something it took the rest of us years and years to learn: It’s good to love someone, even if they aren’t like you. I should have known.

August 2011
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