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My Turn: Wilbur's redemption - a lesson for Alaska

How a bigoted father learned to accept a gay son

Posted: Friday, April 13, 2007

As Abraham Lincoln said, "Trample on the rights of others and you lose the genius of your own independence." The close vote in the April 3 advisory vote yielded an impressive educational opportunity.

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Responsible citizens throughout the state wrote wise, thoughtful civic lessons on constitutional protection. The letters to the editors and the My Turns could be gathered into a classroom text. I'm proud of the thinking and empathy that came forward, and I'm proud of the Alaskans who saw the genius in a "no" vote.

In 1954, as a seventh-grader, I discovered I was gay. I didn't know what to call myself. I had somehow heard the word "homo" but knew it mostly as a milk description. I didn't know any gay people and didn't know if I would even like gay people. I felt abandoned.

For most of my life, this country has been discussing whether gay people should exist, and during the last three decades the dialogue has ascended into whether gays should have equal rights. A few weeks ago, the headlines said that 75 Juneau high school students tried to kill themselves last year. Youth cannot see themselves happily alive, making a living and feeling tenderly connected in a society that constantly divides people against each other and does not respect differences.

In this lifetime of contentiousness, I take heart from my father, Wilbur. As Maya Angelou says, "We live in direct relationship to our heroes. We take spirit from them and that builds our courage."

As a mechanical engineer at General Electric, Wilbur made explosives. A total opposite, I made my parents take me home in the middle of the first movie I ever saw. Three boy bullies pushed a little girl into a large Hollywood mud puddle, her beautiful white dress ruined forever, and I was undone. As a lifelong Republican, Wilbur donated to all the anti-gay PACs starting in the 1970s. As an adult, on each visit, I sat wide-eyed at the kitchen table next to his stack of anti-gay literature. Someday museums will arrange this material to show what our generation experienced. No mother holding her newborn would want these things said about her child.

In the 1970s our uncivil arguments curdled the air. In the '80s, we declared a truce. In 1990, I introduced him to my mate. The two of them, big teasers, became fast buddies. Invited to our commitment ceremony, Wilbur courageously left Cincinnati and his anti-gay church buddies and flew alone into the great unknown of our legally unrecognized "wedding." An entire three-day weekend with a 100 of our friends awaited him.

He was a hit. He charmed with his Midwest humor and farm stories. His tireless labor helped us set up for 100 people. During the ceremony, he blessed us and announced that he would add my partner to our family tree, his pride and joy. He revealed that no family members had come to his wedding with my mother. He was born a little north of the Mason-Dixon, and mom was born a little south. In 1941, both families festered with hatred from the Civil War 80 years before. He didn't want me to be without family on this special day. Witnessing our ceremony, meeting our friends and my mate's large friendly accepting family, he became a great supporter of our life partnership. We drove him back to the Oakland Airport in our "Just Married" pickup, and passersby kept asking him, "Who's the lucky woman?" He would smile and say, "Both of them." In 1995, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and carried that same graceful courage and humor into his illness and last days. My partner and I were with him when he caught his last outgoing tide.

As John Muir said of Stikeen, his Glacier Bay travel buddy: "At first the least promising ... of my dog friends, our storm battle for life brought him to light, and through him as through a window, I have ever since been looking with deeper sympathy into all my fellow mortals."

My father would be honored to be Alaskan light through a new window on this topic.

• Lin Davis is a state worker and plaintiff in the same-sex partner benefits case.



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