I was the ultimate patriot when I was a kid. Well, at least I thought I was. The year was 1981, and like any good southern Republican kid, I was all about patriotism. My bedroom’s wallpaper was a pattern of symbolic words mixed in with eagles wrapped in red, white, and blue ribbons. On the walls were various memorabilia, including an American flag and Confederate flag crossed — in honor of the Civil War. My wooden bed, dresser, and bedside chest was painted red. The bedspread was a deep navy blue. The carpet was a soft, neutral gold to tie it all together.
It was a picture perfect image of what an eleven-year-old’s room should look like if he was a patriot. The goal, it would seem, was to get President Reagan to visit. I loved my country. I loved freedom. I loved history. Well, the kind of history I could grasp, that is.
Oh, to be as naive as I was when I was 11. Wide-eyed, awestruck, and hopeful, I looked to the future with nothing less than sheer excitement. The Space Shuttle program had just started. It was all about what was possible — the way things could be. The notion that anything could stand in our way of achieving our grandest goals was as far from my mind as could be.
After all, I was a patriot.
Then, as with every American boy, I began to experience life. My parents divorced when I was in my teens. I began to learn of the threats our country faced. Ghaddafi. Iran. Russia. Oh, Russia — the great evil Soviet Union. The cold war.
Race was never an issue for my family when I was growing up. We had deep, sincere friendships with people across the racial divide, and we were never taught that blacks were inferior. I could never comprehend the notion of “some of my best friends are black” because some of my best friends WERE black. They weren’t black friends, they were friends. Period.
Then there were the faggots. The cruel AIDS jokes. “Why can’t they find a cure for AIDS yet?” one boy asked me. “Because they can’t get the little white mice to butt-screw each other.” Yeah. Only it wasn’t “screw.” That was supposed to be funny. Or something.
Oh, don’t pretend you didn’t hear jokes like that in the 80s or early 90s. Gays were the laughingstock of the country. Even still, as a teenager, I had never really noticed that I was taking much more interest in boys than girls. During the 1984 olympics while everyone was raving about Mary Lou Retton, I couldn’t take my eyes off Mitch Gaylord with those rippling muscles and skin-tight outfit. He was a “10” in my eyes as well as the Olympic judges.
I didn’t recognize the attraction that I had then. Hell, I was 13 at the time. I was more interested in Doctor Who reruns than the Olympics. But I couldn’t turn my eyes away when Gaylord was on screen. Oh, if I only knew.
The one shining point of my teens and of my country’s greatness was the Space Shuttle. I was a huge follower of NASA and read every book I could get a hold of (this was, after all, before the days of the Internet machine). Christmas of 1984 was a special time since we got our first family computer. It was a brand new, ultra portable Apple //c. My nerd days had officially begun.
By my teenage years, patriotism was more of an assumed fact than anything else. The Cold War still had a few years of freon left, and the shuttle was going strong. I had no concept that our country had dark years in its past — despite learning about the Civil Rights movement, the push for women’s rights, or the deadly truth behind the Trail of Tears.
I had never learned that Andrew Jackson was really a son of a bitch of a man who had led to the slaughter of countless people — just because they were Native Americans. I never learned that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were both slave owners. I certainly didn’t take to heart that my beloved South was once the bastion of slavery — human beings owning human beings as property. Sure, I passed tests that covered these things, but they never took root. History was just history. I was a patriot. These things didn’t matter.
Then, it happened. On a cold late January morning of 1986, just over a minute after takeoff, Challenger was vaporized in an explosion that took the lives of its seven astronauts, and it took the life of the innocent hope that I had for our future. Like many Americans, I watched it live. And then watched the countless hours of news media making a vain attempt to explain what exactly happened.
As time passed, I learned that my beloved America had some seriously dark shadows along its present and its history. I learned the truth of how blacks were treated, how natives were treated, and how women were treated. I learned how America treated its own during the era of the Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s. We feared our own neighbors. It was a dark time in American history.
Yet, I remained a patriot.
As I became an adult, I began to realize that while some shadows had faded, others simply moved. The contempt that our nationalistic fervor had against the communists is now directed solely at the Muslims. The fear that we once had against African Americans is now directed at Latinos. Amidst all of that, our national contempt for the “homosexual” still remains.
Sure, we’ve learned more about the reality of sexual orientation and why some people are attracted to members of the same sex. I’ve also learned just why I found Mitch Gaylord to be so attractive. I’ve also learned of the outright contempt that many of my peers have for me, just because women don’t wet my whistle. Sorry, girls.
The patriot remains.
America is famous for putting off the inevitable. We delayed dealing with slavery until a war nearly destroyed us. We delayed treating women as equals until we nearly lost our way. We delayed integrating our schools until the National Guard was called in.
Now we delay finding ways to help children who were brought here by no fault of their own — to help them gain their citizenship. We set aside the 1st Amendment to pass laws prohibiting anyone from living their personal lives under Sharia if they’re Muslim. And we have consistently put off a congressional vote to outlaw discrimination in the workplace and in housing for LGBT people.
Our country is forever changing. We are forever learning. Alas, we are a stubborn bunch, but the Stars and Stripes still remain. Our national hope remains.
In a day where some religious groups are clearly pushing to once again bring certain brands of fundamentalism as the forefront of our government, we should remind ourselves of our national motto.
No, not that one. “In God We Trust” didn’t come along until the Red Scare.
I’m talking about the original motto — the one we started with: E pluribus unim — Out of many, One.
Patriotism doesn’t mean we place a false superiority in our nation — nor does it mean that we must rip our history apart because of its very real flaws. Patriotism is a support of the ideals that brought all of us together — as a nation of many people, of many cultures, and of many ideas. We are a land of many faiths, and of those without faith.
We are the many who became one. Sometimes, though, in our support of the One, we forget the many. Patriotism — true patriotism — embraces the distinct differences we all share, and celebrates them. We can look to our unique cultures, our different ideas, and our blend of races and realize that the Melting Pot isn’t designed to melt away our differences, but to celebrate them.
I’m a patriot because I know where we’ve come from, and I know where we are. More importantly, I’m a patriot because I know where we must go in the future. We must resist the temptation to discard the different, the poor, the odd — and instead realize that it’s what makes us different that makes us stronger.
So, on this 236th birthday of our United States, let’s remember that unity is not uniformity. We are the One, so let’s not ever forget that we are also the Many. The reality is, that even after all this time, “All Men Are Created Equal” is still an idea that we haven’t quite reached.
That, dear friends, is up to us. Let’s get to it.