I worked three jobs during college and tried to save money by taking a lot of credits each semester, but I received my degree and later was awarded a Fulbright scholarship — still one of the biggest surprises of my life.
I was lucky. I grew up in a home of modest financial means, but education has always been important to my vast family. I have so many cousins that if we all lived in the same area, we could have our own village! One of most prominent buildings would be a library. All of us love to read.
As a white male of Northern European heritage with a good education, I have had a few doors opened easily for me. As a gay man growing up decades before our country was led by a man I consider to be our finest president ever, Barack Obama, I have also had a few slammed shut in my face.
I took an unconventional path to find my voice when I was growing up. Early on, especially when I spoke English, I was often mocked. I quickly realized, though, that my voice was more respected in writing, usually in poems and in articles I wrote for student newspapers.
This became my norm: I knew that if I spoke, my chances increased greatly of being taunted, sometimes, I’m sorry to say, even by members of my own family. If I wrote, though, I often gained respect.
The first time I visited Germany, I was a young teenager who was part of an exchange program. Along with about 20 other students, I attended a reception with our teacher, chaperones, and host families the first evening we arrived. Among the German guests was an attractive, athletic young coach of the regional tennis team. Our teacher and several students spoke to him in German. He answered back in English. He then turned to me and asked me in German why I was so quiet. I answered in German but fully expected him to move on quickly. I was also terrified that he would realize I was gay. Instead, he looked at me for a while and kept speaking German. Then he smiled and said, “You’re one of us, aren’t you?”
It was the first time in my life where I felt my spoken voice made me in appealing in any way. Encouraged, I decided the language of my ancestors would be one of my languages for the rest of my life, a promise I later made to my grandfather.
I had tasted confidence during that exchange visit which, by coincidence, was to a city in Germany about 15 miles from a farming village where my forefathers and foremothers lived before many of them left for the “New World.”
That memory sustained me, even in times of doubt, as I continued to find my voice in English and German. Perhaps it was predestined that my written and spoken voices have helped me become an advocate for Civil Rights, particularly for those who face discrimination.
Thank you, Bavarian tennis coach from long ago. Thank you, Elizabeth Warren, for standing your ground in the Senate yesterday and for reading the words of Coretta Scott King. Thank you for giving us courage. We need to be persistent!