Why I Lit a Peace Candle

I was on my way home from 7-eleven when a then-hit song was interrupted with news that America was bombing Iraq. A nervous reporter gave play-by-play commentary. Bombs and bullets exploded in the background.

I had just turned fourteen and remember the sense of pride I felt that night. A few of my friends and I — being somewhat silly — placed our right hands over our hearts and sang together, “Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hailed.”

I was still in the closet in 1991. And would stay that way for nine more years, both in terms of my sexuality and the way I thought things were supposed to be.

But a few details from Operation Desert Storm are still fresh. Peter Arnett and Bernard Shaw became Daniels’ household names. That ghostly green night-vision camera, that brought the bombing into our living room, still occasionally emerges in my dreams. And, I fondly remember mom hanging the American flag on our front-porch post and tying a yellow ribbon around the brawny, rusted anchor in our front yard.

That war lasted less than two months, and Bush Sr. declared victory. Years later I would learn we didn’t even come close to winning, and that hopeful Iraqi citizens, who had welcomed our troops with song and dance, were later slaughtered as they tried to finish what we had started. I also learned that all we did to help was toss stale bread from a moving aircraft.

Though Wanchese, our small fishing village on coastal North Carolina, had sent no troops, the community rallied behind George Bush Sr. Much like it’s doing today with his son. And I stood behind them.

Not only on the issue of war, but on other moral issues.

I believed abortion was murder — no exceptions. I believed that gay people went to hell, even though I battled those “demons” myself. I believed Bush Sr. was seated next to the Father’s right hand and that listening to liberals would poison my thoughts and hinder my walk with God.

Even in high school and early college I held onto my beliefs. I wrote a newspaper column for the “Virginian-Pilot” about how wonderful Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” would one day be for my generation.

I became a licensed minister in my denomination, and served for a-year-and-a-half as a full-time youth minister. Life was on track and Wanchesers, as they’re known, couldn’t have been more proud.

Until, I came out.

At first, I wondered if my moral metamorphism was a sort of inner revolt — a way of coping with the fact I was now deemed a sinner – an immoral enemy — in the eyes of those I had loved and grown up with. I started writing newspaper columns about gay issues and accepting and loving all people regardless of their differences. The beliefs I once held so dear had seemingly deteriorated.

A few nights before our current president announced our invasion of Iraq, I stood downtown here in Wilmington, North Carolina holding a lit candle poked through a paper cup holder. Crowded around were a couple hundred people who — like me — did not think we were doing the right thing. There were Catholics from the downtown parish, activists from the Green and Democratic parties, a handful of local college professors and students, and a healthy representation of gay and lesbian people.

We silently prayed for peace and then we went home.

Though I tried to conjure up the emotions I had felt during the first Persian Gulf War, they just weren’t there. In fact, at that moment, I would have been lucky to stumble through that first line of the “Star Spangled Banner.” And in addition to my prayer for our brave troops, I added a few others to the list, like those Iraqis whose lives would be lost in the line of erroneous bombs and bullets — those civilians who had asked for none of this.

I even offered a prayer for Saddam Hussein. After all, I was taught that Christ came for the most grave of sinners.

While standing silently at that vigil, I also thought about how my life has changed in these brief years since America’s first war in Iraq. How only a few years ago, I would have been on the other side of the street waiving our flag, holding high my sign proclaiming Saddam Hussein as a devil, and shouting at those who were not being patriotic.

I guess, in a way, being gay has been good for me. And being gay and from Wanchese even better. Though I’m still loved by many there, even more consider me a depraved sinner and even an embarrassment.

So, I’ve had to learn the hard way what it’s like to be thrust on the other side of the enemy line. I’ve felt the pain of being hated, and spit upon and — for some — even murdered for simply being who they are. And, I’ve learned that just because a person says something is virtuous, or not, sometimes they’re forced to change.