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Why the stories behind gay rights continue to inspire [Commentary]

BY BRYNA ZUMER, bzumer@theaegis.com

11:18 AM EDT, August 12, 2013

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My freshman year of high school was memorable for a number of reasons, but there's one classroom moment that stands out to me.

The teacher was leading a discussion, I guess based on something we were reading, about when it might be OK to kill someone. (Gotta love the philosophical discussions in high-school English.)

Everyone agreed there could be situations where taking a life might be justified, except for one girl. I'll call her Lisa (name changed to protect the innocent).

Lisa explained that she was Christian and believed killing someone was always wrong.

The teacher asked her: "Even if someone was pointing a gun at you and directly threatening your life, and you had to kill them to save yourself?"

Lisa firmly replied that she still wouldn't kill someone, even with a gun pointed at her. (This was "pre-Columbine," by the way.)

The rest of the class kind of laughed and acted like she was crazy. I didn't agree with Lisa, either, but I was really impressed that she stood by her beliefs in the face of total opposition.

After all, it was freshman year, and I was trying to fit in and make sure everyone liked me. I was deathly afraid to talk in class, much less to express an opinion that everyone else thought was stupid.

So I totally respected Lisa's willingness to stand up for a very personal, and controversial, belief so fearlessly in front of the whole class, and it was something I still remember.

In more recent years, I've been impressed by a new wave of people making their views known in the face of much greater hostility: gays and lesbians who have come out, especially in very prominent positions, or pushed for equal rights.

It's easy to cynically listen to all the hype around gay rights and jump to a political conclusion. It's easier to moralize than to actually hear what someone else is trying to say.

But putting politics or moralizing aside, I think the many stories of gays and lesbians who have refused to live a lie are really inspiring for anyone who is afraid to speak up or be true to themselves.

A couple of notable examples I can think of include Chely Wright, the first major openly-gay country singer when she came out in 2010, and NBA basketball player Jason Collins, the first major U.S. professional athlete to come out earlier this year.

They were both in professions that came with certain stereotypes, and no one really suspected they were gay. They had every reason to continue blending in.

I think when they came out, the response of many people was, at best, a "don't ask, don't tell" philosophy: "If you're gay, we don't want to hear about it. Why can't you keep that to yourself?"

It was the same attitude my classmate Lisa got in high school: "Just be quiet and pretend you're like everyone else."

Some might argue the tide has now turned in favor of the LGBT community, but even if true, that would still be a very recent development.

It's been about 15 years since Matthew Shepard was killed for being gay. I remember in college, in the early 2000s, when his mother Judy Shepard came to talk on campus and later, the Westboro Baptist Church was set to protest at our performing arts center for staging "The Laramie Project."

I remember kids in my high school making fun of people for being gay, and now the school has a Gay-Straight Alliance.

It wasn't that long ago.

That's why people who are willing to stand alone in front of a crowd and tell the truth about themselves, even when it might cost them everything, continue to be my real heroes.