These days, when I listen to NPR on my commute to and from work, I’m not usually crying. In fact, I’m barely listening. Some days I’m trying to listen but I’ve got a kid or two hounding me for snacks, or trying to get me to listen to an endless monologue on Minecraft. Other days when I’m particularly preoccupied, I catch myself not listening at all. I realize I’ve had no idea what anyone has been saying for at least five minutes, and I push the button on my console and note the relief that silence brings.
But on my Friday morning commute last week, this interview with Billy Bean cut through all of the static in my brain. Billy Bean was a Major League Baseball player in the nineties who came out as gay four years after retiring. In the interview, he tells the story of losing his partner to AIDS, and then opening the baseball season the next day. Because he was closeted, no one on his team knew anything about his loss.
Bean has recently been hired as Major League Baseball’s LGBT ambassador. Can we pause for a moment and let that sink in, because still, four days later, I’m still experiencing cognitive dissonance. Major League Baseball has hired an LGBT ambassador. What world am I living in?
I choked up at several moments in the interview, and was reminded that during the years when the push for same-sex marriage was gathering momentum, I was often listening to NPR and crying in my car. The tears seemed to bubble spontaneously from a mysterious underground source. One moment I’d be vaguely happy while listening to a report about the Marriage Equality Act in New York State, and the next moment there’d be an interview with some lesbian couple in their seventies and I’d be pulling into the parking lot, having to take a few minutes to sit there and wipe the snot from my nose. I’m not sure it would be accurate to say I was crying for joy, though I certainly wasn’t crying out of sadness.
I remember leaving work one afternoon and starting my car while Melissa Block was mid-interview with Dan Savage discussing the It Gets Better Project. I listened along, happy and dry-eyed until the interview was over and Melissa Block read his bio. “Columnist Dan Savage along with his husband Terry Miller created the It Gets Better Project.” It was the word husband than got me. I cried so hard I shuddered. Dan Savage lives about 65 miles away from me and at the time of the interview gay marriage was still illegal in our state. So it startled me to hear a major news outlet refer to Terry Miller as his “husband” as if it were a normal, legitimate, everyday thing.
Sometimes, I guess, we don’t know how much something aches until we attend to it. When I was a child I noticed that when I had an accident—if I fell hard on my butt, or bonked my head—I wouldn’t cry at first. “Are you okay?” another kid might ask me. I’d nod that I was fine as the tears gathered in my eyes. It was like the pain didn’t happen until it was noticed.
In the nineties and early aughts as I was coming of age, gay marriage struck me as a hypothetical goal at the end of a long road. Having my partnerships go unrecognized was an inequality that I expected to live with for the rest of my life. But apparently I had more feelings about it than I ever knew. Each instance of crying in my car—and there were dozens—was a letting go of an ache I never realized I carried.
At the end of his NPR interview, Billy Bean talks about walking through the Major League Clubhouse for the first time as his “whole self,” a self where he can be known as Major League player and a gay man. The phrase whole self makes me think about how we fragment our identities, and how at first, perhaps, that fragmentation creates a sense of numbness more than pain. When we are finally whole or at least engaged in the act of healing, of fusing the selves we’ve separated, that’s when all the pain comes rushing to the wound. Sometimes the healing hurts more than the rupture.