“What are you, gay or something?”
Those words left my mouth faster than I could reel them back. They left so casually and without any kind of bite, however, that it was more of a passive inquisition than a real question or even an insult.
At 18 years old, early in my freshman year at NYU, I was back home for Thanksgiving break and sitting by myself in the kitchen on a Wednesday night. My sister, Tali, who was a sophomore in high school at the time, came into the kitchen very timidly and just said “Hey Ben. Can I tell you something?”
The tone in her inquiry did not really seem heavy or of importance so I stupidly returned the tone back to her.
“What are you, gay or something?”
“Well, sort of…I’m bisexual.”
“Oh. Okay. Cool. That’s awesome. Well, you know I love you as long as you’re happy.”
She gave me a hug and then just walked out of the room. It was weird to me how casually I took that. I wasn’t overjoyed nor was I mad or confused. It honestly, in the moment, did not affect me.
To give some background; my two siblings and I were raised in a small town called New Hope, Pennsylvania. Given that New Hope is a rural town in Pennsylvania with a relatively small population, people would be surprised to discover that the town has a rich LGBTQ community that includes a well attended annual Pride Parade, drag events for the whole family throughout the year and a gay club that remains the hottest night spot in town for any adult. I grew up with gay neighbors and tons of my parents and grandparents’ friends were part of the LGBTQ community. My family preached to me the “love is love” concept from an incredibly young age to the point that understanding that there was nothing wrong with a difference in sexuality was easier than understanding that homophobia existed.
It sounds a bit unrealistic but my casual acceptance of my sister’s sexuality was due in part to the fact that sexuality has never been something that I thought deeply about.
I was the first person in our family that Tali came out to. Something I would not find out until a few months later. Of course I did not share what Tali had told me until family members began finding out and Tali made it more public, but it was also something I never viewed as being this crazy secret.
Being a political moderate (as I identified when I was 18) leads to passive acceptance of conditions, both good, bad and otherwise. My sister’s sexuality was never something I thought was important because I generally did not think identification was important. My view was that people should love each other or have sex with each other the way they want to as long as no one gets hurt.
The thing is, that it eventually becomes hard to passively accept a reality when someone as close as a sister is living that reality. My sister was emboldened after coming out to start becoming more politically aware of not only the nature of the LGBTQ community but also marginalized people as a whole. The summer after my freshman year of college, we eventually got to having many different political discussions and hearing my sister care so much about something made me care more and more. The second semester of my freshman year, I started leaning more and more towards studying politics as my views started slowly shifting left and, going into my sophomore year, I found it important that I study gender and sexuality politics in order to be more aware of an important issue.
When moderates are “Okay” with something, that is frankly not enough because it usually ignores the large amount of people who actively oppose a social movement rather than passively agree with it. My initial passive acceptance of the LGBTQ community may have not been harmful, but my ignorance to the very institutionalized opposition to equality for these people was counter productive.
So I started to study and in my studies I unsurprisingly was able to reveal handfuls of ignorances I had about gender and sexuality. However, the most productive parts of these studies, by far, were the conversations I was subsequently able to have with my sister, who was a junior in high school at this point. Tali and I would have these long conversations about gender theory in which she would be schooling me about all the complications and language that I was still in the process of getting my head around. Her knowledge and passion for her own identity was so inspiring to me and shifted the gears in my head. I no longer was someone who passively accepted differences in sexuality or gender, rather my mindset shifted into Pro-LGBTQ dogmatism.
When we talk about movements, social or otherwise, it takes actual enthusiasm for that movement to push it forward. It is not enough to stand on the outside and say “yeah that’s cool but I don’t see what the big deal is.” or “Yeah, gay folks can get married but I’m gonna stand over here while you protest” or “Yeah, I suppose black lives matter but…” This passivity is not productive. Movements require active, caring support instead of a thumbs up from the sideline while the other team has guns. Tali, inadvertently, revealed that to me.
So, I have talked a lot about myself and frankly I am nothing in this story compared to Tali Natan. Tali is a genius. Straight up. In my teens I spent my free time playing video games, going out with my buddies or drinking in the attic above the garage with my brother (sorry mom). Tali spent her free time researching history, science and the news. Ever since she was in elementary school, she would give our family a “random fact of the day” that could be on anything from science to math to pop culture. Her thirst for knowledge grew and grew and it was impossible to not be astounded by it. She had a high level understanding of physics and astronomy by the time she was fifteen years old and would go on diatribes about things that I fell asleep in physics for. I’m not a science guy, I’m an actor, but when Tali talks about science it feels like it matters more than anything in the world, even to a science idiot like me. She cares and that caring is infectious when she talks about something.
Her caring did not end at the quest for academic knowledge, however. Her senior year, this past school year, she became the president of her school’s Gay Straight Alliance. She ran the organization to a point where it had a bigger membership than it had ever before in its existence. More than that, she actually used the GSA as a platform to change policy. She campaigned that the school install gender neutral bathrooms and won. Even after she won, she would constantly fight against any kind of discrimination the LGBTQ community would face at the high school. She just cared so damn much and she would always update me about the goings on while I was all the way in Manhattan. I never ceased to be amazed at her passion or her ability to act on the things she cared about.
Of course, the election shook her. The thought that 62 million people would elect an administration so full of those dead set on destroying the LGBTQ community killed a lot of confidence she had in this country. For me, on election night, I just sat awake full of anger.
“How could this country betray my little sister?” I kept thinking.
“How can I keep her safe?”
“She has done nothing but good for this world but the country elects an administration that supports conversion therapy?”
I remember texting my sister that night at about 3 or 4 AM. I told her “I will fight for you. No one will hurt you.”
I know that she is her own person, but at some point the big brother instinct kicks in.
She texted me back that she was scared. I told her I was too. But then she said we have to fight for each other.
She was right.
There is this whole concept of “resistance” that has unfortunately been co-opted and white washed by pop culture to the point of it being nearly meaningless. However, my form of resistance is the care I hold in my heart that my sister taught me. I go to every protest I can and scream at the top of my damn lungs because my little sister showed me that it is not just enough to be okay with something… You have to fight for it, too. You cannot just passively accept your fellow man. You have to love them.
In Pride Month, we celebrate the incredible LGBTQ community of this country and this world. We are so far from where we need to be in terms of equality, a journey that is further impeded by the Trump administration, but it is not a journey that will stop. The LGBTQ community is vibrant, it is passionate and it is resilient. Decades of oppression and the pride that beams is awe inspiring. This year, let this pride month be a reminder not only how beautiful humanity can be in the face of oppression, but also let it embolden you to actively support the liberation of marginalized people.
As for my little sister; she graduates high school in less than a week. She was one of 12 students accepted into Kenyon College’s Physics Program and is double majoring in Physics and Astronomy. She’s told me she wants to be the first major female astrophysicist and she has given me no reason to think she won’t accomplish that. She is a trailblazer and her passion for life and knowledge will take her further than I could ever hope to go, but I will let her inspire me in the meantime.
To Tali, I love you very much. You have already accomplished more in your 18 years than what many will accomplish in a life time and you will continue to succeed in and inspire the world you are about to enter. As you go forward, I just want to let you know that this month, and every other month, I am proud of you.