by PJ Mintner
I’m a Kansan. I’m an education professional. I love watching How I Met Your Mother, and you can find me cheering on my alma mater on Saturdays every fall. I love barbecue and the Kansas City Royals. I’ve only cried in one movie: Toy Story 3. I’m an uncle (and love that title), brother, son, and grandson. I can be a listener, counselor, teacher, trainer, co-worker, best friend, and support group. I’m an unapologetic Democrat. I love my Republican friends (and there are many in Kansas). I’ve had wonderful success at work and in school, which I’m reminded of as I currently search for jobs everywhere from New York City to South Texas. I have been to 13 weddings in the last 12 months, celebrating my friends’ love.
In every way possible, I feel blessed. My sister uses me as an example to show her children what she hopes they will achieve. My brother relies on me as a godfather to two of his young children. My parents love me in a way that I can’t comprehend; I honestly think that if I committed a heinous crime, they’d smuggle me out of the country, no questions asked. And my grandparents have the most beautiful, wise souls.
My nephew, a kindergartener, told me once that the thing he really liked about me was this: “You’re not always there, but you’re there when it matters.”
As you can imagine, after this gem he went on to ask me if I could come to his tee-ball games. You have to love the wisdom and naïveté of children. You could say that the notion that my nephew expressed is my personal mission statement: Be there when it matters. All these things help define what I am and what my “piece of the puzzle” is.
I talk to my students about their “piece of the puzzle” all the time. When I’m working with students, I am always genuinely interested in their story — what important factors influenced them and brought them to the very moment that we’re meeting. There’s the story of the young man from the Congo who helped raise his brothers and sisters who needed financial support, so I allowed him to stay in my apartment for free for three months after I moved to a new place. Or the young lady who was studying for the LSAT night and day, whom I gave old, unused LSAT-logic-game books so that she could have more ways to practice. Or the two brothers and sister whose mother suddenly had a stroke, whom I had over for dinner so that they could take a break from taking care of her. That’s my way of being there when it matters.
It strikes me that through many of these kinds of experiences, I’ve rarely shared an important part of my own story. Of course, many people know what I’ve shared, but many don’t know this: I fell in love for the first time in college. I was a senior, and I met someone who turned my world upside down. It was that my-body-gets-numb-when-you-enter-the-room-or-accidentally-graze-my-knee-or-tell-a-bad-joke-that-I-pretend-I-don’t-like-but-secretly-want-to-laugh kind of love. For two years it rattled my perspective in every way possible. If I could have, I would never have changed it for the world. I (rather stupidly) changed educational goals and life plans, and I’m much better because of it, because as wonderful as the feeling I had being in love was, equally painful was the break up. I’ll never forget the night we shared Pablo Neruda’s poetry together — yes, poetry (we were nerds). And I’ll never forget the night that it all came to a screeching halt, or the pain that came with the end of our relationship.
The person in me who wants to help others struggled with this chapter of my story coming to an end. I had no idea how to help myself, but luckily for me, there were important friends who were there when it mattered. I have to thank my friends in Dallas, Cleveland, Lubbock, Kansas City, Wichita, and many other places. They taught me how to love myself and accept support from others, skills that are hard to come by for people like me. The direct impact they have had as I’ve picked up these broken parts of my life to contribute to my “piece of the puzzle” reminds me how loved I am.
I’m a gay man in a red state. I love Kansas and the understated beauty of the plains and flint hills. I love the humility and refined simplicity of Kansans. And, probably much to his chagrin, I love people like Governor Brownback. There are a lot of people who probably wouldn’t like me if they knew my whole story, or wouldn’t be able to bring themselves to love me, but my grandmother told me once, “I love all people. They’re people that I never thought I could love, but I love them because of the good they do, not the choices they’ve made. They’re there for me, and I love them.”
Grandma has been married to my grandpa for over 70 years and finds it in her heart to love everyone. I struggle with what she’d say if she knew whom I’d fallen in love with, but I know, at the end of the day, that she’d support me. The last time I saw her in her nursing home, as I began my job search, she told me, “Wherever you go, you’re always my grandson. Give me a hug. We all need more of those. Let’s hug. We can make up for those we’ve missed and need.”
It can’t be difficult to understand why people like Anderson Cooper and Steve Kornacki have made a difference to me. I love to write, learn, and think critically about the type of things they report about each day. I often find myself saying that I have to do something worth writing about each day. Mr. Cooper and Mr. Kornacki’s recent bravery helps me feel more legitimate as a person — and more comfortable telling my story. So I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart. Personal courage and professional goals are hard to reconcile sometimes. I have to thank them for being there when it matters for me.
But most of all, I want to thank my first love, because if he hadn’t broken my heart, I wouldn’t be here today, starting my journey toward being both privately and publicly gay, and more than just OK. I wouldn’t be moving to a place where I can share who I am with more than just my inner circle. I wouldn’t be able to privately acknowledge that I’m not only a gay Kansan but a productive citizen who helps others each day, hurts some days as I reflect on my past, and loves others without abandon. I think my story of falling in love isn’t that different from how my 13 friends who married the men and women of their dreams felt when they fell in love. And that’s why I think my “piece of the puzzle” is pretty normal and, in its normality, worth sharing.
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