“Why do you need to do this?”
Those were the last words spoken by my friend Lauri Carleton to the man who shot and killed her as he tried to rip the Pride flag down from in front of her gift shop in Lake Arrowhead, California.
On the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 18, the man pulled up in front of her shop and started yelling about the abomination that the Pride flag represented to him and how he was tired of looking at it whenever he drove past. She didn’t fight with him or meet him with the same level of aggression. Rather, Lauri calmly walked out and asked him why he needed to do this.
She had been confronted before by other people about her flag. Others had torn it down. She heard their issues with it and sent them on their way. But she never took it down. It was a big flag. Big flags make a big statement. Lauri had just ordered a new, big flag because she was concerned that the current flag had gotten too faded by the sun.
The sun shines bright in Arrowhead most of the time. It makes lots of colors fade. But it just keeps on shining. Lauri’s light shined brighter than the Arrowhead sun, and now it shines no more.
Fear killed Lauri. Intolerance killed her too. I understand that kind of fear and intolerance. I grew up in a conservative household. My parents were both religious and I adopted their beliefs as a kid. I was afraid of gay people. I had never met one (that I was aware of) but would hear the stories from the kids at school about what gay people did. I couldn’t process it, and so I was scared of them.
But then I joined the local theater company in my small Michigan hometown and met all the people I was scared of. They became my closest friends. They were fun and funny and talented and loved all the things I loved. They weren’t scary or unfamiliar at all. They were people just like me and all my other friends.
When I moved out to Los Angeles in the 1980s to pursue a career in filmmaking, I met even more people of all kinds, the “others” who didn’t live in my small Michigan town, people of all races and beliefs and orientations. I realized just how small and fearful my old worldview was, and I fought to change it in myself.
There’s so much rhetoric of fear these days against the “others,” especially the LGBTQIA2S+ community. I can see the young me hearing it all today and being even more afraid than I was of the locker room talk from my school days. It’s easy to slide into fear. It’s the default setting of the human brain. It can get us out of dangerous situations. But when it’s exploited and misinterpreted, it can ruin lives.
Words matter. The fear they create matters. And they can snuff out the sunshine of a beaming loving soul if they’re acted upon.
Let’s let the colors of our flags shine bright and let the fear that threatens them fade through communication, community and connection. Let’s reach across the divides and show that fear is unfounded, that it is merely a fear of the unknown and that, once known, that fear can turn into acceptance and even friendship.
We have to if we are to keep moving forward. It’s what Lauri would have wanted.