I used to be a homophobe. I didn't dislike gays a little; I disliked them a lot. Growing up in Texas, I didn't know anyone who admitted to being gay, and I found the whole idea sick and repulsive.
On top of that, I was politically, religiously and socially conservative. So if you'd told me 40 years ago that in 2010, I'd be in favor of letting gays serve in the military and get married, I'd have thought you were on some bad acid.
But one day of my junior year in college, I came back from class to find a note on my desk. It was from my roommate, a friend since my freshman year, informing me that he was gay.
I was stunned and confused. It had never once crossed my mind that he wasn't a fellow heterosexual, and I didn't know what to do. Having a friend who was gay was disturbing enough, but a roommate?
I discussed it with him. I discussed it with my pastor. I lay awake nights. I gave it a lot of thought. If I decided not to move out, would I be able to deal with being in close proximity with a homosexual? If I broke off the friendship, would I be doing him an injustice? I faced a dilemma, and I hated it.
In the end, I was forced to conclude, not without apprehension, that the revelation didn't change anything. We were good friends before, and we would stay good friends. And 35 years later, we still are.
I'm telling you this not to impress you with how broad-minded and tolerant I proved. I was neither. I just had to deal with reality.
Before, my notions about gays were uninformed. Confronted with an actual gay person whom I liked, respected and trusted, I was forced to reexamine my prejudices, and they began to crumble.
What happened to me, of course, has happened to millions of other Americans. It's easy to be homophobic if you don't know anyone who is openly gay. But that's true of fewer and fewer people. As gays have become forthright about their sexual orientation, the rest of us have had to assess them not as gays, but as whole human beings.
So I've had gay friends and gay co-workers. I've had lesbian neighbors. I've had gay and lesbian relatives. When one gay relative back in Texas had a wedding -- in all but the legal sense -- my wife and I attended and found it eerily similar to the straight version. All these experiences have impressed on me the obvious fact that homosexuals are not an alien species.
That's in keeping with our broad national experience. In 1985, only 22 percent of us said they had a friend who was gay. By 2008, 66 percent did. And attitudes have followed. In 1982, only 34 percent of Americans regarded "homosexuality as an acceptable alternative lifestyle." Today, it's 57 percent.
Familiarity, in this case, doesn't breed contempt. It breeds acceptance. Heterosexuals have always lived and worked with gays, but without knowing it. Once they find out, most learn they have more similarities than differences.
If the military's ban on open gays is repealed, a lot of people in uniform will soon come to the same realization. Many already have. The Pentagon's new report on "don't ask, don't tell" says that when it surveyed military personnel, two out of three said they've served alongside colleagues they believed to be gay.
Such experiences make a huge difference. In Army combat units, 48 percent of those responding said repeal of the ban would have a negative impact, and in Marine combat units, 58 percent agreed.
But among those who have served with someone they believe to be gay, 92 percent of service members found no negative effects on unit performance. Nine out of 10 of those in Army combat units, as well as 84 percent of those in Marine combat units, said the same thing.
Like any big change, the repeal will have its awkward moments, and it will take some adjustment. But in the end, it will turn out to be no big deal.
As one "special operations warfighter" quoted in the report said, "We have a gay guy. He's big, he's mean, and he kills lots of bad guys. No one cared that he was gay." I know the feeling.