''Watch out for copperheads.'' That seems to be my earliest memory of North Carolina, a casual warning that I don't recall the context for but that filled my 8-year-old mind with the fear of rampant poisonous snakes ready to slither up my little legs.
It was a family trip to visit my great aunt and uncle, Jean and Joe. My memories, some three decades later, are admittedly a little hazy, but some things still stick out. In particular, Uncle Joe gave me my first tennis racquet — a wooden Wilson Jack Kramer — and a Tretorn tennis trainer, basically a tennis ball on a long elastic string that I set up in the driveway and hit for what seemed like hours. That gift set me on a sports path that not only got me a letter jacket in high school but directly led me to meeting my now-husband on a tennis court in D.C.
Yeah, there's some sad irony in that.
It being the 1970s and Phil Donahue being the talk-show phenomenon that he was, there was also some tut-tutting about the outrageous things that were on television those days. I remember my aunt saying, with heavy disdain, ''You know what he had on yesterday? Gay old folks.'' That stuck with me. Years later, when I drove down from my Virginia college to visit her, I was on the cusp of coming out to her. I'd always thought of her and my uncle — who had passed away by then — as a cosmopolitan outpost of my Kentucky family. After all, she shepherded my one trip to Europe.
But when I tried to say it, the disapproval that dripped from that one sentence — ''Gay old folks'' — kept playing in my mind. So I left North Carolina still in the closet to my family.
It wasn't long after that I made my last trip to North Carolina. It was the summer after my junior year, the year that I was outed at school and of all the drama that entailed. I headed down to Charlotte to visit a friend who had just graduated. He was a straight guy who hadn't had a problem being friends with a gay guy — a friend who reminded me that straight men aren't all assholes.
Given that I was young, newly out and knew very few gay people, I also ended up with a little crush. Another benefit of friendship: learning that normal straight guys are able to be flattered, even though uninterested, and then put it aside and go on being friends. I learned a lot in North Carolina.
I don't want to reflexively hate the state of North Carolina for becoming the latest state to write anti-gay hatred into their constitution in a way that attacks any gay relationship whatsoever, not just marriage. I know there are good and decent straight people in the state — my friend still lives there and was among the many in the progressive, urban areas who voted against the amendment. I know that a new generation of LGBT activists is making a real difference for North Carolinians. And I know that attitudes can be slow to change in the stubborn and often backward-looking South.
It still hurts, even more because everyone knows — even Maggie Gallagher and her minions — that we're winning the long game, that equality is coming for all of us, maybe in a decade, maybe in two.
Until then, we're just going to have to keep watching out for the snakes.