This morning, I've been thinking a lot about the idea of heroes. When we're children, we have a lot of heroes. For some people, a hero may be a parent, teacher, or favorite character. For example, a child might admire a firefighter, her first grade teacher, or a superhero like Spiderman or Superman.
As we get older though, our heroes start to become tarnished. The child may learn that the firefighter isn’t that heroic or may outgrow his admiration of Superman. As adults, we assume that everyone is tarnished, everyone is flawed and we stop admiring people who aren’t “perfect.” We stop believing in the idea of heroism, and we become cynical and jaded about human nature.
I think many of us still have an idealism about what a hero should be, but real life experience teaches us that there are no heroes because a real human can’t live up to the perfect ideal. Perhaps we need to change our definition of heroism. Maybe a hero is not a person without flaws. Instead, the true hero is someone who overcomes her or his flaws when doing so matters most.
Personally, I have four people I admire greatly. Three of my heroes are fairly well-known, while I don’t know the name of my fourth hero. For those who know me well, it won't be a surprise that my four heroes are members of the gay and lesbian community. My first hero is U.S. diver and Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis. Mr. Louganis overcame so much to accomplish his diving records, and I admire the fact that he was flawed but still great. Anyone who hasn’t read is memoir “Breaking the Surface” should buy a copy and read it.
My second hero is Col. Greta Cammermeyer, the Army nurse who challenged “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” in the early 1990s. Col. Cammermeyer served with integrity, and her suit against the Army made her the highest-ranking officer to challenge that law. She later had an unsuccessful bid for Congress. Again, those who haven’t read “Serving in Silence,” the memoir of her service, should get a copy soon.
My third hero is Mark Bingham, one of the passengers on United Flight 93. Mr. Bingham was about my age and also born in Arizona. More importantly, he was among those passengers who rushed the hijackers and kept Flight 93 from reaching its target. I should also add that I respect his mother because she didn't let the media “whitewash” his story. That is, she made sure America knew that one of its 9/11 heroes was gay. I think too many parents would have tried to hide that fact, and I admire her for being true to Mr. Bingham’s memory.
My fourth hero is a woman whose name I have never known. However, her face is seared in my mind. Following the horrific 1989 earthquake in California when two sections of the freeway collapsed onto one another like pancakes, she was regularly shown on the news walking that stretch, tears streaming down her face, searching for her “friend.” I don't know if it's true, but I've heard in the years since then that she was looking for her lost partner. Of course, no news agency would say that in 1989, and I’ve never been able to find out what her name was or for whom she was searching. Whether or not she was actually a lesbian, her devotion and her sorrow will forever haunt my memory.
These four people were not perfect. They were human, which means they made mistakes, they had flaws, and they sometimes did things that weren't admirable. What sets them apart is that when it really mattered, they were true to themselves and they faced adversity with integrity. That's a model we all should follow. I wonder how many of us would have our legacies whitewashed and “straightened up” by those we leave behind?