I've been among the speakers at Arkansas Boys State for 20 years.
I talk about my left-leaning ideas. Conservative young men take vigorous exception, particularly on social issues such as abortion and sexual orientation.
Things are improving. I don't get hissed and booed anymore. (Lt. Gov. Mark Darr did this year tweet approvingly a message from a nephew in the audience that the "flaming liberal" speaker he was listening to should be slapped.)
I also get lots of thankyous afterward. In early years, the thanks often came in furtive asides from one or two kids.
Boys State was updated this year with the ability to instantly poll the phone-carrying crowd. So I tried the 400 or so delegates on three hot-button questions:
• Gay marriage — 62-38 against. (That's still 13 points better than the 75 percent anti-gay-marriage amendment vote in 2004).
• Right to a pre-viability abortion (the prevailing law, in other words) — 62-38 against.
• Medical marijuana — 50-50.
I'd hoped for better on gay marriage, but I still detected a great deal more tolerance toward gay people, if not marriage, than in years past. Only one Boys Stater quoted Leviticus to me (and I do believe he was wearing a blend of a synthetic fabric and cotton, which, I noted, Leviticus also prohibits).
I'd particularly hoped to soften the voters by reading a letter I'd received recently on Facebook. It follows:
Max. Way back in 1997 or so, you spoke at UCA for the Boys State conference.
Among all of the Legion guys and college-aged counselors during that period on campus, I clearly remember your short talk.
Being a political/civic government type of "camp" full of boisterous and confident teenaged young men, I received a near-constant barrage of anti-gay sentiment.
But then the editor of that weekly liberal newspaper called the Arkansas Times spoke. We had never heard of your paper back in Russellville.
As a young gay kid in the sea of animosity, your talk affirmed your support for gay people. It's been so long that the specifics have been lost to me but I'll always remember that you were the lone supportive voice during Boys State.
Later on during the camp, I would go on to meet my first boyfriend at Boys State. Today I'm happily married to my husband and now live in San Francisco and I'm active in the local PFLAG chapter.
You were the adult in the room who contradicted my idea that everyone must feel like these anti-gay, very conservative young men and Legion guys feel. It was so refreshing and it confirmed that I simply lived in a part of the world where I was definitely in the minority.
In the years since, I've seen Arkansas move step by step towards more understanding (the Arkansas legislature notwithstanding) and who knows how many other young men of 16 have similarly been affected by your talks at similar events and your columns?
Footnote: Brock posted my Arkansas Blog account of my Boys State appearance on his Facebook page. Soon after, the young man with whom he'd had his first date chimed in with a friendly greeting.
Better yet, one of the counselors this year told me that he'd been outraged, too, at my speech at his Boys State delegate year. He, too, quoted Leviticus. Then he went to college. His views changed. He joined the Gay Straight Alliance.
Hearts and minds can change. Particularly when an idea that's feared or loathed takes a human face. I wondered how that Leviticus-quoter felt if he happened to be in one of the Boys State groups that I'm told included openly gay boys this year. Loving, I hope, if that Bible he quoted really does mean anything.