I GREW UP IN OHIO SUBURBS IN THE 90’s. I started swearing when I was in about third grade, and I took to it like a champ. I learned every bad word I possibly could, and I peppered them liberally and nonsensically into every sentence uttered away from adult ears (“Fuck these fucking Chicken McFuckingNuggets,”). The only word I never used was the n-word, because I knew it was not only bad, but because it was bad for a specific group of people.

One word I took to pretty quickly was “faggot.” I liked it because a) it infuriated other boys a lot quicker than other words did, and b) it worked onomatopoetically with my favorite word, “fuck.” I was using the word before I had an actual understanding of what it meant.

But this was Ohio in the 90’s, so once I figured out what homosexuality was, I still used the word. We went to a Catholic Church, and my parents listened to conservative talk radio, so I did not hear anyone speak positively of homosexuality until around 2000, when my older sister grew a political conscience, and told me I was an asshole for calling homosexuals “perverts.”

How people stop being homophobes.

A few weeks ago, the public radio show This American Life ran an episode about the rarity of people changing their minds. In it, they talk to political campaigners in Southern California who have done the impossible: they have changed the minds of voters who revoked gay marriage rights for the state back in 2008 by voting for the infamous Prop 8.

What they found was this: if you send a gay man or woman to talk to these voters, and if they share their personal stories rather than engage in philosophical debates about the issue, then they are very likely to change people’s minds. The process of changing people’s minds this way is incredibly costly, so not many political campaigns are going to adopt it, but the moral is simple: people are more likely to be sympathetic towards a political issue if they can attach a real-life human face to it. The campaigners found that the same strategy even worked for the country’s most polarizing issue: abortion.

Empathy is all that matters.

How I stopped being a homophobe.

The first openly gay person I knew was a friend of my mom’s who was completely awesome. She had a big farm and we’d go hang out there and ride horses, play basketball, and ice skate, and she, more than anyone else, made me feel like an asshole for having been such a homophobic butthead as a kid and teenager. Not because she shamed me, but because she was so cool to me, because her partner was super cool to me, and because I realized that I suddenly had no excuse for speaking about her or anyone like her in a way that made them sound somehow broken or wrong.

The second thing that changed me from a homophobe into an LGBTQ ally was the culture change around me. When I graduated high school in 2005, there was not a single out kid in my class of 500. When my little sister graduated a couple of years later, there were several. Anyone who grew up during the 90’s in suburban areas can tell you: attitudes about gay rights changed fast. One decade, the only gays we came into contact with were caricatures in movies and TV shows, and the next decade, they were our friends, classmates, and coworkers. Suddenly, homosexuality wasn’t an abstraction, and suddenly, we had to deal with it. Since my birth in 1986 — a particularly dark time for gay men in America — the mainstream culture’s view of homosexuality changed from disdainful to largely accepting.

The credit for this change lies entirely on the shoulders of the gay rights movement. By doing the hard thing, by coming out of the closet and subjecting themselves to our ridicule, by holding onto their dignity while we worked through whatever strange, sad neuroses drove our homophobia, we were able to change. By forcing us to listen to your stories instead of allowing us to hold onto whatever antiquated notions we held about who you are, you changed us.

Today, May 17, is the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia. To LGBT people out there: thank you for putting up with us while we work through our bigotry. To the homophobes out there: fucking chill out and start listening, okay?