Matt Hershberger grew up in conservative, suburban Cincinnati, but since he never knew anything else, the effects of that more conventional mindset didn't phase him, at least not at first.
For example, the community's approach to educating kids about sex came down to abstinence only. "It was just 'exercise self control' preached to masses of horny kids," Matt writes in an email.
So unsurprisingly, he and his friends went to less reliable, oftentimes super misogynistic outlets — like the internet — to learn about sex. As a result, a strong undercurrent of toxic masculinity began to build up in them.
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And homophobia wasn't far behind.
Some of the boys that Matt hung out with had homophobic parents and coaches, or they heard anti-gay sermons in church. So unsurprisingly, bigoted slurs became a part of everyday conversation, But swearing like that wasn't just for fun, it was about asserting dominance.
"We all bought into the alpha male crap because no one else was telling us otherwise," explains Matt, "and so we were all a bunch of little misogynists and homophobes by default."
Since this was before LGBTQ people had become a staple of mainstream culture, it was easy for ignorance-bred behavior like this to take over in towns like Matt's.
But soon, Matt got a wake up call. Actually he got two, and both came from places of love.
One was that his mother befriended a woman who is a lesbian and Matt realized that he genuinely liked her.
She was someone his mom had met in grad school, and she’d occasionally invite Matt over to hang out on her property where she had a little pond and lots of animals to play with. She also happened to be the first openly gay person he’d met in his life. It was one of the first things he knew about her. But after they spent time together, he learned there was so much more to who she is than that, and he stopped seeing her as "different."
At the same time, he also started hanging out with new friends who would call him out whenever he made hurtful comments instead of enabling him to do so. Slowly but surely, this made him more aware of his actions. Constant reminders from friends and loved ones that what you’re saying may be hurtful to others is perhaps one of the best ways to curb the behavior, because they’re like living alarm bells.
So by the time he graduated high school, he knew what a homophobe was and that he didn't want to be one.
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But, while the decision to leave homophobia in the dust came quickly, the ideological changes Matt wanted to make were more gradual. It was during school debates that he realized he didn't actually have the same political views as the rest of his family, which in turn made him want to reexamine all of his beliefs.
"That and starting to actually meet LGBTQ people and listen to their stories was what started changing me," notes Matt.
This change has been an ongoing process for Matt, which makes sense because it can be hard to unlearn behaviors that had been ingrained in you from an early age.
But Matt's always trying to evolve, which is why he started going to LGBTQ events when he came across them.
Back in 2016, he had recently moved to Asbury Park, New Jersey — a town with an active LGBTQ community — so he decided to check out their Pride parade.
It was the first Pride parade there since Obergefell v. Hodges made it illegal for states to discriminate against same-sex marriage, so needless to say the celebration was epic.
Photo by Michele de Paola/Unsplash.
While Matt's decision to attend didn't feel monumental at the time — it just seemed like a fun thing to do — he ended up being really moved by it.
"As a cis straight male, pride isn't really for me, but I still thought it was just a really cool experience to watch a group of people, that for so long had to live in the shadows, be out and proud in the open," he writes.
He was also elated to see how many businesses and faith groups came out to show their genuine support.
The whole experience inspired him to be more of an active advocate for LGBTQ people, and marginalized communities in general.
Today, Matt is a writer who often writes about the importance of being an LGBTQ ally and creating an accepting environment for the community.
Matt giving a speech at his wedding. Photo via Matt Hershberger.
In one of his articles, he explains that we should make an effort to talk to and learn about people who are different from us so that we can understand that being different is not a bad thing. What’s more, being compassionate and accepting those differences makes the world a much better place to live.
Of course, he knows how challenging that can be.
“Acceptance can be hard, because it often means rejecting old things you used to think were true. It's no small thing to lose a religion or a worldview, which is why the sea of change on this issue over the past few decades has been so tremendous."
Now that he's a father, Matt's also hyper aware of making sure that his daughter feels accepted, no matter what her gender or sexual proclivity ends up being. It's not the easiest line to walk because many outdated gender stereotypes are still alive and well in our culture, but he's doing the best he can to shield her from them.
There's still lots of work to be done, but people like Matt are proof that changing your views is possible. All you have to do is open your eyes.