When I was an eighteen-year-old freshman at Mizzou, way back in 1990, I decided to flaunt my newfound independence from my parents by getting an ear pierced. What a rebel I was! If getting a piercing while sitting in a comfy chair at Claire’s Boutique in the Columbia Mall doesn’t prove to your parents and the rest of the world that you are a certifiable bad boy, then nothing will.

Travis Naughton

When my dad first saw my new earring, he rolled his eyes and laughed. When my mom saw it, she said she could have saved me the ten bucks and done it herself. She favored the safety pin, ice cube, and raw potato method—which, in hindsight, would have given me much more street cred than a trip to a boutique.

Nevertheless, I’ve worn an earring for the better part of three decades now. Kids at school often ask me why I have an earring, and hoping to enlighten them, I always say that boys can have earrings, too. Then they inevitably ask why I only have one ear pierced.

Until last week, my answer has been, “Lots of men have one earring. It’s just what some men did back when I was young.” Men like Harrison Ford, Michael Jordan, and Ed Bradley wore one earring in those days—all of them highly respected men.

A conversation I had last week with a former student who is now in middle school caused me to re-think my answer. “Why do you only have your left ear pierced?” she asked. I gave her my standard reply. She pressed further. “But why did you pick your left ear?” I hesitated. “You do know there’s a meaning to having just your left ear pierced, don’t you?” she said. I reluctantly admitted that I was, in fact, aware of the symbolism. Then I looked for a rock to go hide under.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a saying recited by men that helped them decide which ear to pierce. “Left is right, right is wrong.” The meaning behind this phrase is that men who pierce their left ears are heterosexual, and men who pierce their right ears are homosexual. The eye-opening revelation I had last week is that when people such as my former student see an earring in my left ear, they think I believe that a pierced right ear (and homosexuality) is wrong.

The reason I wanted to find a rock to go hide under during my conversation with the young lady is that her mother, a good friend of mine, happens to be gay. I have many friends who are gay, and I have even officiated same-sex weddings for several of them—while wearing my left earring. Ugh.

The ugly truth is that when I got my ear pierced all those years ago, I was homophobic. My choice to pierce my left ear was deliberate. I was never the least bit racist, but for reasons that only sound like weak excuses now, I never felt bad about telling gay jokes or repeating homophobic slurs when I was a young man.

Over the years, my views on homosexuality have changed. Having had the pleasure of getting to know many gay and lesbian people, I now know that homosexuality is not a choice. I also know that gay people are just people. They have the same hopes, fears, and dreams that straight people have. They deserve better from people like me who claim to be their allies.

The day after talking to my former student, I removed my earring. Wearing only a left earring just doesn’t feel right anymore. I briefly considered going back to Claire’s to have my right ear pierced, but I would have to abstain from donating blood for twelve months if I were to get a new piercing. The choice between getting a new piece of jewelry or saving lives is an easy one to make.

To my gay and lesbian friends, I would like to apologize for my past insensitivity. I am grateful to have so many good friends, both gay and straight, who accept me for who I am, and I want you to know that I accept and love all of you, too.

To my former student who respectfully and justifiably called me out for my hypocrisy, thank you for challenging me. Thank you for making me think about how a decision I made nearly thirty years ago still affects people today. And most importantly, thank you for helping me see the difference between right and wrong.