In the Normandy’s engineering bay, crew member Cortez talks about the fate of his husband, killed in an attack by invading aliens. Cortez is a dude. With a husband. Shepherd doesn’t bat an eye as yet another “how’s your family?” dialogue unfolds. It’s clumsy, but only because it’s by Bioware. Not because it’s about a gay couple. Part of the beauty of Bioware is that they’re equal opportunity clumsy writers, regardless of sexual orientation.

There’s also a point on Citadel Station where a woman is talking about her asari lover — all asari are chicks — and the tension it causes with her family. I understand Shepard himself/herself can even get into gay relationships. This has been the case all along with the main characters in Dragon Ages, Mass Effects, and maybe even earlier (were there gay characters in the Old Republic games?). I don’t know this firsthand, not because I have any aversion to a particular lifestyle. Instead, my aversion is to ridiculous romance mechanics, gay, straight, or interspecies.

So does this matter?

After the jump, a long — but important — story

I’m not a homosexual, but I play one on TV (that’s only partly a joke). I bring my own baggage to this issue, and I can trace it back to a moment when I was maybe seven years old. Some kids beat me up. It wasn’t what adults would consider a beating. It was a kid beating. They just pushed me in the dirt. But among the insults hurled during the beating was “your mother loves gay people”. They didn’t have any actual insight into this issue. They didn’t know my mother. I doubt they even knew any gay people. I certainly didn’t, at least as far as I knew. It was just a random insult.

So when I ran home, I reported to my mother what they had said about her. I figured this might spur her to some kind of action against these kids.

“They said you love gay people,” I told her. I think I was even crying. Man, I was a real wuss when I was a kid.

“Well, sweetie, if they ever say that again, you can tell them that I do love gay people. Gay people can be wonderful people, like anyone else. Some of the most wonderful people I know are gay.”

That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I wanted her to track down those kids and give them the what-for, insisting that she didn’t love gay people. But looking back, I realize it was one of those moments when my mother really nailed it. She hit that one out of the park. She passed down to me a piece of wisdom that left me entirely nonplussed as a little boy with scuffed trousers and a bruised ego, but that instead stayed with me for the rest of my life.

That’s where I came into the story, but it’s not where it started. How is it that my mother, a woman who grew up in Eisenhower era Arkansas, came to say such a thing to her son? Her father — my grandfather — started a funeral home during the Depression. Back then, blacks had their own funeral homes, drinking fountains, and seats on the bus. My grandfather, who didn’t let his children say “nigger”, changed one of those things when he founded Griffin Leggett Funeral Home in 1936. It was the first funeral home in Arkansas to bury blacks and whites.

When my mother was a teenager, her high school was an important playing piece in the civil rights movement. In 1957 the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional, not to mention ridiculous, for a public school to officially declare itself a white school or a black school. So with the support of Little Rock’s school board, the NAACP enrolled nine black volunteers in a previously all-white school. But when school started that September, Arkansas’ governor, a yahoo named Orval Faubus, ordered the Arkansas National Guard to surround the building to keep out the black kids. The South sure does love its states’ rights.

After a tense stand off, President Eisenhower nationalized the Arkansas National Guard and deployed the US Army for good measure. That was my mother’s senior year in Little Rock, Arkansas, at Central High School, ringed by armed soldiers. She was friends with Ernest Green, the only one of the nine black students to make it to graduation. High school is hard enough for kids in a normal situation.

My mother spent part of the 70s kicking around California as a hippie/single mom with me and my sister in tow. When we eventually ended up back in Arkansas, I had my own first-hand experience with the segregation issue, which had turned into a desegregation issue. The public schools shuffled kids by race to make sure that each school didn’t break down into geographic divisions, which were de facto racial divisions. So I had to get up extra early to catch a school bus that drove me all the way across town, way out by the airport, to the predominantly black Washington Carver Elementary School. It was named after the guy who, as I was taught, invented peanut butter. I remember the earthy smell, the hallways of dark faces, the air of vague hostility under a heavy layer of indifference, and how all the kids divided along racial lines anyway during assemblies or lunch or recess. It was my own experience with the scorn directed at otherness. All kids feel that. But some kids feel that because of things they’ve inherited from the adult world.

All of this plays a part in how I react when someone mentions a mate of the same gender. I immediately perceive that person differently. I can’t help but think how difficult it must be to be a part of something so integral to the human condition — a loving relationship — and yet sometimes considered an outsider, subject to the scorn directed at otherness. A couple holding hands should be a wonderful thing. A kiss after a long absence should be celebrated. Affection should be a universally understood sentiment. I thrill every time Cam and Mitchell kiss on Modern Family. “Take that, America!” I think triumphantly. So when I discover someone is gay, I immediately like that person more. It’s a form of reverse discrimination.

And that reaction is the tail end of a chain of events that inform each other. It’s a string of big things and little things, from a funeral director’s sense of what’s right, to a Supreme Court decision, to a girl’s experience at high school, to her reaction to her crying son. These are all important steps, some little, some big, all important.

So when I ask if this stuff in Mass Effect 3 matters, as clunky and poorly written as it is, I ask because I think the answer is clearly “yes”. It matters a lot. As clumsy as Mass Effect 3 may be when it tells Cortez’ story — this is, after all, a videogame — Bioware presents a man talking about his husband and it’s no big deal. This is a step in someone else’s chain of events that inform each other, and it might eventually help someone understand that a man with a husband is part of the same human condition as a man with a wife. Keep it up, Bioware. The little things matter.