Marchers carry a rainbow flag in Madison, Wisconsin after the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013. Photo by Callen Harty.
It was the late 1970s and I was struggling with my identity. I knew I was gay but I didn’t know how I could be gay. The Stonewall Rebellion, considered the watershed event of the modern gay rights movement, was not even a decade past. It had only been about five years since homosexuality was removed from the diagnostic manuals as a disease. I knew no one who was gay or lesbian. There were no role models. There were no married couples to look up to as role models. There was no instruction manual. I floundered about searching for information, secretly reading a few paragraphs here and there in books in the public library without checking them out because I didn’t want anyone to know what I was reading. I came across books like Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask which made being gay seem like a horrible disease. I was led to believe that my life was destined to be one of utter loneliness.
I finally came out in the spring of 1979 and was accepted by those who meant the most to me. Shortly after I joined the campus gay group at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, which had been formed around the same time, and became one of its most active members. I also finally found some mentors, particularly my friend Randy who helped me become more confident in myself. I served on the Speakers Bureau and was willing to be out and open because I knew even then that the only way the discrimination against us would ever end would be when all of us were out and everyone else realized they had queer friends, family members, co-workers, and others in their lives. It can be easy to hate a group of people when you know nothing about them, fear them, and don’t understand them. It can be difficult to hate a group when one of their members is someone you know and love and their behavior doesn’t match the stories you have been told and the image you have developed about the group.
When I went into classrooms to talk it struck me as odd that the thing that seemed to disturb the students the most was not the idea of gay sex, but the idea of gay love. They could understand sexual experimentation and sexual relations–though they didn’t understand the preference part of that–but they could not wrap their heads around the idea of two men or two women loving each other. They often asked what we most wanted and when I inevitably answered “to find someone I can love, with whom I can spend the rest of my life” there would be looks of utter confusion.
I never answered that I wanted to get married because that concept was not even a possibility, not even a thought, in 1979, at least not in the world in which I lived. It didn’t occur to me that any gay person would ever be able to do that. At best, I hoped to find someone to love and to be able to live in happiness and peace with them. We were fighting to decriminalize sexual relations, to end discrimination, to get society to understand that we were not “less than” but “equal to”. If someone had asked about same-sex marriage I would not have known how to answer because it was so far removed from reality.
I did eventually find that someone to love and live with in happiness and peace and even without the blessing of marriage we have lasted longer than most married couples. As time went by the concept of same-sex marriage was introduced but seemed all along like a far distant dream, a wish unfulfilled. When the people in my home state started to debate the issue and I saw the absolute hatred unleashed from my own fellow citizens I knew that it would be many, many years if it ever happened. When Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage I could not believe it. When other states followed suit it blew me away. When it was passed by a legislature I was stunned. Still there were many places where I could not marry Brian, including our state of Wisconsin.
But something magical happened and it wasn’t just queer people fighting for the right to marry. Other citizens saw that the world didn’t end when men married men in Massachusetts and elsewhere. They saw marriage equality come to fruition in other countries. They saw the military become integrated and the world didn’t fall apart then either. They saw the end of the Defense of Marriage Act. They saw the writing on the wall. They saw, most of all, their brothers and daughters, fellow church members, co-workers, dear friends, and others in their lives come out, proclaim themselves proudly, and saw that yes, if those people can be gay then we need to rethink what it means to be gay and we need to reexamine all the things we have been told over the years about the way those gay people are. They concluded that allowing their loved ones to love and commit to the person they cared most deeply about in the world was nothing but fair and just. In a short time public support for same-sex marriage shifted until today when nearly two-thirds of our citizens support it.
So now, today, the Supreme Court of the United States has heard the voices of the electorate, they have listened to the stories of gay and lesbian partners, and they have affirmed that we–that I–have the right to marry my partner of almost 25 years.
I cannot even describe how I feel at this moment. I cannot stop tearing up. Brian and I would be together with or without marriage, but without it we stay together as second class citizens. We remain together as unequal participants in a country where all people are said to be created equal. We would be considered as “less than”.
We are not “less than”. We are “equal to”. We are full citizens in this country. In about a year, when we reach our 25th anniversary as a couple, we will commit to each other in marriage and we will live in happiness and peace as we have for a quarter century already. The difference will be that our union will be blessed not just by us and our loved ones but by the state and country in which we live.
We will also not stop fighting, because we understand that marriage equality for gays and lesbians is just one piece of a larger puzzle. There are still about half of the states where we can be fired simply for being gay. There are reactionary politicians like Wisconsin’s own Scott Walker who will now push for a Constitutional amendment to undo the progress that has been made. There will be a backlash and continued violence against queer people from those who still choose hate over love.
We also understand that we have never just fought for our queer brothers and sisters. Until all people are equal in this land of ours–African-Americans, immigrants, and all who are oppressed in any way–we will use our lives to work toward that utopian vision of all men and women being created and treated equally under the law and in reality. We have much work to do. Today I revel in this one victory, but I understand it is just that–one victory–and there is a long road yet to travel to reach the point where we are all truly equal. That day will come, but only when we all see each other as fully human and treat each other with the respect and dignity that every human being deserves.