My thoughts are all over the place this morning due to the Supreme Court’s rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8. Mostly I’m thinking of how far we’ve come (and a bit about how far we have yet to go) and remembering how different things were when I first came out.
On an early weekend morning about 30 years ago–I think it was a Sunday–I was walking down a residential street in Platteville, Wisconsin. It was a sunny summer day and I was in a good mood. I rounded a corner and saw several college-aged people on a porch. Several of them appeared to be drinking bloody Marys. Suddenly some of them started yelling at me. I don’t even recall everything they yelled, but the voice of one young blonde woman screaming “Faggot!” still stands in my memory.
I remember standing by the Student Center as a car stopped at the intersection and the young men in the car yelled obscenities at me. One of them threw a beer bottle that landed at my feet. These things happened with regularity back then.
I came out in Platteville in 1979, a mere ten years after the Stonewall riots that launched the modern gay rights movement. It was not an easy place or an easy time in which to come out. Platteville, and most of the rest of the country at the time (except perhaps New York, L. A., and San Francisco), was not ready for gay people in its midst. What people didn’t know, and the reason Harvey Milk encouraged everyone to come out to everyone they could, was that we were in their midst all along. We were just silent neighbors, friends, and relatives. He knew that if everyone came out there would be no one left who did not know someone gay and he knew that doing so would humanize us and lead to the end of bigotry against our community. We’re not there yet, but progress is still being made. When everyone was closeted and the narratives about us were written by those who wanted to keep us closeted then the predominant image was of creepy men who abused little boys or had anonymous sex in public restrooms. Of course this was not the reality of most gay people, but no one knew that because as a community we were afraid to speak our truth.
Today I think back to those people yelling at me, throwing beer bottles at me, threatening me, harassing me–in Platteville, Madison, and elsewhere–because yesterday the United States Supreme Court handed down two rulings that effectively recognize my love of my 22-year partner, Brian, as equally important and legitimate as any straight couples. We have a long way to go yet, especially in places like Wisconsin, but the march for equality is steadily moving forward.
When I lived in Platteville I belonged to the campus gay group (one of the first in the state). I remember the resistance to the group when it was forming, particularly the many nasty letters to the editor of the campus paper. One that I never forgot was from a college professor who wrote that he would not allow his own children to attend UW-Platteville if the group were allowed on campus. I joined the group soon after it was formed despite the prejudice against us and made some life-long friends there.
When I came out of the closet I kicked the door down. I decided that I had spent the first 21 years of my life denying myself and that I would never do that again. As a result I was one of the panelists who used to go into classrooms and talk to classes and then do question and answer sessions. That was also why everyone in town knew I was gay even if I didn’t know who they were and why I was often the target of harassment.
On those panels I remember constantly reiterating that we are really no different than others–like most people we want a decent job and life and to find someone to love and with whom we might spend the rest of our lives. At the time it didn’t occur to me to say I’d like to get married some day. It wasn’t even a concept. We were fighting simply to be recognized as people, so that we couldn’t be fired or denied housing for being gay. Not too many years before that you could be arrested simply for congregating with other homosexuals. If someone had told me then that in 2013 I could be married in 13 states and the District of Columbia I would not have believed them. It was not within the realm of possibility.
At the time I was living in a place where I constantly looked over my shoulder to make sure no one was following me. I lived in fear. I lived in a world where discrimination against me wasn’t even considered discrimination. I remember sitting in a classroom at the university as the professor casually tossed out the word “faggot” in the middle of his lecture. I raised my hand and said, “Excuse me, but as a gay man I resent your use of that word and I would like an apology or I will march from here to the administration building as soon as this class is over.” To my surprise he apologized in front of the whole class. He may have held on to his prejudice, but I’m willing to bet he never used that term in front of a class again. Little by little as people have stood up and said, “I will not be a second class citizen” we have moved ever forward.
Yesterday I marched with a couple hundred of my queer brothers and sisters in a joyous march of celebration of the overturning of DOMA and Prop 8. We arrived on Madison’s Capitol Square shortly before the scheduled start of the Concerts on the Square so thousands of people were already on the lawns. As we marched I suddenly realized that I could hear applause and cheers coming from the concertgoers on the lawn. I looked and saw people standing and applauding the marchers, cheering for us, smiling. I saw old couples cheering us on, children clapping, middle-aged people waving. I saw Asians, African-Americans, white folks, men and women, young and old, celebrating our victory with us. These people hadn’t come there to watch us march and support us. They just happened to be there and joined in support.
Not everyone applauded or acknowledged us, but no one yelled obscenities. No one threw anything at us. No one acted like we didn’t belong.
My heart swelled in pride, in thankfulness, in an ecstatic indescribable joy as the applause and cheers happened all the way around the Square. As we moved off the Square passing cars honked their support or yelled supportive comments out of their windows. I thought of how difficult it was thirty years ago and how amazing it was to experience the shift from hatred to tolerance to acceptance. We do have much more work to do but for today I will revel in the love and acceptance I felt yesterday.
Liking this was too bland a word for what this piece invoked in my mind. Awe is there at the start. Knowing what I know now of how much you were abused as a child, that you had the strength of character to stand up and come out long before the crowd speaks volumes of your determination and authenticity. I don’t recall you ever formally coming out to me (or hearing the “news” from one of our mutual friends). I just knew – it even in high school. It wasn’t any particular way you acted, if anything it was the absence of behavior that made me wary. With you I was always relaxed and at ease. But along with the awe of you is a certain amount of shame in myself that I didn’t know how difficult the life you lived was at that time. In part it may have been naivete, that if I was fine with it, I expected everyone else would be okay with it too, I wasn’t anything special in being accepting. But the other part was that I wasn’t always very observant. You lived right next door to me in 1980 in Platteville. Naivete only goes so far, self-absorption seems to have gone the rest of the way to account for why I never saw what was there.
I don’t recall if I ever came out to you; maybe I just figured like everyone else in town that you knew. 🙂 It’s not that I wouldn’t have trusted you with it, because I knew you’d be accepting and I was always comfortable with you as well.