Almost fifty years ago, Stonewall happened. At the time, gay sex was illegal in every state. Lesbians and gays could be arrested simply for congregating in the same place, and the police would occasionally raid bars known to be gay hangouts, arrest the patrons, and publish their names in the newspapers, effectively destroying marriages, careers, and the lives of those who were forced to live a closeted life because being gay was not socially, psychologically, or legally accepted at the time. In June of 1969 the New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, but instead of the usual compliance, the people in that bar resisted, rioted, and ignited the modern gay rights movement. I was twelve and living in the Midwest, where it was barely noticed, if at all.
There were few out people in the 50s and 60s, but after Stonewall, gay people started demanding rights and changes. At the time, homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder rather than an inherent, natural inclination. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed it from their list of mental illnesses. At the time I was a junior in high school and the news didn’t reach me. The news that did reach me was a story we discussed in social studies that year about the YMCA being a place where gays met for clandestine sex. I don’t recall anything about the article or discussion, but I do recall it as the first open discussion I had ever heard about anything queer-related. At the time I had a huge crush on a freshman boy, but didn’t even recognize it for what it was because there simply was no discussion or openness about being gay. Back then, the only mentions were schoolmates (and sometimes teachers and other adults) using slurs about gay people.
It took me until May of 1979, ten years after Stonewall and forty years ago this month, to come out. I spent several years processing my crushes, dreams, and desires, doing research at the library, and trying to figure out who I was until I finally recognized and acknowledged my own identity. Now there are countless queer groups, books, role models, and more that make it easier to figure oneself out, even if it is sometimes still not easy to come out. There are middle schoolers now who are out and proud. In my youth, that was impossible. Acknowledging one’s queerness meant accepting a life where one expected to be discriminated against, face violence from an unaccepting society, and the possibility of a lifetime of loneliness. One could dream of finding a life partner even though it seemed unlikely, but the idea of some day being able to marry a life partner was not even in the realm of imagination.
Even a decade after Stonewall, most LGBT people were still closeted. Although some rights had been gained most states still had laws on the books that made gay people criminals just for being. Queer people faced ostracization from family and friends, so it was a scary prospect to let others in on the secret. I first told my friend, Brian, during a camping trip to Devil’s Lake, one of Wisconsin’s most popular state parks. Then, little by little, I came out to family members and close friends. Once I had done that, though, I didn’t feel I had to keep it secret any longer and I joined the campus gay group at UW-Platteville, where I was living and working at the time. I joined the speakers’ panel and used to go into classrooms at the university with other members of the group to share our stories and answer questions. For me, it was a matter of being true to myself and to fight for those who couldn’t. In retrospect, it was a lot braver than I realized at the time. People got beaten and killed back then for being out and proud.
In 1982, three years after I came out, Wisconsin legislator David Clarenbach managed to get the first gay rights bill in the country passed in the Wisconsin Assembly. It also passed in the Senate and was signed into law by Republican governor, Lee Sherman Dreyfus. It protected gay people from discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations. While it didn’t end discrimination–it could be very hard to prove one’s sexuality was the reason for being denied any of these things–it did lay the groundwork for a way to file suit on these issues and it set a tone for the country, that the days of LGBT citizens as second class citizens were numbered. Not that the fight is over–we’re still counting the days until we are fully accepted–but we have come a long way.
That same year, I wrote an essay about my coming out story that was published in Out!, Wisconsin’s first gay newspaper. It was also my first publication outside of high school or college publications and it meant that I was not just out to family and friends, but out publicly. I never looked back.
Within the next year, three friends and I (Matthew Alexander, Mark Prestegard, and Larry Acherman) co-founded the 10% Society on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison. It is now known as The Pride Society. While some departments had their own small groups, it was the first campus-wide gay group in the history of the UW and only the third in the state university system. Surprisingly, UW-Stevens Point had the first one and UW-Platteville the second. Mark had also been a founder of the group at Platteville. To this day, I have continued the fight for our rights as LGBT citizens in many ways. I worked for a few years at Madison’s LGBT community center, OutReach. I co-founded Proud Theater, an LGBT and allied youth theater group that is now twenty years old. I’ve written articles, plays, and books to try to help us gain wider acceptance. Once I came out of that closet, I was determined to never go back in and I was determined to do my best to make sure nobody else had to live in there again.
I also found that love that back in 1979 I thought was so impossible. My partner, Brian, and I have been together since 1991, 28 years in just a few days. While we are not married yet, we now have that right.
Forty years of being out and proud is a long time (forty years of anything is a long time), but I am glad that I was able to figure out who I was and not be ashamed of it or stay hidden in the closet like so many of my generation and the generations before me. I am proud of the ways I have worked to help the movement along in some small way. And I am glad that I can be my authentic self without fear.