It was 1978 when I met the first gay men I would come to know well. In 1983, across a table at a New York City sidewalk café, one of these men told me in hushed tones about the "gay plague." I'd never heard of it before. Neither of us knew then that within ten years it would claim him.
I remember the mysterious darkness that descended over the community at that time, a darkness that has lightened considerably by now but that still hangs overhead. Paralleling it, also lighter today than thirty years ago, is the progress of LGBTQ acceptance by the general populations of many countries, including the U.S.
If my gay friend had told me, in 1983, that within a little more than thirty years, marriage would be a civil right open to gays as much as to any straight person, I would not have believed him. If anyone had told me in 2003 that marriage equality would be the law of the land here in the U.S. within my lifetime, I would not have believed it.
And yet I’ve attended just such a wedding, the legal marriage of two men who seem meant for each other in every way any two people can be.
I wonder whether young LGBTQ people—say, younger than 35 or so—can have any idea what it took to pave the road they can walk. Because what we’re seeing is not just same-sex couples in their twenties and thirties who choose marriage. We’re also seeing couples in their nineties, like Vivian Boyack and Alice "Nonie" Dubes, together 72 years before they could be legally wed. And couples like Lewis Duckett and Billy Jones, together 46 years before tying the legal knot.
These older couples courted and lived in secrecy. For Duckett and Jones, it meant writing coded letters and using gender-based pronouns that did not represent them while Jones was in Vietnam. Boyack, a teacher, would most likely have been fired if this oh-so-foundational aspect of who she is had been discovered.
The Stonewall riots of 1969 might seem like ancient history to young LGBTQ individuals, but there are people still alive today who were there, people who were accustomed to being jailed for no reason other than the fact that they were gay. Today we see a gleeful street crowd gather to watch a choreographed public proposal of a man to his male partner.
Are there still fallacies to be addressed? Yes, many of them. Are there still homophobic bigots whose terrified lizard brains drown out the humanity that should lead them to acceptance? Far too many of them. Is there more work to do before parents are no longer allowed to subject their gay children to the torture of “ex-gay therapy?” Oh, yes.
But has there been enough progress that some celebration is in order?
Never in my lifetime did I think the day would come when two women or two men could become legally married in these United States. I celebrate the progress so far every bit as much as I strive for more of the same.