June is Gay Pride Month and on Sunday, June 26th, the annual Gay Pride Parade will wend its way down Fifth Avenue to Christopher Street in the Village. For many young and middle-aged gays and lesbians, this is a familiar rite of Spring; they know gay people haven’t yet achieved full human and civil rights, but in their experience, gays have visibility and a considerable measure of legitimacy.
Anyone 60 or older can remember when being gay was a dirty, dangerous secret; when being exposed as gay could destroy your career or separate you from your family forever; when gay people were called the “twilight people,” because they only came out at night, seeking connection in Mafia-run bars or sordid gathering spots, such as “The Trucks” in NYC’s not-yet-trendy meat packing district, or the secluded “Rambles” in Central Park.
As I write this, my head swimming with many youthful memories ranging from the sad to the bittersweet to the exuberant, the New York State Senate is one mature vote away from legalizing gay marriage – or, as it’s becoming known, “same-sex” marriage, because there are still a lot of people who can’t croak out the word gay. Call it what they will, it is vitally important, because it will bring gay and lesbian “twilight people” a giant step closer to living in the full light of day.
PBS is broadcasting at least two wonderful gay documentaries this month (in place of some of the old war horses we’ve been watching for more than 30 years): American Experience: Stonewall Uprising and Out in America, both of which do an excellent and artful job of summarizing the misery of gay life before the gay rights movement came of age and rage on June 27, 1969, and what has happened since.
In brief: prior to that early summer night, the vast majority of gays and lesbians lived lonely, desperate lives in which lying and hiding were the norm. Homosexuality was illegal and the American Psychiatric Association defined it as a mental illness (a form of psychosis). Gay bars were routinely raided and patrons arrested and often brutalized by law enforcement.
Often, families would have their [teen/adult] gay children confined in mental institutions, where they were generally subjected to aversion/shock therapy and even lobotomies. Military purges of gay service people were common and usually ended in dishonorable discharge. It was assumed that homosexuality was a depraved lifestyle choice and it was the Dark Ages for millions of men and women in 20th century America (before that and elsewhere, it was even worse.)
Gay people were deprived not only of their human rights but also of their right to be human: to have a positive sense of self, to love and be loved, to have family and community and the protection of law, to live in the full light of day. And if, despite these impediments, gays and lesbians were able to form committed, lasting relationships, they were denied the opportunity to announce, celebrate and affirm their love in the time-honored covenant of marriage. The gay rights movement has come a very long way. It still has a way to go – but in New York State, right now, there is the very real possibility of legal gay marriage. Halleluiah!
As we know all too well, there are those who oppose gay marriage. They say it’s a “threat” to the American family. They say it’s an abomination before God. They say that marriage is sacred – and that it is only meant for a union between a man and a woman. If pressed, many of these same people will tell you that homosexuality is at best a sin, and at worst a depraved… lifestyle choice. They don’t believe people are born gay – and even if they are, gay marriage is a bad thing, especially for children, who might, as a result, get the idea that being gay is okay. (Note to kids: being gay is okay.)
To those people who are guided by conservative, religious values, homosexuality will never be regarded as healthy and normal, and gay marriage will always be unacceptable. However, since this is still (ostensibly) a secular country, individual religious views need not be considered. All that the law has to recognize is that gay people can be respectable, responsible, law-abiding citizens, and their committed relationships are as legitimate as straight relationships.
This has been amply demonstrated throughout the land. Indeed, gay marriage reinforces the institution of family; gays and lesbians have a special appreciation for marriage and family precisely because it has been denied them so long. Given the 50% divorce rate among straight couples, gay marriage could emerge as a significant stabilizing social influence. (Wouldn’t that be a kick…?)
So, here’s to a Happy Gay Pride Day, one and all, an occasion which will be made all the more joyous if the New York State Senate does the right thing and makes gay marriage legal now. It’s time.