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Same-Sex Valentines Send a Timely Message

A supermarket doubletake led to this writer's reflections on social change

By Richard Harris | February 13, 2014
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Richard Harris is a freelance writer. He was senior producer of the 2013 PBS documentary Guns in America. Follow Richard on Twitter at @redsox54.

Sometimes, it’s those unexpected little moments that help you appreciate the big sweep of social change we boomers have witnessed in our lifetimes.
 
The civil rights, women's rights and gay rights movements have all played out over the past five decades and continue to evolve in ways large and small.
 
This week, as I made my way down the greeting card aisle at the local supermarket to pick up a Valentine for my wife, I did a double take. Two cards were prominently displayed among the Hallmark offerings — one featured two women and another with two men had this inscription inside:
 
I love you for being a good and loving man...
I love you for being my closest friend...
I love you for being my partner through life...
I love you for being everything that means the most to me.
Happy Valentine's Day
 
“It's the first time we've offered same-sex Valentines, though we've had cards appropriate to gay couples since 2008,” says Hallmark spokesperson Kristi Ernsting. “It's a progression. We want to be inclusive. We want to respond to how society is changing.”

(MORE: Valentine's Day Cards I Have Written)
 
While Hallmark distributes these cards to all its stores and other outlets carrying the company’s offerings, Ernsting says it’s up to the stores whether to display them.
 
A Busy News Cycle

That discovery in the card aisle came during a breathtaking series of news stories about gays and lesbians. Hours earlier, University of Missouri Defensive End Michael Sam came out, likely putting him in line to become the first openly gay athlete drafted by a major sport, in this case football.
 
Sam's decision to go public, wanting “to own his truth” and control his story — having already told his college teammates last summer — came as the U.S. Attorney General announced the Department of Justice will grant same-sex couples in all 50 states the same benefits heterosexuals enjoy in the criminal justice system. And during this first week of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, late-night comedians tweaked Russian President Vladimir Putin for his anti-gay policies, underscoring how social change has not been universally embraced around the globe.

(MORE: New Financial Planning Essentials for Same-Sex Couples)
 
But before we get too self-righteous about how evolved we’ve become, it’s worth noting that what happened on sports radio in the aftermath of Sam’s announcement.
 
Questions like these were asked almost immediately: Should Sam's expectations to be drafted now be lowered? Would he be accepted in the locker room? Would his teammates be comfortable showering with him? Would he be the subject of catcalls from the stands?
 
Our Historic Nightline Interview

In some ways, similar questions came up when discussions began in the early 1990s about allowing gays in the military. At the time, Gen. Colin Powell (then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) stated flatly that “homosexuality is inconsistent with maintaining good order and discipline in the military.”
 
(MORE: Make Every Day Valentine's Day)

A short time later, in 1992, while I was a Senior Producer at ABC’s Nightline, I received a call from the ABC News Pentagon Producer who told me that decorated Air Force pilot Tracy Thorne — first in his class in flight training — wanted to come out on national television to protest the Pentagon's policy banning gays. He was willing to throw away his career to draw attention to what he saw as government-sanctioned discrimination.
 
I met with Thorne and explained that if he went through with his plan to “out himself,” his life would change in ways he couldn't predict. But he was determined to take a stand.
 
Days later, when Thorne sat down for that historic live interview, he was ready for Ted Koppel's questions. Asked about Powell’s earlier comment, Thorne didn't hesitate. “In the 1940’s,” he said, “When Harry Truman integrated blacks into the service, there were people who were saying there is no white man who will follow a black man’s order.”
 
It would take nearly 20 more years before the ban on gays in the military was lifted.
 
In the months before America's first black President signed a bill that began the process for lifting the ban, Powell backed the decision he opposed two decades earlier. “Attitudes and circumstances have changed,” he said. “Society is always reflected in the military. It's where we get our soldiers from.”
 
Update on the Courageous Pilot

And Thorne? He was forced out of the military in 1994 after several legal challenges.
 
But sometimes, that kind of legal wrangling can redirect your life.

Now Thorne-Begland (he and his partner share hyphenated names), the former Air Force pilot decided to go to law school and became a prosecutor, rising to Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney in Virginia. Last year, he was elected to a six-year term as a District judge. My wife and I were invited to the standing-room-only ceremony where he was sworn in as the first openly gay judge in Virginia history.
 
Yet another step on the road to equality.
 
Somehow, the introduction of same-sex Valentines doesn't seem so revolutionary.