The word “gay” wasn’t used to describe gay people when I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s. I’ve never liked the word “gay.” I think it sounds frivolous. But I prefer it to “homosexual,” which sounds so clinical, and takes five syllables to pronounce. Still, both words beat out what I grew up hearing: queer, faggot, pansy, fairy, homo.
But the most hurtful of all was the absence of any word, silence. My parents never spoke of my sexuality. My brother never spoke of it, at least to me. For most of my life my sexuality was something to be hidden from family, employers, co-workers, landlords and even friends. At social gatherings it was something to be danced around. When I went to Christmas parties at work, I took a “girlfriend.” All gay men did.
Sometimes silence couldn’t be avoided, though. When an elderly relative would want to know why I still hadn’t gotten married, I learned to say, “Just lucky I guess.” It got me off the hook.
My mother finally had to acknowledge that my cousin, Sandy, and her partner, Mary, who’d been together for more than 40 years, were more than roommates. Shortly before she died my mother said to me, “They’re that way.” She didn’t say it in a judgmental tone. She just couldn’t say the word “gay.”
But on Monday, President Barack Obama did say the word, and not just anywhere, but on the steps of our nation’s Capitol, making history. Describing struggles for equality in his inaugural address, he said, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
I have never been an out-front activist for gay rights, even though I lived in San Francisco from 1972 to 1985, and in New York City from 1985 to 1995. I never marched in gay freedom day parades, though I did volunteer for two years at an AIDS hospital in Manhattan. When I was asked to ring doorbells last fall in Minneapolis, where I now live, to help defeat a proposed amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as being between a man and a woman, I declined. I gave money instead.
But it’s not that I was silent. When I was 17 I told my parents that I thought I was “different.” I couldn’t bring myself to say “queer.” I’ll never forget the look on their faces as they clung to each other as if they were watching The Blob. I’ll never forget the shrink they sent me to, who tried to tell me I wasn’t who I was.
When I was in my late 20s, and a feature writer for The San Francisco Examiner, I wrote a story about David Goldstein, the late publisher of the national gay newspaper, The Advocate. The publisher of the Examiner killed the story, stopping the presses as it was being printed. He sent a note to the Sunday editor saying that he found the story offensive to mothers; it was running on Mother's Day. He then sent me a terse note saying that I should look for work elsewhere.
In the 1990s I lived for four years in Birmingham, Ala. I was surprised at how many gay people I met there. Most of them, however, were closeted. Many of them were married and had children. Did their wives know they were gay? Maybe, maybe not.
In the Deep South I learned it was OK to be gay as long as you kept your mouth shut. After a friend of mine came out to his wife, his cousin showed up with a gun and shot him in the stomach. "We don't have queers in our family," he told my friend before pulling the trigger. My friend lived, but couldn't tell his office why he was in the hospital for fear of being fired.
When word got out in 1997 that Ellen DeGeneres was going to come out of the closet on her eponymous sit-com, her show was yanked from the airwaves in Birmingham on the grounds that it violated community standards. Everyone loved DeGeneres until she broke her silence.
(More: Can Gay Be Cured? My Psychiatrist Tried)
I’m always amazed at how far gay acceptance has come since DeGeneres’ announcement. Every day it seems that another TV newscaster, politician or movie star says they’re gay. Not being silent doesn’t seem to be hurting their careers. Over the last few months MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts publicly announced his marriage to another man, as did Good Morning America weatherman Sam Champion.
In 2004, when I was teaching a college course in travel writing at a Boston college, a female student told me she was going to write about Puerto Rico for her next assignment. “I’m going there on my honeymoon with my fiancée, Rosalie,” she said. I was taken aback at her openness. But the young students weren’t. “Congratulations, when do you leave? Where are you staying?” they all wanted to know. I knew then that the world had changed.
Last fall I was watching TV with a neighbor's grandson who is 22. He’s a conservative; his political views and mine are always at odds. But when an ad came on to stop gay marriage, he said to me, “I don’t get it, what’s the problem?”
The moment that the president finished his inaugural address my phone rang. A friend of mine who lives in Los Angeles, and who is my age, and is straight, was on the line. “Obama just said the gay word in his speech,” she said. “What do you think about that?”
I didn’t know what to say. I was silent, but in a good way.