Wednesday, August 15, 2007

When I Despair Over Equality

It's too easy to lose perspective in political and personal struggles. Recent conversations remind me that we are moving in good directions socially. I'm just not a patient sort and don't always keep that in mind.

Yesterday's podcast with Tom Lang centered on what's done and undone in marriage equality and GLBT struggles. We didn't really discuss, but I was remembering, that only a year and change ago, Maine was still in the fundamental struggle over basic gay rights. Voters there had repealed such legislation several times and despite strong support from the governor and full legislature for the current gay-rights wording and regulations, they were voting on an override again.

As it turned out, the electorate had progressed and defeated the repeal attempt. It was in my mind because of the proof of the power of presence. In interviews and polls before and after the vote, one citizen after another who had evolved on the issue came around to familiarity engendering compassion and a sense of fairness. This seems to have occurred because many thousands of gay Mainers made themselves known. Singled and partnered, older and younger, urban and rural, homosexuals made themselves known. By supporting repeal, voters would be taking rights from neighbors, co-workers, gym buddies, friends, bowling partners and the guy on the next bar stool.

In the end a solid majority couldn't do that, not to the thousands of everyday heroes who simply let it be known that they were homosexual.

Granted, it is a bit easier to come out than it was when I first became aware of homosexuals over 40 years ago. Back when you might be fired and maybe beaten, and knowing that the law and law enforcers would not help you, it was much harder. It's frightening still to think that in many places in the country conditions are not much better and discrimination is still not illegal.

In the 1960s, I recall the dichotomy of my gay friends and the out men and women in Greenwich Village. My friends were afraid to come out to their families and others. In the Village though, there were many gay men. They had to be careful when they went to other neighborhoods or were walking around alone after dark, but being obviously out was okay.

Ironically, the exaggerated behavior and mannerism by some of the WWII-era men was courageous theater. The stereotypes show in La Cage Aux Folles and even The Boys in the Band were not that far off. The limp-wrist, lisping mannerisms might not have played well in Des Moines or even Newark, but it was acceptable and fun on Christopher Street.

I spent a lot of time in the Village during high school and moved there after college. The clubbish and cliquish nature of particularly gay men was not all of the neighborhood, but was an important part. I recall gentle exclusions that were part of that. For example, when I moved there and visited the Limelight shortly after, a bartender and a man in full (well, outrageous) drag, advised me that I should make myself scarce soon, not for danger but for comfort of all. This was no longer the bar where Jean Shepherd used to tell his radio stories. Sure enough, other guys started arriving. There were no women and everyone other than the two bartenders was in drag. The advisers were right. It was not my world.

Then too, I recall the two older men who used to run the Café Sha Sha on Hudson. They fit the stereotypes and were good buddies on a number of rough nights with my first son.

I know many people who say their kids slept through the night from the beginning. Not mine. Until he was six or seven months, he never did, not once. It's good he was cute. That has to be nature's way of ensuring continuation of the species.

So in a West Village apartment at 1 or 2 a.m., a squalling, fretting baby is hell inside. Yet plop him an a Snugli® or stroller and he was delighted to watch the nightlife. Invariably passersby would not pass by. He loved the chatting as well.

I see that Sha Sha is still in business, but it looks fancier than I recall and it closes at midnight. I bet that the former owners, who would be in their eighties at least, are not there either.

They were funny and fine and fabulous to our baby. They called themselves fairy godmothers and were perfect companions for a sleepless tot at 2 a.m. They had the mannerisms of the time and seemed perfectly comfortable in their skins. There were few customers then and the owners had time to sit. We had figured to order some espressos and park the stroller where he could watch — quietly. But they would have none of it. They chatted with him, remarked how seldom they got to be around babies and would try various baked goods to see what would help with his teething. He laughed and they laughed back.

Well, those days are largely gone. My baby is an adult and the coded behaviors of gay men are much less common, or at least more diverse. Come to think of it, straight men and women have their own behavior norms and theater, sometimes different, but not less stereotypical.

My gay friends, some I've know from the sandbox, are much more comfortable personally and secure professionally. None hides orientation from parents. Yet, the struggle remains in far too many places. Basic gay rights are still not part of the laws and culture in far too much of America.

Rather than despair, I have to keep in mind the advances I have seen in my lifetime. The majority of Mainers support gay rights and are even talking about maybe someday allowing same-sex marriage. We have no reason to suppose there can be a reversal of such civil rights, but the effort to maintain and advance fairness is far from over.

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