Thursday, September 2, 2010

Three Generations of Gay

It became clear to me in the course of a discussion about relationships, and the price that older generations of gay men paid to pave the way for this generation's freedom.

Gay men who came of age prior to the 1980s simply didn't have the same freedom to seek and establish same-sex relationships that we do today. Let's speak nothing of legal gay marriage. The price that you paid for being open enough about who you were to establish a household with a person of the same sex was just too steep for most gay men and lesbians to risk it. With the exception of tiny conclaves in cities like New York and San Francisco, if you were openly gay enough to openly live with a person of the same sex, you would likely lose your job, your community reputation, your family, your church... You faced extreme hostility and violence. Your property would be vandalized. You could be assaulted or even killed. And the police were generally indifferent.

In order to safely establish a same-sex household, you would be best off to pack your bags and head off to one of the east or west coast gay meccas. You might have to be willing to work in a lower paying job in the service industry, where they winked if you were gay. You literally had to be willing to sacrifice almost everything for love.

And that's to say nothing of the demons you had to wrestle with internally. A gay person had to have incredible internal fortitude to affirm that he or she was OK, when it seemed everyone else in the world thought you were the worst kind of pervert.

Most gay men and lesbians couldn't bring themselves to pay that kind of price.

*****

I was having a chat with an older gay man of that generation, and he was mourning the loss of his youth. Fear kept him in the closet until his fifties. Gradually, he came to accept himself as a gay man, though the battle for his soul was fierce. Intense internalized homophobia made it difficult for him to believe that he deserved happiness in a relationship. And when he finally did come to believe in himself enough to take those first tentative steps toward dating, he found a wild mix of emotions pushing up to the surface. Physically he was in his fifties, but mentally and emotionally dating turned him into a teenager again. And he found the experience humiliating and demoralizing. So humiliating and demoralizing that he wondered out loud to me if it was even worth the effort to try to find a relationship.

I tried to comfort this friend with the story of my Aunt Myrtle, who lived alone for 60 years after her first husband died. Finally, in her 90s she married Jack, a man in his 70s. (Cradle robbing!) I saw Jack and Myrtle together, and Oh, they were happy! It was delightful to see how giddily happy they made each other. Myrtle scandalized the family with her marriage. Some folks thought Jack was after her inheritance. But she proved everybody wrong by outliving Jack. From Aunt Myrtle I learned that there's no age at which love and companionship can't make a life better. I was delighted when my friend referred to himself in his next email to me as my "gay male Aunt Myrtle."

Still, it's painful. He paid, and is still paying, a heavy price for homophobia.

*****

I think about my generation. Mike Quinn, a gay man of that older generation, was teaching American History at BYU when I was a student there in the early 1980s, just as I was starting to wrestle with being gay. Mike, who himself was deeply in the closet at that time, had at least opened the door a crack by including information about homosexuality in a course I took from him on American Social History. He included data from a number of studies of sexuality, including the Kinsey Report, and corollary studies that had been done on Mormon men and women at BYU.

Mike once apologized to me for not being able to help me more. He felt bad that he was so deeply in the closet and unable to be a better role model for me at a time when I was struggling and in so much pain that I nearly committed suicide. But he didn't realize how huge an impact he had, just by sharing the information that he did. In his class I learned that I was not alone; that large numbers of men and women were gay, like me. It took me time to digest that information, to apply it. But eventually I did. And Mike's courage to open the door just a crack as he did, enabled me to take steps that his generation would have found unthinkable.

When I started grad school at the University of Minnesota in 1987, only 4 faculty members were openly gay -- at a university with a student body of 50,000. Homophobia was rampant on campus. There were no laws on the books in Minnesota protecting gay people from discrimination. There were no support programs for gay students. No gay studies classes.

To even suggest that we should have a University-sponsored course addressing issues of relevance to the GLBT community would have seemed crazy then. But I was crazy enough to suggest it, along with two other grad students, Jim Berg and Deb Quist, with whom I helped form something called "the Association of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Student Associations." Among other things, I and this crazy bunch of students organized a Queer Studies conference at the University of Minnesota, and we focused our own graduate studies in this area. (My book, Take the Young Stranger by the Hand, was a fruit of that effort.) We lobbied the administration to do a study of campus homophobia, and to consider what steps might be taken to improve the campus environment. Eventually, the administration adopted one of our key suggestions, and established a GLBT Programs Office at the University of Minnesota, one of the first of its kind in the country. I had the privilege of being on the search committee that hired its first director.

My generation was simultaneously pushing forward in many other different areas as well. I had friends and colleagues who were working to transform the homophobic environment in high schools, so that gay teens would no longer have to live in terror of being ostracized or brutalized. Individuals I knew were instrumental in establishing gay youth centers, and establishing programs for homeless gay teens, and establishing anti-suicide programs. Individuals I knew were among the first to work with a variety of social service agencies to push for greater understanding and inclusiveness. Legislators of my generation were starting to demand anti-gay bashing laws, anti-discrimination laws, and the first laws that would grant some legal protections to same-sex couples.

Gay men and lesbians of my generation were among the first to come out publicly in the military and draw attention to the hypocrisy of the military's ban on openly gay servicemen and women. Couples of my generation were among the first to demand the right to marry. They had to courage to go fight in court. When they first started that battle, it sounded even to me like Don Quixote's crusade against the windmills. But now, here I am, legally married in a handful of US states.

*****

When Glen went through orientation at the University of Minnesota, in preparation for his freshman year this fall, he began to tell me with great excitement about how the University had this really cool thing called the "GLBT Programs Office," and how it was one of the first such offices in the country.

I laughed. So did Göran. "Do you know who helped bring that into being?"

"No," said Glen, "Who?"

We laughed again, and Göran pointed at me.

"No, really?" Glen exclaimed.

It made me wonder how many incoming gay and lesbian freshmen will take advantage of the services of that office and not realize what had to happen to make something like that a reality.

As a gay teen, Glen was able to belong to a GLBT Student Association at South High School that had over 100 members. As a foster kid, he was able to be placed in a home where a gay couple could serve as role models to him of a healthy, stable relationship.

Certainly, many important battles are still far from won. Certainly, there are still people who need to be educated about homophobia, and the price we all pay -- gay and straight -- for any form of hatred or discrimination. Furthermore, Minneapolis is an unusually liberal, tolerant, open environment for gay people. There are still many parts of the country where gay people are still fighting for even the most minimal kinds of safety and respect. Glen participated in awareness groups in high school and had a chance to tell his peers his own story. He's doing his part, the part his generation needs to do for future generations.

*****

I look back over three generations of gay men. That older generation, who were only able to come out fully in their fifties or older, for whom the idea of establishing a loving, committed relationship seemed an impossible dream, they laid the groundwork for me and others of my generation to come out in our twenties; they helped us to dream and risk for a society where their impossible dream could become something like a reality. And I was able to establish a relationship in my late twenties and early thirties. We fought so that our son's generation, thank God, could have a "normal" youth, so that he could be a teenager -- imagine this! -- in his teens. So that he could grow up in the first generation in America where being gay might just not be an issue any more.

There was a point when I sat down with Glen and I told him the stories I've told here. He's seen Milk. (What an important film for a young gay man to see!) I wanted him to understand and appreciate, not just the fact that challenges have been overcome, but that individuals have had to pay a very, very painful and personal price before something better could come into being. I told him with tears in my eyes what Mike Quinn's generation did for me. And he thanked me, with tears in his eyes, for what my generation has done for him.

*****

There's still more to be done. Perhaps the most difficult is yet to be done. The gap this blog in some sense exists to bridge -- the gap between the spiritual and the physical -- lies at the root of all the great struggles not just for gay rights, but for human dignity everywhere.

Gay people are still paying a terrible price for homophobia in our churches. We are excommunicated, cast out, and made unwelcome in a myriad of ways subtle and unsubtle. And we wrestle with doubt. We're stuck in the classic theodicy problem, splitting us in two from the marrow of our bones out. How can God be good if those who claim to love him make it their mission to hate us and deny us basic human rights? If we can somehow find a faith born of the deepest kind of wrestling with that problem, we will have contributed something of worth to humanity.

If you believe, as I do, that nothing is temporal, then the most important battles are spiritual. The most important work is yet to be done.

8 comments:

Mister Curie said...

Very nice post. Thanks for sharing your insight into how things have changed in just your lifetime. Definitely gives me a lot to think about.

Daniel said...

My granduncle, Bruce Bastian, came to my wedding a few months ago. He has done so much to advance gay rights and to make my wedding possible, so to have him there was really special to me. When he was my age, he could not have had the kind of wedding I had. I hope the next generation doesn't forget the sacrifices of the previous generations or take for granted the opportunities we have that those before us could only dream of.

Holly said...

And he thanked me, with tears in his eyes, for what my generation has done for him.

thanks from me too. I'm grateful for the sacrifices of previous generations, and I'm glad when others understand those sacrifices. Because one way people can really hinder progress is by assuming that all the important work has been done, and all we have to do to achieve full equality is wait for the bigots to die. Someone said basically that to me in a discussion of gender not too long ago--claimed that patriarchy would simply disappear in a "velvet revolution." No, it won't, and to pretend that it will is to dishonor the sacrifices of women in the past and the suffering of real women in the present. Same thing goes for gay rights: certainly younger people are more accepting of homosexuality, but that doesn't mean the queer community will simply wake up one day and find that there's nothing else to ask for. As you say, there's more to be done. And we all have to do it.

J G-W said...

MC and Daniel, thanks!

Holly - You're absolutely right.

When people suggest that progress in the arena of gay rights (or any rights) is somehow inevitable, I like to remind them that the 1920s in Germany was a relatively open and tolerant time for homosexuals.

Our foster son grew up in a small town in rural Minnesota. So he knows first hand what it's like living in a community where homophobia and the closet are still largely the norm. He's had to deal with homophobia in his family. So it's not likely he'll ever fail to appreciate the importance of work or courage or vigilance in protecting the freedoms we've won so far.

All the same, I look at his life now and I realize that he's had a privileged life since he was placed with us. He's been able to be out to all his friends -- something my generation or the ones preceding mine never could have done at his age. He has so many support structures in place, and has been able, in many ways, to be a normal gay teen, with normal dating and socializing and normal opportunities to grow and mature.

I'm so grateful he'll never have to go through the hell I went through, that was literally so intense I almost opted out of life. Some things, I honestly hope and pray he or others of his generation will never have to "appreciate."

By the way, thanks to you too, for what you've done and do.

Charlene said...

I grew up in a very small town but my HS graduating class was 148 people. If there were gays in the class they were closeted. I think of those people and wonder who was really who.

I ran across someone from my home town a few years ago, younger than me, who was a part of a small group of alternative lifestylers. This included straights, gays, bi, fetishs, etc. He invited me to attend and I did. It sure was a fun group. I wondered were people like this around in 1969?

Andrew S said...

When Glen went through orientation at the University of Minnesota, in preparation for his freshman year this fall, he began to tell me with great excitement about how the University had this really cool thing called the "GLBT Programs Office," and how it was one of the first such offices in the country.

DAWWW! Sentimental irony moment for the win. :3

Quiet Song said...

Thank you for the chronology.

Unfortunately, we were, as parents, not real happy with our high school's "diversity" club. It's almost as though with so little left do, when acceptance is more or less the norm in our community, it became a conduit to engaging in various and sundry inappropriate behaviors which only contribute to the sterotyping of LGBT people.

The Kid probably has a different perspective on this, but even he would admit the vacuum of useful and meaningfulness led to this situation. Perhaps the last frontier in some states is the journey of finding a spiritual home.

J G-W said...

Quiet Song - I could tell you some stories of my own. Göran and I quickly realized that some of the "youth activities" sponsored specifically for GLBT youth were desperately in need of more -- for lack of a better term -- adult guidance.

Part of the problem, though, from my perspective, was not so much that they didn't have anything to do because the battle for acceptance was won. Rather, it was that far too many GLBT youth are alienated from their parents, and parents completely condemn their involvement in GLBT-oriented activities, so the activities were by definition devoid of parent involvement.

We're glad that such organizations can exist, and the fact that they do -- I still think -- is a huge step forward. But...

Our son's reaction to GLBT community activities has not been overwhelmingly positive, partly because there's so much focus on the superficial crap. He begged us to take him to Gay Pride the first time we went, and after that he started telling us he didn't really like Gay Pride and didn't want to go. We realized that in some ways we were on our own to instill in our son a healthy sense of self-love, but also to incorporate some spiritual principles and ethics (including sexual morality).

So we have a long way to go in terms of developing resources for GLBT youth...