• U.S.

Pride and Prejudice

16 minute read
William A. Henry III

For those living through the summer of 1969, its epochal moments seemed to be Chappaquiddick, the moon landing, Woodstock. But in terms of American social history, the most important event of those steamy months a quarter-century ago may have been a largely unreported street clash, in the early-morning hours of June 28, between police and the homosexual clientele of an unlicensed New York City bar, the Stonewall Inn. The brief uprising inspired a gay civil rights movement that until then had few public adherents and scant hope of success. It launched a social revolution that is still changing the way Americans see many of their most basic institutions — family, church, schools, the military, media and culture, among them. A group long dismissed as deviant or perverted or simply beneath mention has been able to claim a sizable space in national life, to the joy of its members and the continuing consternation of many fellow citizens. Declaring oneself to be gay is no longer an automatic admission that psychotherapy is needed or an abandonment of all hopes for family and career. Increasingly, especially for young Americans, it is seen as a straightforward matter of self-expression and identity.

That change is particularly striking given the relative newness of the gay movement: it is hard to trace significant activity back much further than the 1950s, whereas the civil rights movements for blacks and women took shape in the 19th century and needed far longer to attain their basic goals. The rapid pace of change for gays owes much to the trails blazed by blacks and women, and the success of those groups gives gays hope that in a generation or so they will have attained full acceptance as just another piece fitting into the mosaic of national life.

Yet for every gay success, there is a countervailing setback. For every invitation, there is a rebuff. If the view over the past quarter-century suggests that gay progress is inevitable, the picture today suggests that gays may instead be, as their opponents argue, a unique case rather than just another minority group. Far from continuing toward inclusion, gays may already be bumping up against the limits of tolerance. When Americans were polled by TIME/CNN last week, about 65% thought homosexual rights were being paid too much attention. Strikingly, those who described homosexuality as morally wrong made up exactly the same proportion — 53% — as in a poll in 1978, before a decade and a half of intense gay activism.

In jubilant moments like those planned this week in New York City — the Gay Games, an athletic gathering with more registered participants than the Barcelona Olympics; a companion cultural festival; and a Stonewall commemorative parade on Sunday, June 26, that is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of unafraid, unashamed marchers — it can seem that the gay struggle has already succeeded, or at least that its eventual triumph is ensured. Everywhere one looks, there are signs of gay acceptability unimaginable to the dreamiest of Stonewall patrons.

Gays are working openly in the White House and on Capitol Hill, at least two of them as elected members of Congress; a gay man is president of the Minnesota state senate, and another is the Democratic candidate for secretary of state in California. Unabashed gays are employed as doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers. Pop stars and Olympic heroes acknowledge they are gay — as gold-medal diver Greg Louganis did, movingly, during Saturday night’s opening ceremonies at the Gay Games. The gay dollar is courted by big companies, and gay tourism is encouraged, not only in Miami and Los Angeles but in traditionally conservative Pensacola and Palm Springs as well. Gays rally for rights not only in big cities but also, if more anxiously, in such places as Missoula, Montana, and Tyler, Texas. Earlier this month 20,000 gay men and women were made welcome at that icon of bourgeois family life, Disney World. Barbara Hoffman of Boston, 61, a retired, Radcliffe-educated clinical psychologist, has been “out” since 1955, when “the best we could hope for was to live quietly in our personal closets.” She says, “I cannot believe how far our community has come.”

Yet if gays are vastly less separate than they used to be, they are far from equal. Americans are willing to accept the abstract idea that gays have equal rights under the law — 53% in the TIME poll favor allowing them to serve in the military, and a plurality of 47% to 45% supports giving them the same civil rights protection as racial and religious minorities — but are distinctly less comfortable when asked about gays close at hand. By 57% to 36%, poll respondents say gays cannot be good role models for children; 21% say they would not even buy from a homosexual saleswoman or -man.

Many heterosexuals resent any perceived invitation to “condone” or “endorse” gay behavior. They would rather not know — or, in the words of the Pentagon, they would rather not ask and they would rather that gays didn’t tell. When confronted with the likelihood that at least some of their children, or those of relatives or close friends, will grow up gay, even liberal parents recoil in dismay. Verline Freeman, 31, a word processor in New York City, describes herself as “tolerant” and says she has gay friends. Yet she objects to her sons, 13 and 6, being taught about homosexuality in school, and has never discussed it at home. “It probably is important, but to me it’s not. It’s not something I want to be bothered with.” To many adults, letting children know about homosexuality legitimizes it. Says Joseph Dickerson, 52, an electrician from Hightstown, New Jersey: “I disagree with teaching a broad spectrum of life-styles. It may have a tendency to sway some kids. When I was a teenager, if someone introduced me to a different life-style, there’s no telling how I would have accepted that.”

In many areas of law there has been little or no change for homosexuals during the post-Stonewall years. Gays are not allowed to marry. They may have trouble adopting, and risk losing custody of their biological children. In 23 states their private lovemaking remains technically illegal. While a growing number of companies offer some form of benefits for same-sex “spousal equivalents,” all but eight states allow employers to fire people just for being gay. Sexually active gays remain unwelcome in many mainstream Christian churches. Denominations that are more accommodating face fractious internal dissent — as happened last week, when an Episcopal congregation in Arlington, Texas, voted to switch to Roman Catholicism, in large part over some Episcopalians’ willingness to bless same-sex marriages.

While gays see themselves as fighting for equal rights, opponents often characterize what is at stake as “special rights,” a tacit appeal to the backlash generated by affirmative-action programs for blacks and women. Roy Schmidt, city commissioner of Grand Rapids, Michigan, voted this year against an ordinance adding gays to the existing civil rights code. He insists, “I have no problem with the gay community or gay people. My beliefs aren’t based on bigotry or ignorance. But you could take it further and say fat people, prostitutes or left-handed people deserve their own protections.” Like many people who regard themselves as unprejudiced, Schmidt sees gay rights as a threat to traditional families. “The core family unit already has enough problems. I don’t want my three sons to think that the gay life-style is acceptable.” If his children turned out gay, he adds, “I would never disown or break away from them. But I would try to have them mend their ways.”

At the extreme, distaste for gays can lead to violence. The FBI, which has begun keeping statistics on hate crimes because of a congressional mandate, reports that in 1992 there were at least 750 cases of assault and intimidation * against homosexual men and women. Those jolting numbers may be vastly understated. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force surveys data on gay bashing in six cities — Boston, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York and San Francisco. For 1992, it reported 2,103 episodes. While cases in other cities declined substantially in 1993, they jumped 12% in Denver, perhaps as a result of emotional debate over an antigay referendum question on the 1992 Colorado ballot.

Another telling count comes from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Klanwatch Project, which says at least 30 murders in the U.S. last year were hate crimes, a third aimed at gays and lesbians in places as rural as Humboldt, Nebraska, and as urban as Washington, D.C. Says Klanwatch researcher David Webb: “As gays and lesbians become more visible, hate crimes rise in direct correlation. Bigotry today isn’t just about the color of one’s skin. In fact, people now are less likely to condemn someone for being black or Hispanic. It has become more acceptable to go after gay men and lesbian women.” In Los Angeles County last year, hate crimes against gays overtook similar attacks on blacks.

That fear is why anonymous calls threatening to “slit your throats and watch your faggot blood run in the street” drove Jon Greaves to drop a grass- roots campaign last year against an antigay resolution adopted in Cobb County, Georgia, a prosperous and fast-growing Atlanta suburb. He and his lover moved instead to Atlanta, or Hotlanta, as its large and lively gay community likes to call it. “It wasn’t a surrender,” says Greaves, “just a retreat to safer ground.” The resolution, which stands, declares homosexuality to be “incompatible with the standards to which this community subscribes.” That apparently makes Cobb County, where the lynching of a Jewish man in 1915 sparked a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, the only government jurisdiction in America to declare homosexuals officially unwelcome. Says the Rev. Charles Scott May of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Marietta: “People are feeling insecure. The world is changing. They’re confronted with different cultures and personal values, and it scares the hell out of them.” One factor that intensifies the battle is the 1996 Olympic Games. Cobb County is the venue for volleyball, and gay activists are lobbying Atlanta’s Olympic committee to get the sport moved or the resolution rescinded.

When Cobb County turned hostile, Greaves had a gay-friendly place nearby. That option does not always exist for gays in rural areas, as 400 marchers bore in mind in early June at Montana’s first ever gay-pride parade, through the streets of downtown Missoula (pop. 45,000). “You have to understand the risks people here are taking,” said Linda Gryczan, the lead plaintiff in a suit challenging the state’s sodomy law. “This is different from being one in a million in New York or San Francisco. We are not anonymous anymore.” Unlike gay parades in some big cities, the kind depicted in alarmist antigay videos used for fund raising by conservative Christian groups, this 30-minute procession had no men in nun drag, no topless women on motorcycles. The marchers mostly looked like the cowpokes and earth mothers next door. Even so, many closeted gays stayed away. One would-be participant watched longingly from a parked car.

The main reason for the protest: Montana’s unenforced “deviate sexual conduct” law, theoretically among the nation’s harshest, deeming gay sexual contact a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. When Governor Marc Racicot said last year he would support repeal, he got hundreds of angry letters, some threatening his family. For gays, the issue is dignity. Montana law prohibits harassment of sports officials and livestock, but not of them.

Long-term, low-key approaches have helped gays elsewhere. In March 1993 a law banning many kinds of discrimination — including that against gays — went into effect in Miami Beach, where gay investors have played a key role in the resurgence of the South Beach area. Greg Baldwin, a gay partner in Florida’s largest law firm, Holland & Knight, spearheaded the drive for the ordinance. Says Baldwin: “We were very careful. We weren’t screaming and yelling and alienating. That wouldn’t have helped us achieve our goal.” Instead, Miami Beach’s gay leaders spent a year and a half working to elect supportive politicians, then consulting everyone — even conservative clerics — and negotiating compromises. The ordinance was worded so that it could not be repealed piecemeal, only as a whole.

A similar step-by-step process worked in liberal but heavily Roman Catholic Massachusetts, where a gay-rights bill was enacted in 1989 after 17 years of legislative debate. By 1992, a third of all candidates for state legislature sought endorsement from the 15,000-member Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus; this year, all four gubernatorial hopefuls support gay rights. The Massachusetts Board of Education last year adopted, unanimously, the nation’s first state educational policy prohibiting discrimination against gay elementary and secondary students. Last December, Governor William Weld signed a similar bill into law.

By contrast, in even more liberal Hawaii, gays chose to sue for the right to marry, reasoning that many civil rights advances have come from the judiciary. At first they seemed to have won, when the state’s highest court last year required government officials to show “compelling interests” against same- sex marriage. Hawaii appeared to be on the verge of allowing such unions, which could have had nationwide significance, because other states would be constitutionally obliged to recognize marriages licensed by Hawaii. But few gay-rights issues are more sensitive; marriage is traditionally the province of religion, and allowing it for gays would treat them as truly the moral equivalent of straights. A Honolulu Advertiser poll found two-thirds of respondents opposed to same-sex marriage. Legislators quashed the idea by more than 3 to 1 and referred it to a study commission, a majority of whose 11 members must belong to specified religious groups — a proviso that many observers say ensures a negative outcome.

While gays have faced uneven results in the political arena, especially at the national level, they have made great strides in the seemingly less inviting world of private business. Hundreds of companies, including IBM, Eastman Kodak, Harley-Davidson, Dow Chemical, Du Pont, 3M and Time Warner, have specific policies banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Many, ranging from the Wall Street law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy to the insurer Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts, provide health or other benefits for gay employees’ partners. Such old-line companies as Union Carbide and Colgate-Palmolive hire consultants to teach about sexual orientation. Yet many gays still fear that acknowledging their sexuality may hurt their chances for promotion, and stay closeted even at firms that vow equal treatment. A 1992 survey of 1,400 gay men and lesbians in Philadelphia found that 76% of men and 81% of women conceal their orientation at work.

Why do gays have to come out at all? Why can’t they just live their lives discreetly? Many do, of course. Some consider themselves out because they tell other gays, or a few straight friends, or some family members. Some believe – the only important announcement is the first — coming out to oneself. For every drag queen or gender bender who believes life ought to be street theater, dozens if not hundreds of gay men and lesbians avoid confrontation.

Yet gays have compelling reasons to come out. Banding together — in public — is the path toward political power and, consequently, protection. In the longer run, many gays believe, one-to-one relationships with straights are the best means of reducing tensions and prejudice. Gregory Herek, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis, has found that antigay feeling is much lower among people who know gays personally. Above all, gays come out because they feel that to keep silent is to imply they should be ashamed.

That is what motivated Mary White, the postmaster of West Southport, Maine. She wasn’t sure how people would react on the island of 500 where she lived and worked. “Everyone gay I know anywhere in the Postal Service is in the closet. But I’m tired of worrying about what other people think about my life. The choice to be open is the choice to be free. The more of us who throw our stones into the pond of freedom, the more ripples there will be.” She spoke those words months ago. But she didn’t come out to anybody. “I didn’t feel safe. One or two people seemed to be letting me know, in code, that they suspected and it was O.K. I don’t have much tolerance left for that kind of tolerance.”

White went on the record now because last week she left her job, taking a pay cut and demotion to move to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she can join a thriving gay subculture. She wasn’t assaulted or threatened. She was simply tired of having to hide. “I can’t be myself here,” she said, surrounded by packing cartons. She is not sure where the gay movement is going. She feels it is leaderless and fractured. She has seen firsthand the collision with the limits of tolerance. But for the hundreds of thousands of gays who are coming to New York City for a week of sports and celebrations, and for the majority who, like her, are not, one thing is certain. They believe their civil rights are just as inherent in the Constitution as those of blacks or women or anyone else — and they believe that a quarter-century of phenomenal change since Stonewall is not enough.


CREDIT: From a telephone poll of 800 adult Americans taken for TIME/CNN on June 15-16 by Yankelovich Partners Inc. Sampling error is plus or minus 3.5% Not Sures omitted

CAPTION: Should marriages between homosexuals be recognized as legal by law?

Do you favor the passage of equal-rights laws to protect homosexuals against job discrimination?

How much attention is being paid to homosexual rights?

Would you…

Shop at a store owned by a homosexual?

Vote for a homosexual political candidate?

Allow your child to watch a TV program with a homosexual character in it?

Attend a church or synagogue with a homosexual minister or rabbi?

Allow your child to attend a preschool that had homosexual staff members?

See a homosexual doctor?

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