I regularly get all giddy and Tiggerish about how far lesbians and gay man have come from the bad old days of, say, the late 1970s when I came out. Back then, most of the mainstream didn’t quite notice we were human. I do remember the moment I first realized that I wanted to kiss a girl, and my stomach fell out of me with fear: I didn’t want to be one of them. It’s hard to convey to you all how different things are and how far we’ve come.
I’ve been thinking about this because, on her Bloggingheads show last week, Sarah Posner asked me whether, ten years ago, I would have imagined we’d be as far along as we are on marriage. Ten years ago, yes. In 2002, it was pretty clear what path we were on. But in the 1970s, marriage was simply beyond conceivable.
If you want some evidence, you can find it in an old All in the Family episode in which Edith loses her beloved cousin Liz—and learns that the cousin’s “roommate” was in fact her partner. I looked back at it recently when Dan Savage tweeted it out. Watching it left me with a slightly hollow, sickened feeling. Between 12 and 14 minutes in, there’s a moment in which the bereaved partner looks in Edith’s eyes and tries to make clear that she and Cousin Liz were as close as if they were married. It takes a minute, but at 13:40 Edith finally gets the shocked and troubled look in her eyes that says she gets it. That’s what it was like. You didn’t have direct words for it. You hinted and watched their eyes to see whether the reaction was recoil, disgust, horror, or just a moment of being startled. Simply being able to say “my wife” and not see any reaction at all—it’s breathtaking. I’m not quite used to it yet. I don’t know that I ever will be.
Make no mistake: The hatred that some of us came of age under left significant scars. For more about that, listen to the portion of Sarah Posner’s show in which I go off, with an unexpected amount of emotion, on a little riff about two horror stories from the 1980s: Karen Thompson and Sharon Kowalski, and Charlie Howard. I’ve written about Charlie’s death here before. He was walking in Bangor one night when three high school kids threw him over a bridge to his death, for being a faggot. The town rallied around the kids. I own a self-published book by one of those kids who, after he got out of prison, repented and did some speaking to high schools to try to make amends for what he’d done. When I was dating my now-wife—we only met five years ago—she saw it on my bookshelf and turned gray. She’s from a small town near Bangor. She sat behind one of those kids in high school. She was out at the time.
Imagine that: Having your town rally on behalf of your classmate who killed someone for being like you. You would, quite reasonably, feel some terror for your life.
On Sarah’s show, I said that perhaps, if Maine would vote on behalf of our marriage, it could salve some of those scars. No, my wife later corrected me. Even if 53 percent vote in favor, she said, that leaves 40 percent. A few weeks ago, we were up visiting her family. As always, we went to the iconic Pat’s Pizza for dinner. Two men behind us in line were talking about “the fucking faggots” and their ballot initiative. She said it took everything she had not to run at top speed for safety.
It brings tears to my eyes that young people coming out today are having their identities formed by watching straight people campaigning to let them marry instead of seeing a town rallying around a faggot killer.
All this was what I was unable to express to Sarah. I couldn’t quite find the words right then. So I tweeted this at her two days later, in four tweets. I’ve spelled out the condensed words:
I thought of what I was searching for when we talked Tuesday. When I came out, we didn't even imagine wanting marriage. It was still a felony in half the states just to have sex. I can't tell you how that affects you, at a gut level. We'd joke about it—“Hey, wanna commit a felony”—but it really does warp your sense of self and your hopes for your future. Shame and fear infect you, even if you actively resist it. I think that's part of why I get so giddy about how much change I've lived and been part of. It's just unbelievable to be freed.