JUNE 26, 2015
27 June, 2015
Last night I went down to the West Village. I had to. The Supreme Court ruling making Marriage Equality the law of the land filled me with so many overwhelming emotions. I was drawn to, called to, the West Village, to Stonewall… to be where it all began. To, as my friend Marcia Gillespie would say, “honor the ancestors.”
The rallies, the speeches, the diversity of the crowds, the joy on the streets, the camaraderie among friends and strangers were empowering, invigorating, and affirming of all that’s best about this complicated country. It stood in stark contrast to my own Upper Westside neighborhood that once rivaled the Village in terms of diversity, culture and energy, but which, over the decades, has become a wasteland filled primarily with White, straight, cookie-cutter people who a generation ago would have only been found in the suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey. Of course, the Village isn’t what it once was either, as money has replaced art, and wannabe-cool clones have replaced truly cool, odd individuals… where, on many a recent occasion I have turned to friends and asked, “where have all the gay people gone?!” But I digress.
Being out in the West Village last night reminded me of how important community is. And of how important being out and proud is. It made me think about so many people I’ve lost, but was blessed to have in my life. There were Howard and Stan, the elderly gay couple who lived down the hall from me and my first partner. They had been together for forty plus years, since before Stonewall, and yet their sexuality and relationship was still a secret from their respective work associates. They were a flesh and blood reminder of how far we’d come, and how far we had to go. They marveled at (and were a little nervous about) how we were so comfortable with being totally out. And though they were for all intents and purposes married, being from that pre-Stonewall time when so many gay people lived in fear for their lives and their jobs (alas, for many that hasn’t changed), I don’t think they could have ever allowed themselves to even imagine a day when marriage equality was the law of the land. They have both been gone for some years, but wherever they are, I can imagine them marveling at the Supreme Court decision (and being a little nervous about it).
I also thought about my dear friend Beatrice DaSilva who died in the early days of AIDS… a proudly bisexual, no, a proudly sexual woman, a few years ahead of me in college, who tried to instill in me her attitude of “What the fuck does it matter what anybody thinks? Just live your life!” She died much too soon, but I know she’s up there waving a rainbow flag and giggling her inimitable giggle.
I was swamped with memories of another dear friend, Michael Jeter. Jeter who when nominated for an Emmy (which he won) and his agents told him they’d get him four tickets to the ceremony so he and his partner could each bring a “date”, responded, that the only date he was bringing was his partner and that if his agents ever again suggested he hide who he was, he would find new agents. Dear, sweet, wonderful, talented, eloquent Michael Jeter who, as I said in his eulogy, taught me by example how to be an out, proud gay man. I know he was smiling that sheepish, but infectious smile yesterday.
And, of course, I thought about my late partner, Richard Pickens. Richard who simply refused to waste time or energy worrying about what other people thought… or giving power to people who didn’t like him. Richard, who embodied what I think of as the soul of Baltimore, the city he loved and introduced me to… a soul that said, “This is who we are, we’ll open our arms to you, and if you like us, great, but if not, we don’t care.” Richard and I used to go off on week to ten-day bike trips, a number of which took us through rural parts of Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Michigan and Pennsylvania. We would plot out how many miles we expected to cycle each day and pre-book reservations for B&B’s or motels we found online. I remember a B&B in rural Pennsylvania that turned out to be a “Christian” establishment… the sweet, generous couple who owned it saw it as their mission to preach the gospel to their guests. Due to a torrential storm and a flat tire, we arrived soaked and muddy, hours later than we’d planned; too wet and muddy to have stopped (as we’d expected) for dinner at a town several miles back on the trail. As the husband drove off to pick us up burritos to eat, the wife told us we were the only guests that night so we could each have our own room and they wouldn’t charge us extra. We smiled and said, “No, thanks.” Then she offered us a room with two beds instead of the one-bed room we’d booked. We again smiled and said, “No thanks, we’re fine with what we booked.” She was clearly uncomfortable, but said nothing. After we cleaned up they sat with us at their dining table as we ate. And we all chatted, nicely, politely, about many things, including scripture. Richard had a way of engaging people, of expressing genuine interest in who they were and what they were about that not only opened them up, but that caused them to express the same curiosity about him. He taught me a lot about the power of that… of simply, non-confrontationally, but unapologetically letting people know who you are. The four of us ended the evening as friends. The couple warmly hugged us each before we headed up to our room. And the next morning, they put our bikes in the back of their SUV and drove us to a bike shop in town where Richard’s tire could be properly repaired, again hugging us with genuine affection as we said our goodbyes. Perhaps they thought differently about gay people after that. Perhaps they became part of the not insignificant number of fundamentalists who have come to support gay rights and marriage equality. Either way, I know Richard was smiling yesterday, too.
But this Supreme Court ruling, while a wonderful, exciting step, is not the end of the battle. Far from it. One only needed to listen to or read the vitriol in the first responses from the four dissenting justices, the declared and undeclared Republican presidential candidates, the pundits on FOX News, and the bigoted right-wing so-called religious leaders from every denomination to know that the battle is far from over. Plus, there’s still a host of other issues affecting our community, with workplace and housing discrimination topping the list. So though, I was out rejoicing in the Village with my brothers and sisters yesterday, and will be part of the NYC Gay Pride march tomorrow, I don’t fool myself into thinking the Supreme Court changed everything.
Yesterday’s celebrations here in NYC and across the country reminded me of those that followed President Obama’s election. So many of were filled with the same kind of hope and belief that a fundamental change had happened in this country. And it had. But the fact of America’s first Black president also unleashed a backlash of the most disgusting, violent and overt racism as the vilest parts of our society came crawling out from beneath their rocks to try to maintain their sick version of America.
So, having witnessed what has gone on in this country in the seven years since that magical election night, I find I’ve lost my naivete. Yes, the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land yesterday. Yes, a majority of Americans now support gay rights and marriage equality. And those are extraordinary things. But a majority of Americans voted for President Obama, too. And just as the racists have lashed out in response to a Black man in the White House, the homophobes of this nation, fueled by the oratory of right-wing politicians, religious leaders and pundits, will lash out against this ruling, too. And they will get ugly. So as we celebrate the momentous and wonderful step the Supreme Court took, we also need to be prepared for what may come next.