Today is Gay Pride Day. Across the U.S. and many other countries, colorful parades mark the 45th anniversary of the riots around New York’s Stonewall Inn, credited with launching the gay rights movement.
The riots were a series of violent reactions to yet another then-completely-legal police raid on gay bars. Today it’s almost impossible to imagine that only four decades ago, being gay was grounds for harassment, arrest, and jail time. And, of course, losing one’s job, one’s apartment, and custody of one’s children.
A lot has changed since then.
And a lot hasn’t.
A huge number of Americans still think that gay people choose to be gay—that it’s the expression of a defiant personality, or a hostile statement to Dad, or a pathetic decision to look for fun in perverse places.
That idea, frankly, makes absolutely no sense. As long-time gay equality activist Brian McNaught said over thirty years ago, “When did I DECIDE to be gay? When I decided it would be fun to have my car trashed, my religion throw me out, my apartment taken away, and some of my loved ones turn their backs on me.”
And yet the issue of sexual orientation “choice” is now a crucial public policy issue. Anti-discrimination policies are aimed at protecting classes of people with features that are inborn (like race or gender) or biologically thrust upon (like age or dis/ability). If sexual orientation is a choice, like poor hygiene or wearing shorts in wintertime, it’s easy to argue that gay people just have to deal with the results of their choices—such as not getting jobs or rentals from people they discomfit.
If sexual orientation is as inborn as eye color, however, gay people have the legal expectation of being treated exactly like non-gay people in public life.
An issue that gay people face even more now than they did in 1969 is the idea that they are responsible for social problems in America. Today, very powerful voices blame “homosexuality” for the decline in childrens’ school performance, for the increase in out-of-wedlock births, for the tenacity of the abortion rights movement, and for the alleged increase in both child molestation and divorce (neither of which has actually increased in over a decade).
This would, if true, represent a tremendous influence by a group of less than nine million adults—who have no army, no church, no senators, no political party, and no TV stations.
But the fundamental, excruciating issue that non-heterosexuals face is the idea that they are different from heterosexuals in some meaningful way: that their relationships are different, their parenting is different, their fear of death is different, their love of ice cream is different, their disdain for slow drivers in the left lane is different, their boredom with flossing is different, or their creativity on their income taxes is different.
If anything makes gay people different than heterosexuals, it’s dealing with that common belief day after day, year after year. It has to be a corrosive, embittering experience, an experience that makes it hard to feel normal.
Your average Gay Pride parade features lots of half-clothed people, men wearing dresses, leather lesbians on motorcycles, and rainbow-faced people smooching far too enthusiastically. And yet ironically, the Gay Pride movement isn’t about showing how different gay people are. It’s about reminding gay people that they’re normal. That Broadway or Main Street are just as much theirs as anyone else’s.
Every gay adult in America grew up with a profoundly shameful, confusing secret. They desired, but could not share their yearning; they loved, but could expect no support; they lost, but could expect no sympathy. Many gay adults have spent 10, 20, 30 years closeted from employers, friends, and family, attempting to craft meaningful relationships out of sight from almost everyone who mattered.
Think for a second what that must be like. And what it must be like for a few million gay teens, young adults, and middle-aged men and women living lives of secrecy.
Gay Pride? The Straight world’s shame.