Since a spirited debate has broken out about the real significance of the passage of marriage equality in New York, I thought I’d add a personal note.
I grew up in the far West Village in the 1970s, about seven or eight blocks west of Stonewall Inn, where joyful crowds celebrated the news on Friday night. At the time, even though the Village was supposed to be a leading refuge for gays, the discrimination, hostility and abuse directed at them were everywhere. Even in this neighborhood, gays and lesbians took steps to conceal their sexual orientation. Some of my earliest childhood memories were of young bleary-eyed gay men quietly leaving underground gay clubs in the old Meat Market district in the very early morning — clubs that would be padlocked as public health danger zones when the AIDS crisis hit. Even on these streets, gay couples who openly displayed affection for each other in public were regularly abused in full public view.
It was not uncommon to see vans full of thugs who had driven in from other neighborhoods — for no other reason than to taunt and even beat up gays — screaming “faggots” at groups of young men who congregated along West Street, along the Hudson River. To reveal your sexual orientation in public through even the most basic gestures of affection was to put yourself at risk of mockery, abuse and even violence.
Maybe I lacked the imagination to see it, but that time, the notion that these folks would ever be given the right to legally marry — and have their intimate relationships recognized as equal to those of heterosexual couples — was simply unthinkable. And that was in the West Village.
One thing that’s been obvious throughout this debate is that many people have never really been exposed to the ugliness of anti-gay bigotry with anything approaching their awareness of other forms of discrimination, many of which have received a far fuller airing in popular culture. As a result, the debate over gay rights is saddled with endless discussions over whether the push for gay equality is a “real” civil rights struggle on a par with that waged by African Americans or other groups. Anyone who has witnessed anti-gay hostility up close can tell you it is very real indeed.
That’s what makes the New York breakthough so important. It is a major blow to the idea that the gay rights fight is somehow different, that the anti-gay discrimination and bigotry on display in the marriage debate somehow don’t really count as discrimination and bigotry.
Obviously things are not the same today for gays as they were in the 1970s. But the premise that same sex relationships deserve lower class status lives on in the continued insistence by opponents that gays and lesbians should not be allowed to marry because it somehow risks undermining and destabilizing the family and institution of marriage itself. As David Frum argues in his piece coming out for gay marriage, the opposite has happened. More to the point, though, is the premise of this argument — that gay couples and families can’t ever constitute an extension of those institutions, and can by definition only represent an inherent threat to them. This is the idea that received a heavy blow last week, and must continue to be chipped away at on the state and federal level. For this reason, the marriage equality breakthrough was a heavy blow to bigotry, discrimination and inequality writ large.
The bottom line is that I grew up in a world where gay couples were openly treated as deviants on the streets of New York, perhaps the most tolerant and cosmopolitan city in the country. My children are growing up in a world where being gay is no longer viewed — in New York and five other states and counting — as incompatible with the ultimate expression of couple-hood, the institution of marriage itself. As the latter idea spreads, the former world recedes further and further into history. As far as there still is to go, my children are growing up in a far better world than I could ever have imagined would come to pass.