Stonewall Baby, All Grown Up
I was born on the day of the Stonewall riots, June 27, 1969, so my life is an individual history of the 40-year-old modern gay rights movement. What makes my story particularly representative is just how conventional my life has become.
I grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. My parents were liberal college professors, but I was aware in high school -- in the 1980s, when AIDS had no treatment and hatred for gays reached a fever pitch -- that they wanted both of their boys to be heterosexual. Logically, it seemed to be the only path to a happy, successful life. I knew I was gay but said nothing.
I applied only to urban universities, seeing the city as a place to find other people like myself. When I decided toward the end of college that it was time to "come out," it seemed like a big deal -- as any grand declaration would be. Back then, you couldn't just live your life. You had to say "I'm gay!" and hope to be accepted or learn to live with the rejection.
Straight kids start experimenting with dating in high school. I didn't really get going until I turned 21 and could start going to gay bars. There was no other way to safely meet other gay people. Basically, the entire trajectory of my romantic life was delayed by several years. My first relationship was the kind of stupid mistake that most people go through in their teens in high school. My 20s were a bit of a waste in terms of establishing an adult romantic relationship.
On the plus side, my 20s were a good start to a vibrant career. With an undergraduate degree in journalism and a graduate degree in public policy, I chose a profession that was more welcoming to gay people than most were in the early 1990s. In my first job out of college, I spoke cautiously but in a purposefully casual way about my life and my relationship with my (first) boyfriend. I was a little scared, since very few people I knew were out in their workplaces, even in relatively urbane Philadelphia. Most of my friends thought I was reckless, talking about my gay life at work. I did feel a bit like a rebel, but I knew I was incapable of hiding secrets, so I thought I might as well stand tall.
In the past decade, I've lived in Philadelphia, Washington and New York -- encountering people from all over America and the world. Without compromising my identity or censoring my life, I have slowly moved up the ranks at prestigious policy organizations such as the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Harwood Institute and Public Agenda. I am director of communications for the Russell Sage Foundation, working on issues including behavioral economics, low-wage work, immigration, social justice and cultural diversity.
My experiences in the workplace and the wider world bear out what has been documented in public opinion research on gay issues. Without a doubt, as more gay people live their lives unashamedly, those who come in contact with gay people accept them as normal and say we are entitled to the same rights and responsibilities as others.
I'm having a 40th birthday party. My parents, my brother and his wife and children will be there, as will my boyfriend's parents. My boyfriend, who is 14 years younger than I am, has had a much different experience than I did. I think his is representative of his generation. He never "came out" to his parents -- he didn't have to. He just lived his life, talked to his parents all the time and discussed what he was doing and who he was doing it with. No "I'm gay!" declaration seemed necessary. Almost all of his friends are straight, and he rarely goes to gay bars. He's never felt that he needed to stay confined in gay circles to feel safe. He is just himself, with no apologies or explanations. Gay-circuit parties and the trappings of stereotypical urban gay life hold little allure for him. His straight friends are now my friends, and while I love my gay friends, I don't miss gay bars and the ghettoizing culture that they represent to me.
Four decades ago, a group of gays and lesbians in New York pushed back against persecution. When my loved ones celebrate my birthday today, we will also be raising a glass to 40 years of progress on gay rights. Being in a quiet long-term relationship and having a disturbingly "respectable" professional life means that I'm basically boring. Gay marriage in New York is painfully just out of reach, but looking back on the 40 years since Stonewall, my staid domestic life is itself a major triumph.
The writer lives in New York.