When Will Cunningham was in high school in the early 2000s, he was known as a football player named “Bill.”
Bill was closeted and shy. By the time he graduated, he was out to a few friends and sort-of out to his mother, but only because she had found one of his books — “Going the Other Way,” a memoir from Billy Bean, an openly gay former major league baseball player. She asked what it meant. “It means what you think it means,” he said at the time, in a combative tone full of teenage angst.
Shortly thereafter, Cunningham began his freshman year at Brown University, where he started to go by Will — “and Will is anything but closeted and shy,” he says. “It was the first time I was in an environment where I felt gays weren’t just tolerated, they were celebrated,” Cunningham, now 29, recalls. He was just getting comfortable with his sexuality and wasn’t thinking much about marriage.
Then Massachusetts became the first state to give same-sex couples the right to marry in 2004. Cunningham said it felt like a Northeast aberration, not a huge cultural shift. At that point, only 31 percent of Americans favored allowing same-sex marriage, according to the Pew Research Center. Cunningham is African American and was a political science student at Brown, so he knew well that progress on civil rights in this country is slow. “You do the work, and you hope for the best,” he says, “but you don’t have control over the final outcomes.”
Kind of like looking for love, there are no guarantees.
In the past decade, Cunningham has come into his own as a gay adult while the politics of same-sex marriage have similarly evolved. First, a few liberal states tested the waters, and now same-sex marriage is legal in 37 states and the District. If the Supreme Court rules that the Constitution requires states to allow same-sex couples to marry and to recognize marriages performed in other states, the fight for marriage equality could be over by the end of this month.
So acceptance of same-sex marriage has been a huge, cultural shift — all in the time that it takes teenagers to grow up and enter prime marrying age. Millennials have been called the “gayest generation”; 7 percent of U.S. adults ages 18 to 35 identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, according to a recent report from the Public Religion Research Institute. They’re also the generation most supportive of same-sex marriage: Seventy-three percent of millennials favor same-sex marriage today, up from 51 percent who felt that way in 2003, according to Pew. Support among older generations has grown, too, but young Americans are still the most comfortable with it.
Cunningham remembers the moment he realized that people’s views on same-sex marriage weren’t defined by their politics, but their age. It was the summer of 2007, and he’d just moved to Houston for a job with Teach for America. “I wound up with more Republican friends than I’d ever had in my life,” he says, and his young Republican friends were for marriage equality. “That’s when it caught my eye that this was a generational issue, not a Democrats versus Republicans issue.”
He hasn’t had a lot of long-term relationships, so he hasn’t had the marriage talk with a specific person just yet. “Some people are just getting comfortable being gay, let alone being gay-married,” Cunningham says, noting that being open about your sexuality happens on different time frames for everyone.
For now, marriage is a matter of finding the right person, at the right time for both of them — whoever that other person might be. “First comes the man,” he says, “then the marriage. You can’t gay-marry yourself.”
When Cunningham talks about marriage, it’s mostly in the abstract — and it’s very connected to parenthood. He’s the oldest among his cousins, many of whom have small children. Sometimes, he says, he intentionally plays with his cousins’ kids so his parents and extended family can see him as someone who would be a good father. If he feels any pressure to pair off, it’s centered on not wanting to be an “old dad.”
“You want to be a dad who can run around with his kid,” Cunningham says.
“It’s a consolation that it can be later” in life, he says, noting that his biological clock might not tick as loud as a woman’s. “But that’s not what I want.”