I’m waiting in Starbucks for my drink to come up. Two women in their twenties are standing close enough to each another to be read as a couple. They’re dressed in complete agreement, entirely in black with toothpick jeans and wool sock hats, broadcasting androgyny. My inner taxonomist labels them butch lesbians; versions of my younger self, were I as free to be out then as they are now.
I think to myself: I laid the groundwork for their visibility.
In 1994, the Gay Games were held in New York City. The competition, which drew tens of thousands of people from all over the world, coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Between the two events, there were literally hundreds of thousands of people in attendance at the NYC Gay Pride March that year. Volunteers carried a mile-long rainbow flag down 1st Avenue past the United Nations building. Uncharacteristically hilly for NYC, 1st Avenue crested at one point, offering me an expansive view of the crowd of which I was part. Behind me and in front of me, stretched to the ends of the visible horizon, lay a jam-packed sea of people. I’ve never seen so many people, not before or since.
We weren’t marching for gay marriage back then; we were marching for our lives. My twenties happened during the age of AIDS, back when HIV was a death sentence so harsh that people committed suicide upon being diagnosed. So many men were dying horrible, ugly, drawn-out deaths. The women among us had lost fathers, brothers, uncles, friends, and lovers. Prior to AIDS, there was no bond between the gay and lesbian communities; the HIV/AIDS crisis drew everyone together, all of the sexual outsiders, into one giant LGBTQ movement. We were compelled by necessity to unite in order to bring the strength of numbers to bear on the fight for our civil rights.
When I came out as a lesbian in 1989, I accepted the facts as they were at the time: I would never be married and I would never have children. If I wanted to work for the government or the military or become a teacher, then I would have to stay in the closet. Any employer could decide to fire me or not hire me in the first place, and any landlord could decide not to rent to me. Moreover, when I dared to be identifiable as a lesbian in public, I was subject to verbal and physical abuse. There were times when I feared for my safety. There were states where it was literally illegal for me to make love to my partner. I had no right to visit her, let alone make any decisions on her behalf, if anything tragic happened to her. All of this paled in comparison, of course, to the friends I was losing to AIDS; that fight took precedence.
If AIDS were still a plague in America, then the movement would never have graduated to demanding marriage equality. Marriage by its very nature assumes that a couple has a future together; back then, too many people were dying too young for any of us to be thinking about a future. We marched, we protested, and we took care of each other. We wore rainbows and freedom rings and we outed ourselves at every opportunity just to show the country that everyone knew and loved at least one of us. Famous people came out – Congressman Barney Frank in 1987, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Elton John in 1988, k.d. lang in 1992, Melissa Etheridge in 1993, Ellen DeGeneres in 1997. Ellen’s show was cancelled shortly after she came out but within a year, the insanely popular Will and Grace began its eight year love affair with America and we got used to seeing gay men on a weekly basis. None of this would have happened if we had never come out in the first place. If we didn’t rise up and demand our rights then, we wouldn’t be enjoying them now.
Those two young women in the Starbucks may be blissfully unaware of this history. If that’s my generation’s gift to them, and the gift of the generation of activists who came before me, then so be it. It was enough once in a while to get a nod of acknowledgement, just to be seen.
There was no nod this time. There was no eye contact at all.
These days I’m just another white guy.