I am forty-four years old, and I have lived through a startling transformation in the status of gay men and women in the United States. Around the time I was born, homosexual acts were illegal in every state but Illinois. Lesbians and gays were barred from serving in the federal government. There were no openly gay politicians. A few closeted homosexuals occupied positions of power, but they tended to make things more miserable for their kind. Even in the liberal press, homosexuality drew scorn: in The New York Review of Books, Philip Roth denounced the “ghastly pansy rhetoric” of Edward Albee, and a Time cover story dismissed the gay world as a “pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life.” David Reuben’s 1969 best-seller, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)”—a book I remember perusing shakily at the library—advised that “if a homosexual who wants to renounce homosexuality finds a psychiatrist who knows how to cure homosexuality, he has every chance of becoming a happy, well-adjusted heterosexual.”
By the mid-eighties, when I was beginning to come to terms with my sexuality, a few gay people held political office, many states had dropped long-standing laws criminalizing sodomy, and sundry celebrities had come out. (The tennis champion Martina Navratilova did so, memorably, in 1981.) But anti-gay crusades on the religious right threatened to roll back this progress. In 1986, the Supreme Court, upholding Georgia’s sodomy law, dismissed the notion of constitutional protection for gay sexuality as “at best, facetious.” AIDS was killing thousands of gay men each year. The initial response of the Reagan Administration—and of the mainstream media—is well summarized by a Larry Speakes press briefing in October, 1982:
Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement [from] the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?
Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
By the time Reagan first spoke at length about AIDS, in May, 1987, the death toll in the U.S. had surpassed twenty thousand. What I remember most about my first sexual experience is the fear.
Today, gay people of a certain age may feel as though they had stepped out of a lavender time machine. That’s the sensation that hit me when I watched the young man in Tempe shout down a homophobe in the name of the President-elect. Gay marriage is legal in six states and in Washington, D.C. Gays can serve in the military without hiding their sexuality. We’ve seen openly gay judges, congresspeople, mayors (including a four-term mayor of Tempe), movie stars, and talk-show hosts. Gay film and TV characters are almost annoyingly ubiquitous. The Supreme Court, which finally annulled sodomy laws in 2003, is set to begin examining the marriage issue. And the 2012 campaign has shown that Republicans no longer see the gays as a reliable wedge issue: although Mitt Romney opposes same-sex marriage, he has barely mentioned it this fall. If thirty-two people were to die today in a mass murder at a gay bar, both Obama and Romney would presumably express sympathy for the victims—more than any official in New Orleans did when, back in 1973, an arsonist set fire to the Upstairs Lounge.