USA Today, August 2, 2006

Give me your tired, your poor—or not

Thirty-seven years after Stonewall, gay Baby Boomers ponder an option: Do
we fight or flee?

By Steve Kluger


    With advocacy groups and state courts
    pushing for new laws to bar same-gender
    marriage, gay adoption, and civil unions—even
    though other nations are opening their doors
    (and their hearts) to the same issues—the
    global image that the United States has been
    laundering for well over fifty years seems to
    have developed ring-around-the-collar.  In
    fact, the Emperor is stark naked.  But that
    should come as no surprise to anyone who’s
    been paying attention.

On Dec. 29, 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt dubbed America “The Arsenal of
Democracy.”  And he probably meant it.  After all, he was rich, he was popular, his
wife did all the grunt work, he’d just been elected to an unprecedented third term,
and the Republicans detested him.  What could be more democratic than that?

On the other hand, it might have been a second martini talking.

When FDR signed Executive Order 9066 just over a year later, The Arsenal of
Democracy promptly consigned all West Coast Americans of Japanese descent to
prison camps.  These euphemistic “internees” were given 48 hours to dispose of
their belongings and to terminate the lives they’d been living for as long as half a
century.  No other options were afforded.

African Americans, too, had always encountered a similar paucity of choices:  To be
set on fire in their own Oklahoma neighborhoods, to be lynched in the South, to be
beaten to a pulp in the North, or to develop hot licks on a trumpet and change their
names to Louis Armstrong.

But that was a long time ago. The Arsenal of Democracy doesn’t visibly hate African
Americans or citizens of Japanese descent any more.  That’s because it inadvertently
mined the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered community—and discovered it
had struck the eternal mother lode.  Big mistake.  Never oppose a minority that
knows how fabulous it is.

The modern gay rights movement was born shortly after midnight on June 28, 1969,
at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s West Village, when a bar full of patrons decided
they’d had enough of police harassment.  Led by a group of drag queens in high
heels, the riots went on for two full days—and it was the cops who finally gave in
when they agreed to stop harassing gay bars.

Credit the gay Baby Boomers who started the ball rolling.  Since then, we’ve
overcome such formidable enemies as Anita Bryant, Jerry Falwell, and the Supreme
Court; we learned how to take care of ourselves and each other during the AIDS
pandemic when a silent Ronald Reagan refused to acknowledge the health crisis
until thousands of us were dead; we earned our own martyrs and heroes like openly
gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk and intrepid writer-activist Larry Kramer;
and we’ve re-drafted the book on Respect.

And yet.

For every same-gender marriage performed in Massachusetts, there are at least as
many demands to amend that state’s constitution to the contrary.  For every
proposed high school Gay-Straight Alliance designed to promote understanding
amongst the kids, there’s always some crackpot who claims a secret homosexual
agenda to recruit children.  Comments such as these can hurt like hell, especially
when 37 years of relentless abuse has worn down your armor.

However, unlike our African American forbears or the Issei and Nisei imprisoned
in the World War II internment camps, none of whom was any more welcome
elsewhere than they were here, we may be the first persecuted minority that has the
option to emigrate from the Arsenal of Democracy to other nations where we and our
spouses will be recognized and embraced as the best-dressed refugees you’ve ever
seen—much as the hounded immigrants from Eastern Europe once set their sights
on Ellis Island.  Indeed, the number of countries that sanction same-gender marriage
or civil unions is becoming its own multiplication table: Denmark. Norway. Sweden.
Iceland. Finland. The Netherlands. Belgium. Great Britain. Spain. France.
Luxembourg. Argentina. New Zealand. And, of course, Canada. Twenty years ago,
we were losing our friends to AIDS.  These days we’re losing them to Vancouver and
Toronto.

“There’s something to be said for Canadian politeness and that inbred sense of live-
and-let-live,” observes Richard Labonte, a journalist and bookseller who moved from
San Francisco to a farm in Ontario with his partner of 14 years, Dean.  “When we
went to the nearest small town for a marriage license, the male clerk remarked that
we were the first same-sex couple to apply, and he congratulated us.”  Dean, born
and raised in the homophobic Deep South, admits that after two years in Canada, he
still finds the friendliness and acceptance unnerving.

To be sure, there’s an ethical dilemma here:  In another handful of decades, same-
gender marriage and full equality for non-heterosexual Americans will have been
locked into place—and history will regard our one-time opponents as shamefully as it
now views Bull Connor, Orval Faubus, Lester Maddox, and other legendary
Apostates of Hate. But our predecessors had no alternative except to stay put and
fight, proving their birth rights as Americans over and over again until it was no
longer necessary—while gay middle-aged Boomers are able to plan our remaining
20 or 25 years under democracies that actually want us.  Are we allowing the gay-
bashers to win?  Do we have the moral authority to move on and bequeath the
battles to the next generation?  Or do we belong here in the trenches until we drop?

One fact is certain: We still have the freedom to choose. That’s in the Constitution.

Like a lot of things.