Thirty-seven years after Stonewall, gay Baby Boomers ponder an option: Do we fight or flee?
By Steve Kluger
August 2, 2006
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.
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.