National Commentary

Equality’s Big Day In a Virginia Court

nfbentonpicFor me, the issue of same-sex marriage is much more personal, I presume, than for anyone, no matter how passionate they may be in its defense, who didn’t grow up long enough ago to have gone through a whole gauntlet of slings and arrows of that outrageous fortune known as being gay.

The fact that there are so many of us doesn’t make my taking this all quite personally any less valid. My emotions surprised me as details came forth in a conference call Tuesday recounting the hearing before the Eastern District court in Norfolk, our side argued by rock star attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies, with the full backing of the newly-elected Attorney General of Virginia Mark Herring.

As of this writing, the judge had not yet made her ruling, and while cautiously optimistic that she’ll rule in our favor, we all know that will be just the latest step in a process of appeals that will undoubtedly bring the matter, once and for all, before the U.S. Supreme Court. That would be just as it was in 1967 when it took the U.S. Supreme Court to find Virginia’s law banning interracial marriage unconstitutional.

But the ducks are lining up, without a doubt. The legal precedents are there and the American public sentiment is there, so it is only a matter of time before bans on same-sex marriage or any prohibitions against the full enfranchisement of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are struck down once and for all.

For me, this is not about gay marriage, per se. It is about enfranchisement, equal justice under the law, and a release from a long life of living without those things, with the realization that no matter what, society protected bigots and haters who would denigrate, harm and even kill me, rather than stand up for me. Me and everyone like me.

There are lots of stories that can be told, dating from childhood, the sinking feeling of discovering in early adolescence that I was one of those most reviled and despised of persons, even as by my surface behavior I was above reproach.

But I recall that day in January 1985, not 30 years ago, when living in Houston, Texas, a referendum was underway in the city to uphold the ban on hiring homosexuals as teachers. It was a gray day yet it was crystal clear what was happening. Mid-afternoon I slipped away from work, and went to one of the only gay bars that I knew to be open at that time of day.

It was the best I could do by that point to affirm solidarity with my people. I sat in a corner of that bar removed from the few others there for about an hour, saying nothing. I was there because it was the only way to be me in that moment, and in that time I reaffirmed to myself my solidarity with all besieged gay brothers and sisters everywhere. The anti-gay referendum passed by a whopping 85 percent majority.

Those were not good days. AIDS was ravaging gay men. The suffering and death was indescribably horrid. A test for HIV antibodies was still a year off, not that it helped in cases where someone tested positive. Automatic death sentences remained in force for another full decade.

For me, there was an emotional numbness. After all, I and all like me lived knowing we could wake up any morning to find a sore on a leg, and it would be all over. Having already gone through total estrangement with my parents and family, including a serious death threat from my father, such a development would not have elicited any sympathy from anyone I cared about.

So now it’s 29 years later, and when I heard the news of Tuesday, when my very own attorney general that I helped elect and voted for, and two of the best lawyers in the land took their gloves off and slammed it to the symbols and institutions responsible for my long life of anxiety and fear, well yes, I took that personally.

Through my unexpectedly emotional response to Tuesday’s report, I kept thinking of that day in January 1985. Yes, it’s come a long way since then. Among many other things, Houston has re-elected an openly gay mayor! And I am eternally grateful.