I went to an elementary school in Manhattan with quasi-liberal ideas that was supposed to be integrated—which meant that our class included a few black and Latino kids on scholarship who mostly socialized with one another. When I was in second grade, in 1971, Debbie Camacho had a birthday party in Harlem, and her parents, unacquainted with the logic of New York private education, scheduled it for the same weekend as homecoming. I doubt many kids in my class would have gone even if there hadn’t been such a convenient excuse, but my mother asked how I would feel if no one attended my birthday party—and so I was one of the two white kids who went out of a class of forty. The birthday girl’s cousins tried to get me to dance, an idea that was completely foreign to me; everyone spoke Spanish; there were unfamiliar fried foods; and I had something of a panic attack and went home in tears. At the time, I drew no parallels between everyone’s avoidance of Debbie’s party and my own unpopularity, which was a function of the gender transgressions that ultimately manifested in my being gay.
It’s tempting to paint myself and my family as beacons of liberal exceptionalism, but we weren’t. I teased one African-American student in my elementary school by claiming he resembled a picture in our Social Studies book of a tribal child in an African rondavel. At the time, I didn’t think that this was racist; I thought it was funny, and vaguely true. When I was older, I remembered my behavior with deep regret, and when the person in question found me on Facebook, I apologized profusely. I said that my only excuse was that it was not easy to be gay at the school, and that I’d acted out the prejudice I experienced in the form of prejudice toward others. He accepted my apology, and mentioned that he was also gay; I was humbled that he had survived our school, where so much of both kinds of bias was in play.
While I was growing up and the racism of our society was beginning to break down, I observed with interest the improvements in the lives of people who seemed very different from me, people who looked to me, as it were, like the pictures in our Social Studies book. I was moved by their plight, but I felt no more connection to it than I did to the struggles of oppressed Zulus or Masai. I had yet to assume my shame as a badge of honor, and I didn’t understand what it meant for them to be suddenly proud of who they were. I had black friends in high school, and we elected an African-American student-body President; in college, I believe that I largely stopped seeing race, and didn’t give much thought to the varied ethnicity of my friends.
When I first came out as gay, in my early twenties, I was not consciously preoccupied with social homophobia. I was fighting the homophobia in my own family and my internalized homophobia, and I was running scared from the AIDS crisis. As I came to some peace with who I am, I began to connect my private hell with a broader experience, and in time, I began to wonder whether I could accept my sexuality deeply enough to forget about it. The parallels between the bigotry I’d experienced and the chauvinism I’d enacted became irrefutable, and I regretted them both.
There are two ways to experience a life lived in the wake of prejudice. One is to believe you have made a leap across the abyss and landed on the safe side. You can’t invite a lot of other people to join you, though, because the space where you are is narrow, and others can easily pull you back to the abjection you’ve only just escaped. The other is to understand that prejudice is a monolith, and that the only way to resolve an individual prejudice is by attacking all prejudice.
When President Obama was elected, I thought that what was most cheering, from a gay perspective, was not the possibility that the new President would act in the interests of gay people, but that he’d been elected at all. If we could move from the racism of my elementary school to the Presidency of a black man, then anything could change. Prejudice was subject to radical amelioration. I hoped that the new President would champion the rights of people such as me, but I believed that he was an emblem of American society’s capacity for progress. While I am thrilled that he has now come out in favor of gay marriage, I still think the fact that he was elected represents a seismic shift more profound than anything he has done since.
The latest issue of The Atlantic quotes North Carolina minister Rev. Patrick Wooden saying “African-Americans are appalled that their Civil Rights movement has been co-opted by the so-called Civil Rights movement of the homosexuals. It is an insult, it is angering when LGBT groups say there is no difference between being black and being homosexual.” I’d compare that to the impassioned speech made by Benjamin Jealous, head of the N.A.A.C.P., at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Creating Change conference in January. (I am on the board of N.G.L.T.F.) Jealous described how angry it made him when people accepted him for being black and tortured his brother for being gay. He maintained that if we countenance one form of bias, we have no platform from which to fight any other. Listening to him, I thought of Hillary Clinton’s brave declaration, a month earlier, when she said, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
My husband, John, and I had two weddings: one in 2007 in England, where civil partnership has sweeping legal ramifications, and one in 2009 in Connecticut, where we got to use the word marriage. I am a dual national, and the British ceremony gave John immigration rights. The Connecticut one seemed at first like a formality; an estate lawyer had suggested that we should have something called marriage on the record, so that if I were hit by a bus the day after DOMA was repealed, our union would be appropriately classed even if the legal status of a foreign civil partnership was being debated. I was amazed at how emotional both weddings were—the first because it was a public declaration of our love in the company of everyone we cherished most in the world, and the second because married, which had applied to my parents and grandparents and back a hundred generations, was ours, too. The use of that expression drenched us in dignity. Since then, I’ve read stories to our children in which princes marry princesses, and though John and I are both men, I can say, “Just like when Daddy and Papa got married.” To the children, the difference appears no greater than the difference between being nonspecific royalty in a fantasy castle and being a writer and horticulturist in lower Manhattan.
So I love the word marriage, and I love President Obama for coming out in support of it. I’d like to think that his declaration encompasses everyone besides us—that it is part of a vision of human nobility that is broad and encompassing. As Mother’s Day rolls around, I thank my mother for making me go to Debbie Camacho’s birthday party: because it was the right thing to do, and also because, though I couldn’t see it at the time, it was the beginning of an attitude of tolerance that allowed me to stomach myself and find happiness in adulthood. I’d like to think that the President’s declaration will have that effect on a whole new generation of people. I wonder to what community the first gay President will extend similar self-realization. I hope I’m around to find out.