The first gay person I ever knew had just served me pasta in his home. He hadn't bought a dining room table yet for his new apartment, so we were sitting on his living room floor with plates in our hands. He had made a simple sauce with crushed tomatoes, sliced garlic, and torn basil leaves. It was delicious.
Until then, I had no idea Kevin was gay. I had no idea anybody was gay, because back then, in 1999, many gay people kept that kind of thing to themselves.
"There's something about me I need to tell you," he said with a grim voice as we finished
the pasta. "I'm not happy about it, but I'm gay. I wish I wasn't that way."
At that moment, I had a choice, to accept Kevin or embrace the bigotry I had been taught. The only real talk I heard about homosexuality while growing up in the 1980s was when someone made a gay joke. Calling someone a fag or a queer was an insult that struck at his manliness like no other.
When Kevin stopped talking, he looked over with an expression that revealed pain and shame and fear. I think he expected my wife and me to get up and walk out.
That moment came back to me recently when I watched the video of Mitt Romney being confronted by a gay Vietnam veteran. The man asks Romney for his opinion on gay marriage and whether the partner of a gay veteran ought to be entitled to benefits. Romney tells him: "I think at the time the Constitution was written, it was clear marriage was between a man and a woman."
It's a ridiculous argument. He's insinuating that our founding fathers banned gay marriage in the Constitution. There's, of course, no mention of it. Or maybe he's mentioning our founding fathers as a baseline of morality. Most of them enslaved a whole race of people based on the color of their skin.
That kind of thinking is what results from the ignorance that existed in this country up until the last decade. Before then, few were out of the closet. Even fewer were portrayed by characters on TV shows or in movies. It was easy for someone like me, who had grown up calling people a fag more times than I'd like to remember, to simply not understand what it means to be gay. It's likely Romney had a similar experience.
Of course, Romney isn't alone among the GOP presidential field. Newt Gingrich told a voter in Iowa to vote for President Obama if gay marriage was the only thing he cared about. Then there are Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, who have regularly filled their speeches with hate, calling gay marriage immoral.
They say these things, openly and on the record, the same way segregationists did just a generation ago. Even in the early 1970s, politicians were still fighting to keep blacks out of schools. Like Santorum running on a decidedly antigay platform of fear and hate, the late-Sen. Strom Thurmond ran for president on an antisegregation stance. He told a crowd in 1948: "I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there's not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches."
Thurmond never apologized, but he did later vote to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday and hired a black man to his staff -- perhaps steps in acknowledging his former bigotry.
If Bachmann and Gingrich and the others are in politics long enough to see this current generation inherit the country, they will likely have to make those same kinds of concessions or apologies. This current generation grew up with gay characters in pop culture and with classmates who are openly gay. That talk Kevin had with me a little over a decade ago is common now for high school kids, who likely would've been unfazed by such news.
After remembering that night recently, I called Kevin to ask what it was like from the other side. Kevin had been closeted through college, and we met as reporters at a South Florida daily newspaper. He had no idea what it would mean to be out.
"It was all still very new for me being out, and I was kind of freaked out by the whole thing," he recalled over the phone. "I worried that if I was out, I'd lose my job and everyone I knew. I didn't know if I was going to end up working at Barnes & Noble."
Few reacted poorly. "The number of bad reactions, I can count them on one hand. And they were people I didn't want in my life anyway."
It was his parents Kevin feared telling the most. They were Southern Baptists and were staunchly antigay. His father died not long after Kevin came out of the closet. After Kevin found out that his father had died, he remembers thinking, "Thank God I don't have to tell my father." His mom took a while to come around, but she bought a Christmas gift this year for Kevin's partner.
Kevin has been married now for six years. He's an editor at a respected wire service (he asked that I not use his last name in fear that some of the service's conservative clients could object to his sexuality). And the best part: He and his husband are expecting twins from a surrogate.
"Looking back at me at that age, I feel really bad for me then," he says. "I wish I could tell myself that I'll live the life I always wanted. I didn't think it was possible."
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There's one way this public display of antigay bigotry ends, Kevin says. "Nothing is going to change until the Dick Cheneys of the world stand up and say we need to change this."
It's hard to imagine Newt Gingrich changing his stance on gay marriage. But like desegregation, this kind of bigotry can't go on forever.