First-Person: Waiting a Lifetime for Overnight Change

Don't tell him marriage equality happened fast
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October 16, 2015

That Was Fast,” shouted a Slate headline the day after the Supreme Court ruled in June in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. A good friend of mine put it another way by e-mail: “The marriage ruling happened overnight. I can’t believe it.” Indeed, even as summer turned to fall, this is what I’ve been hearing, repeatedly, from friends both gay and straight. I know their words are well meaning and congratulatory, but they’re frustrating as well, because they’re not exactly true.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m over the moon about the court’s ruling and what it means for so many, my husband and me included. But like the novelist or actor who worked diligently for years before being declared an “overnight sensation,” I wonder whether some lived under a rock during the decades-long struggle of the LGBT rights movement. Frank Bruni nailed it in a New York Times column soon after the ruling: “Same-sex marriage isn’t some overnight cause…especially not when it’s put in its proper context, as part of a struggle for gay rights that has been plenty long, patient and painful.”

I know that struggle, with its twists, turns, and dead-ends, all too well. I’ve lived as an outsider, and I’ve been called out as a “pervert” and “faggot” and even beaten up because of my sexual orientation. Looking back today, the words “that was fast” are not the ones that come to mind. That I might check “married”—as in to my husband—on a federal income tax form, didn’t seem possible in this lifetime, now in its fifth decade.

Growing up in New York City, I remember watching a 1967 CBS documentary called The Homosexuals, hosted by Mike Wallace, that described gay men as incapable “of a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage.” Gay men, I learned, are promiscuous; one was described as being unable to hold a job because of his “inability to contain his homosexual inclinations.” Most of those interviewed sat shrouded in shadows or behind palm fronds. Although Mr. Wallace acknowledged homosexuality’s “increasing visibility,” the lesson of the hour to this ten-year-old was shame.

Two years later I was walking our family puppy past a newsstand one early summer morning and saw the Daily News headline: “Homo Bar Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad.” New York City’s “finest” had raided the Stonewall Inn, triggering the eponymous riot. I didn’t know at the time that the modern gay rights movement had just taken a giant step forward for all mankind. I was just starting to discover my sexuality, and my takeaway from that moment not only was shame, but a cancer of hopelessness about finding love.

During my first year at Duke, in 1975, I sought help at Student Health after a significant bout of depression. I wrote in my journal: “I was down today [again], and my homosexuality may be one of the reasons why. I think that at some point I am going to commit suicide. This scares me something terrible, but I don’t know what to do.” The Duke psychiatrist I saw wanted to hear nothing about my homosexuality; he suggested I keep my “problem” to myself, prescribing me the anti-anxiety drug Valium.

For much of my time on campus, I led a clandestine life, which made it hard to connect with others in any kind of meaningful way. Sorority formals with my serial-girlfriends by night; hanging out in the gay bars after midnight. When “blue jeans day” came the fall of my sophomore year, gay students and our supporters were urged to “come out” by wearing denim, the typical undergrad uniform. I’d say 90 percent of students rummaged through their closets to find khaki or corduroy that day—myself among them.

Fast forward to the mid-1980s: I was in grad school at Berkeley when the HIV/AIDS epidemic took over front pages. President Ronald Reagan famously refused to even say the word “AIDS,” much less fund prevention or treatment programs, and the Reverend Jerry Falwell just as infamously added: “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals, it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.” As a result, gay and straight friends of mine died from HIV, including Ron DeLuca, Jeff Amory, Bill Cox, and Denise Caldwell. Not to mention three young hemophiliacs I had befriended—Ricky, Robert, and Randy Ray.

Sex, love, and intimacy had become synonymous with illness, death, and hate—hardly the best foundation for a healthy relationship, much less marriage. Those days, those nights, and those decades were long ones. I felt lucky—and sometimes guilty—simply to have survived.

In 2004, I met the man who would become my “life partner” (as gay couples often were referred to then). Our first date came only a few months after Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. Soon enough Jim and I moved in together, but since we couldn’t marry, we spent thousands of dollars on legal documents to protect our assets—and to protect our asses— in case one of us was hospitalized or died. If we hadn’t signed power-of-attorney and health-proxy documents and created wills and trusts, we would not have had any legal standing in the event of a catastrophe. That was not paranoia. We had seen it happen time and again to friends.

Once same-sex marriage became legal in California, after the federal Defense of Marriage Act was shot down two years ago, Jim and I married in Marin County. Still, our marriage wasn’t recognized in our home state of North Carolina, which had banned same-sex couples from marrying. Last spring the prohibition was lifted, and the state was forced to recognize us as lawfully wed. Now we could call each other “husbands,” file joint income taxes, and speak for each other if one of us no longer could. Then just a few months ago the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land once and for all.

I was two weeks shy of my fifty-eighth birthday the day that ruling was announced—a lifetime away from the boy who had watched The Homosexuals on CBS. At the end of that program, a man hidden by a potted plant reveals a wish: “A family, a home, someplace where you belong, a place where you’re loved, where you can love somebody. And God knows I need to love somebody.” Yes, indeed.

I’ve been waiting and fighting for equality and acceptance for all those years in between. As I said, I’m happy about the ruling, and I’ll celebrate with anyone who wants to raise a glass to this moment in history. Please, though, just don’t tell me it happened fast.

Petrow ’78 is a journalist and author of five books, including Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners: The Definitive Guide to LBGT Life. His columns on modern-day civility have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, People, and Time, and in syndication.