Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Progress But Not Enough

The Gay Struggle 

by Bill Holmes

It has been a pretty good run lately for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community. There is still a long way to go, hell we still have a long way to go with racial and women equality, but we are making progress. An active NBA basketball player has come out of the closet and acknowledged being gay, the first active athlete in a major men's sport. He has mostly received support from the athletic community. More states are sanctioning same sex marriages even as the federal government fails to give equal rights to all our citizens. The US Supreme Court will soon rule on the California ban of same sex marriages. According to polls a majority of the US population now accepts gay marriage or at least doesn't oppose it.  Many companies, governments and organizations are allowing insurance benefits to partners and spouses of all persuasions. The military now realizes that there are gays in the ranks and those service women and men can finally openly admit it. All this is good news but we are not through ensuring equal rights, opportunity and acceptance to the LGBT folks.

When I was growing up there was very little awareness of gays, in fact gay was not the normal word used to describe homosexuals. We had slang and slur words to describe them. I lived in Florida when Castro's victory caused many Cubans to immigrate to our country. The Catholic church provided much assistance to those immigrants including placing the children in Catholic schools. There were several placed in my elementary school. One of the first Spanish cuss/slur words I learned from those kids was their derogatory term for homosexuals. A term they used a lot not so much to identify a gay person but as a general putdown like SOB or asshole. Back then gays were not talked about, barely acknowledged to exist and certainly not accepted. The few guys I went to school with who were probably gay were called sissies. We made fun of them not because they were gay but because they were effeminate or couldn't throw a baseball or play football or like one I knew, fainted in biology lab. If there was a butch gay guy he would never even register on our radar. Guys didn't really know much about lesbians but there were a few girls that seemed a little masculine. Maybe the girls were more aware of lesbians in their midst. About 99.9% of gays in the 1950's and 60's were in the closet.

My awareness of gays changed while I was in college. I didn't decide to go to the University of South Florida (USF) until the last minute. I had been accepted to William & Mary and planned to go there. When no dorm space was available at William & Mary the full financial impact hit me. As an out of state student living off campus it was going to be damn expensive. I quickly went to my fallback choice of USF. Because it was a late decision I hadn't lined up a roommate so the school assigned one to me. It actually turned out very well. For whatever reason, I was assigned to one of the new dorms that consisted of suites rather than just a room with bunks, a couple of desks and a giant bathroom at the end of the hall. The suites had two single beds per bedroom (2 people), two bedrooms per study area (4 people) and two suites separated by a double bathroom (8 people). My first roommate was a guy from St. Petersburg who went home every weekend and decided to commute from home after a trimester or two. My second totally random roommate, Bob, was gay. Of course I didn't know that at the time. We got along fine but didn't hang out together socially very much. 

A couple of years later when I was going to move to Atlanta to pursue my fortunes it turned out that Bob was also going to Atlanta. He was going for a trimester or quarter, whatever term length we were on then, for a work-study assignment. He was going to work at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Since I had a studio apartment lined up I offered him a place to stay. It was a small furnished studio that I took over from a friend when he got married. It was a little crowded when Bob was there but since I usually worked at night and he worked during the day we weren't there at the same time very often. On weekends, if we happened to want to sleep at the same time, he slept on the spare bed/couch thing. Otherwise we both used the convertible sofa bed which was much more comfortable. That foldout bed stayed open most of the time even though it pretty much filled the room. Single guys in there twenties don't spend much time at home except to sleep, shower and shave.

By this time I had strong suspicions that Bob was gay but he didn't tell me and I didn't ask. It was our own version of the later military policy. We got along fine but still didn't socialize together very often. Part of that was because we were on different work schedules. At the end of the term, Bob went back to USF.

Over the next year or two, Bob came back to Atlanta two or three more times. He always stayed with me and I was happy to have him. He would pay part of the rent and he would also cook. Bob was of Italian heritage and his Mamma and Nonna taught him how to cook. He was good at it and liked to do it. At the time I was not a kitchen expert and welcomed some real food. Cooking in that small kitchen was a challenge. Besides being cramped, if you opened the window the pilot on the stove was likely to blow out. It's a wonder we didn't either blow ourselves up or die from asphyxiation. We didn't have an abundance of cooking equipment either.

Each time Bob came back to Atlanta he dropped more hints about his sexual preferences and lifestyle. A couple of times he invited me to go with him to his friend's parties. We lived in the Piedmont, Georgia Tech, 10th Street area which was full of hippies and mostly young people. Many of his friends also lived in the area. These parties were like all the other parties that 20 year old people went to circa 1970. Low lights, incense, alcoholic beverages, some pot and In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida playing on a record player or FM radio. I don't know if everybody but me was gay but the straight folks were definitely a minority. There were a few girls in attendance too but not many. None of the guys ever made a move on me. I don't know if Bob told them I was straight, if they knew from my demeanor or if I was just plain unattractive to them. There was never any tension or uncomfortableness. It was just a group of folks having a good time.

Bob also began leaving gay magazines around the apartment. Not out on the coffee table but in places I was pretty sure to find them. By then I was already sure Bob was gay but I wasn't very empathetic, sympathetic or supportive. I didn't care that he was gay and it didn't bother me and I wasn't afraid he would try to convert me or that his gayness was catching. It's just that I was wrapped up in my own life.

One night he came home pretty drunk and disheveled. I happened to be there which was unusual because I was usually at work or out with my friends getting drunk and disheveled. That night he broke down and blurted out to me that he was gay and how terrible he was. Bob had an Italian and Catholic upbringing. Neither Italians or the Catholic church are very tolerant of gays or their lifestyle. It was also circa 1970 and gays were not generally accepted and were discriminated against. Bob was racked with guilt and knew he was going to hell. We talked for a long time. For the first time we talked about the elephant in the room and although that pachyderm never bothered me it obviously bothered him. He cried and vented and talked about lots of things. I mostly listened and tried to be supportive but I probably did a poor job of that. I was too young and ignorant to be much help. The next day our routines were mostly back to normal but there were slight changes. We were a little more open with each other. Bob seemed more comfortable around me. Is it politically correct to say that he was a little gayer around me in private. There was no longer any need to hide it.

A few weeks after that Bob's work study term ended and he went back to USF. He graduated the next term and I lost contact with him. He went on to whatever career he had and I moved from Atlanta and that studio apartment. I'm sorry we lost touch and I'm sorry we weren't closer friends.

During our time together as college and Atlanta roommates I learned about gays. I learned that except for their sexual preferences gays are just like straight folks. They go through all the same emotions we go through but with a few extra burdens. In 1970 they had to stay in the closet if they wanted a career in all but a very few fields. They had to fight their internal demons and guilt because they had been told all their life that homosexuality was immoral and a sin. I learned that many gays didn't want to admit it even to themselves. Who would choose to be a member of an oppressed minority?

Conditions have changed for the better since 1970. Gays gave gained more rights and much of society is far more tolerant. Better is not good enough though. I suspect that LGBT people will eventually achieve all the rights that heterosexuals have. I hope eventually comes very soon.

The resistance to gay rights and gay marriage is based in religion, culture, prejudice, ignorance, unfamiliarity and a few other things. Like all denial of human rights issues, we will look back on these times and wonder what were we thinking. Remember, interracial marriage used to be illegal in many states not so long ago. It wasn't until the US Supreme Court ruling in 1967 that those laws were stricken down as unconstitutional. About 15 states still had anti-miscegenation laws on the books in 1967. The Nazis forbade Jews and gentile mixed marriages. South Africa had apartheid. At one time commoners couldn't marry royalty and on and on. Over the years we have eliminated those restrictions and now look back on many of them as barbaric. What were we thinking?

So why are different minority groups like the LGBT community still having to fight for equal rights? I wish I knew the answer. I understand if you have religious beliefs that are against homosexuality and don't want your church to perform or sanction same sex marriages. What I don't understand is trying to force those beliefs on others. Your religion may differ from Hindus too but you don't try to legislate against Hindu marriages (unless those Hindus are gay). Whether you want to admit it or not this is prejudice. Two men marrying or two women marrying will not harm you or your family any more than a black marrying a white or a Jew and a gentile tying the knot. You can believe that they are going to hell but your definition of damnation behavior doesn't dictate other's behavior or restrict their rights.

It's OK to have your beliefs and your prejudices. You can even espouse them in public. Just don't try to force others to have those same beliefs or to live by yours. If the actions or behavior don't harm you then mind your own business.

I hope Bob is alive and well. If he has a partner I hope he is able to marry if he chooses. I hope he has equal insurance coverage as heterosexual couples. If he chose to have children I hope he was able to. I hope he has all the rights that a US citizen and human being is entitled to and should have. Bob was a good man, far better than many people I've dealt with during my life. I think we only had one real argument or disagreement during all the time we roomed together. That disagreement had nothing to do  with our sexual preferences or lifestyle. How many people you have lived with can you say that about? I'm thankful that I had the opportunity to live with a gay man and be exposed to the gay community when I was young. It spared me from developing misconceptions and prejudices about LGBT's. It's not unusual that we accept that which we become familiar with. There's no need to rely on cliches when you have real life experiences.

Embrace your beliefs but don't impose them on others. Be tolerant of others. If you can do that you will be happier and less stressed. We are a country of many differences. Gender and sexual preference are just a couple of those differences. The LGBT community is a small percentage of our population. They will not take over the country. There aren't enough of them and they're not as well armed as many other segments of our society.

We've made progress but we're not done with the journey yet. One day I hope that a professional athlete can mention they are gay or are marrying someone of the same gender and everybody just nods and says OK. Business as usual. No lead story on all the newscasts for several days. No endless parade of experts and professional talking heads analyzing the impact on our survival as a civilization. No Twitter storm from those either in support or appalled. No Op-Ed pieces. And no blogs from old farts like me. I hope I'm still around when that day comes.



  1. Terrific article Bill. I had a similar experience with one of my lifelong friends. It is I think one of the drivers about my attitude towards the issue. I couldn't see any difference between my friend and me except his sexual preference. We played on the same baseball teams, like the same music, cars, movies, etc. My friend wasn't the "monster" the typical attitude toward gays at the time would suggest. He was in my view acutely normal. Anyway thanks for sharing the story. I bet many people have had a similar experience and some had very good friends who were gay but so closeted they didn't even know it. E have enough things that divide us, this shouldn't be one of them.

    1. Thank you Dennis. I get the feeling that you, like me, are grateful that you were exposed to Gays early in life.