Homosexual assimilation has sort of been swept under the rug in recent years. Many prominent people we all already knew were gay have come out of the closet and what with Will & Grace and everything, isn’t the gay thing just a little overplayed? Haven’t we reached an apex of tolerance and understanding? Aren’t we all comfortable with “civil unions” and an uneven playing field for young gay individuals growing up in one part of the nation and another for young gays elsewhere?
Well, no. When gay hate crimes happen on 9th Avenue in Chelsea (1) and at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village (2), considered the birthplace of gay rights for more than 40 years, that means that so much of what has to be said isn’t being said and so much of what needs to be done isn’t being done.
But it isn’t even just the story of older, out, gay men being slandered on and hated for who they are. The recent news of Tyler Clementi jumping off the George Washington Bridge (3) to his own death should be a sobering reminder that it’s a different world we’re living in but there are the same old problems and the same old confused shame. Clementi was a very scared young man who had his world turned upside down quite obviously before he was ready when images and video leaked of his engaging in sex acts with another male student. Actually “leaked” isn’t the right terminology; broadcast is more like it. Clementi’s roommate at Rutgers broadcast the encounter live on a webcam.
While a similar incident to the Clementi suicide may have happened for, say, a fundamentalist Orthodox young lady having her own first sexual encounter broadcast back to her parents and to the world at large, there is definitely a stigma which goes along with being ‘outed’ by someone else. And while sex before marriage may be shameful, it typically doesn’t lead to suicide.
And that really gets down to the brass tacks of it.
If we can’t be operating in this nation with a level playing field than nothing will ever get better. Kids like Clementi who feel as though they would be ‘shaming’ their families by being gay will continue to live in the shadows. If and when these same kids are outed before they are ready, there will continue to be Tyler Clementi’s in places as far flung as the Great North Country of Michigan to the urban ghetto of major metropolitan areas to sunny and tolerant liberal Mecca’s despite the fact that they are tolerant already.
‘But Jesse,’ you may say, ‘how does gay rights affect you?’ After all, I’m not gay. I’m a happily married, well adjusted, hetero-sexual man. I also have scores of friends who are gay, all at different stages in their comfort with that. My friend “Dan” in Los Angeles moved clear across the country before he told his Portuguese mother and father that he was gay. My friend “Roy” from Tennessee who carried around a picture of his beauty queen girlfriend like Napoleon Dynamite in college, finally told the rest of the world what we all already knew, even if he still hasn’t talked about how his Southern-Baptist parents took the news. And I work in the theatre, where ‘surprise’ – probably half the guys here are gay. I work around gays, I socialize with gays, I, like Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, even keep it gay.
Lawmakers in New York need to take the lead so that the rest of America follows and really make a push to level the playing field for homosexuals in public life. You can’t change people’s attitudes towards individuals but lawmakers can change the tenor of the discussion so that being gay is no longer something to be ashamed of, rather something to celebrate and something to be proud of.