Human beings tend to have selectively short memories. The way things are now is, to most minds, the way things have always has been. Pitched social battles which produced untold suffering for untold millions of people are, once won, soon simply accepted as "oh, yeah; so what else is new?" How many people today, really remember the Holocaust? Who remembers Jim Crow laws and officially sanctioned segregation? And who, in ten years, will remember "Don't Ask, Don't Tell?"
A friend in New York saw a Saturday matinee of La Cage aux Folles on Broadway recently, and noted that there was a large contingent of high school students in the audience, and that while the girls all seemed to love it, some of the boys appeared to be a bit uncomfortable...I'm not sure whether it was the drag elements or the homosexuality. Probably it was just a reflection of the teenage desire not to seem different from their peers--90 percent of whom, statistically, are heterosexual--and their desire to live up to the stereotypical "male image."
But it struck me that, even if they were uncomfortable, they were being exposed to something I and those of my generation never had the chance to witness: gays openly portrayed as actual human beings.
It's almost impossible to realize, now, that until the middle of the 20th century, which ended little more than a decade ago, gays and lesbians were never portrayed on stage, screen or in books other than as either as comedy-relief swishy stereotypes of the worst sort, or as warped, doomed souls who invariably committed suicide for the disgrace of being gay.
What those teenage boys were doing, by being exposed to gays, was in effect being inoculated against the deadly disease of hatred based solely on ignorance.
I grew up in a time where to be gay was a crime in many states, and where gays had absolutely no legal defense against any form of harassment. If you were gay, you could be fired or thrown out of your apartment for being discovered to be gay. It was not unheard of for parents who found their children were gay to have them institutionalized and subjected to electroshock treatments. Being gay was considered a mental illness until the 1950s.
Gay bars never had front windows, often were entered through a rear door off an alley, and were subject to the most egregious forms of police harassment. When I lived in Los Angeles in the late 60s and early 70s, police would routinely raid gay bars with no just cause other than that they were gay. It was not uncommon for them to enter a bar in which there were only ten patrons seated at various places throughout the establishment, and say "you, you, you, and you" and arrest them for "lewd and lascivious conduct." Police entrapment in parks and public areas was a source of steady income for the city. The victim of entrapment had no recourse. If it was a matter of your word against a policeman's, who do you think the court would believe? The harassment did not stop in L.A. until, during one raid on a bar called The Black Cat, a patron was beaten to death by the police.
Even in our own clubs, slow dancing by same-sex couples was cause for arrest. I've told the story of belonging to a private club owned by a former policeman whose contempt for faggots was offset by his love of the money they spent in his club. It was one of the few places in L.A. where we could slow dance. The dance floor and bar area was entered through a lobby where membership cards were examined. When the police would come in, whoever was on the desk would push a hidden button, lights would flash in the main room, and gays and lesbians dancing would immediately switch partners to someone of the opposite sex. It was utterly stupid, utterly pointless--the police knew perfectly well what was going on, but they couldn't catch anyone--it was simply the way it was.
And two weeks ago I attended Chicago's Gay Pride parade, which has become the city's second largest annual parade, with 700,000 other people for whom being gay, if not simply a normal part of their lifestyle, is no different than being Irish or left-handed.
We're still not where we should be, but we can take comfort from knowing we're well on our way.
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