Sunday, July 3, 2011

Pride in the Yankees

It was a good month to be proud – proud to be a New Yorker, proud to be on the right side of history. On June 24, New York became the largest state to legalize marriage equality. There were predictable howls, of course, but they were hard to hear amid the cries of joy. As though it had been staged, the vote came through on Friday night, still early enough to bring hordes of people to the Stonewall Inn, the bar where on June 28, 1969, riots began that presaged the modern gay civil rights movement. This night, things had come full circle. And with the annual Pride Parade on Sunday, it was icing – and a couple – on the cake.

With a majority vote and the governor's signature, citizens became that much more equal and the union that much more perfect.

But what took so long? Because for every person who insists it's too soon, that humanity isn't ready for single-sex marriage, there are hundreds of others who are sorry and ashamed that the path to equality in what's supposed to be one of the freest nations on earth has been so slow and rocky, to say nothing of unfinished.

Future citizens will cringe. Much as we cringe at photos of water fountains with the word "Colored" tacked over them, or at images of Phyllis Schlafly leading the battle against the Equal Rights Amendment, so will there be universal shuddering at photos of the 2008 California state ballot, with Proposition 8 inside – people's basic civil rights, being put to a vote, as though the rights of people to live and love as they want were no different than determining allocation of funds for state parks.

But as Martin Luther King Jr. said, "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." We rarely move with the haste we should, but we do move. We turn our anger into power, and we achieve change.

And it does take anger. Organizations like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis had worked tirelessly to achieve gay rights, but the rage unleashed by Stonewall pushed everything out into the open. It's a point made in Larry Kramer's 1985 play 'The Normal Heart,' fortuitously in revival on Broadway. The play is about the rise of the AIDS crisis. At the time, it was a call to action. Now, it is history.

Thirty years ago, on July 3, 1981, the New York Times published its first article about AIDS. It was written by Lawrence K. Altman and called "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals." The slowness of state, government, and media to take action during the early days of the pandemic is another point that makes us cringe – San Francisco ran rings around New York in pouring money into health care. In 'The Normal Heart,' a character asks why those who rioted at Stonewall and formed the Gay Liberation Front didn't fight for right to get married, instead of the right to legitimize promiscuity. Later, it's pointed out that "Maybe if they'd let us get married to begin with, none of this would have happened at all."

With the "Defense of Marriage Act" still federal law, 'The Normal Heart' isn't yet as purely historical as we'd like it to be.

'The Normal Heart' won three Tony Awards on June 12, 2011. The ceremony was hosted by openly gay actor Neil Patrick Harris and featured an opening number in which he sang that Broadway "is not just for gays anymore." It was hilarious and even audacious and highlighted the historical home theatre has always been for gay men and women. But the Tonys of the past few years are also remarkable for what hasn't been part of the ceremony. As the 1980s wore on, the "In Memoriam" segment featured dozens of young men. Year after year, the audience was shown an entire generation of theatre professionals being destroyed. Those faces, each a slap in the nation's face for not doing more, more quickly, have been mercifully absent in recent years. The men, and the theatre, are alive.

We're still too far away from full equality for all citizens. But New York took an important step towards making what was once deviant, normal. And for that, we can be truly proud.