Pilgrim’s Progress: When I was growing up in Chicago in the 1930s and ’40s, there were no gays among the millions of residents. None.
There really were, of course, but they were invisible. On the South Side, land of stockyards and steel mills, where I worked in the labor gang one summer, it wasn’t a popular thing to be. In Chicago’s ethnic quilt of tough neighborhoods, it was okay to be Polish, Latvian, Hungarian, Puerto Rican, Irish, or what have you. In black neighborhoods it was okay to be black.
But gay? The word then, of course, was homosexual, along with slurs in all languages.
In college, down at the University of Illinois, downstate at Champaign-Urbana, there were no gays either. In the Army, where I went after that, same thing.
And if there were no gays, they couldn’t be thinking of getting married, either. Looking back today, the seething hatred was stunning, almost as stunning as the turnabout in Americans’ social attitudes.
We have changed, as a people, despite the appalling lack of religious leadership on the issue. Some will remember that same-sex marriage was legal in California for a few months in 2008. I watched at the Santa Barbara Courthouse as couples arrived for marriage licenses. I wished that opponents of same-sex marriage had been there to witness firsthand the couples, many of them middle-aged, others with young children, smiling happily.
It was not a noisy celebration. It was one of dignity and, like the sun above that day, shining with love and peace. On June 16, 2008, the California Supreme Court had ruled that same-sex marriage was protected by the U.S. Constitution’s equal-protection clause. Not five months later, on November 5, California’s Proposition 8, banning gay marriage, passed.
In 2010, a federal judge ruled Prop. 8 unconstitutional. Last year, a federal circuit court upheld the ruling. But same-sex marriage remained in limbo pending an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2008, the forces of hate and bigotry, taking cues from the Mormon Church — and its infusion of campaign money — and from the Catholic Church, launched the hate campaign that convinced a majority of California voters to say yes to the ban. This week, California has been awaiting the Supreme Court’s ruling.
But now, there’s every reason to believe that even if the court declares Proposition 8 constitutional, the issue will go right back onto the ballot and same-sex marriage will again be legal here.
California has changed. I’ve changed. I covered civil-rights battles during the struggle for equal opportunity for black people. For many years, states banned marriage between white people and Asians and blacks. That’s over.
Some people I’ve spoken to have claimed that gays want “special rights.” To me, it’s human rights, plain and simple. Back in Chicago, back then, gay marriage would have been a civil wrong, and as a kid playing in the streets of Chicago, it was the last thing I expected to see — that and having a black president.
I knew a young man in Santa Barbara who grew up painfully bullied in school because he was gay. He went on to serve faithfully in the Navy. He’s dead now. Why should he have had to go through that? Perhaps, in today’s more enlightened world, he would have had a better time in school.
I know another man, highly educated, a boon to society. He has a loving relationship with his partner. I don’t know if marriage is on their horizon, but I want them to have the chance. And I’d be honored to be the best man.