All this is getting hard to take. Chris Matthews was just addressing the question, Why have numbers changed so quickly in favor of equal marriage? His answer and the answer of his guests, was that it had to do with the numbers of gay people who have come out. Every straight body, it seems, knows a person who is gay, and it becomes increasingly difficult to deny basic human rights to someone so familiar. Coming out, in this view, is a tactic for fighting the homophobia of straight people.
I don’t believe a word of it. We all know gay men and women who came out years ago—some in their teens, some since then—and whose biological families have treated them like shit, with bigotry and hatred, and who have continued to do so for decades. The people who knew these gay men and women best were completely unaffected by knowing them.
In Maine, during the summer of 1984, after the murder of Charles Howard, the local newspaper considered the options available to the community to restore calm and order. The paper acknowledged that many people in the city of Bangor, Maine, just wanted gay people now marching through the streets of the city“to return to the closet.” But what are citizens to do, the paper questioned, “if gay people will not go back into the closet?”
That gets it exactly right. It is emphatically not true that gay people, coming out, will change the hearts and minds of bigoted citizens. But if we come out and then refuse to go back in again, if we pursue our own course, if we know what we want, and if we fight relentlessly for it, then, then, we can grasp victory.
This is what has been happening for the last forty years or more. Men and women have come out, and then have refused to go back in. They have fought relentlessly for the things that matter to them. And they have never given in. The whole history of the marriage equality movement is a testament to our perseverance. The fight started in Hawaii in 1993 and moved on for the next twenty years to the sequence of states that have adopted marriage equality since Massachusetts adopted it in 2004. This happened because the gay people who were out were relentless and refused to give up and fought for it year after year after year. We have had more stamina than our opponents. It is likely that we have been clearer about our goals than our opponents. We have been smarter about tactics, and wiser about choosing our allies.
We fought, and gradually the American people have joined us, not because they were finally getting to know gay men and women and found us sweet—we have been their brothers and sisters and their sons and daughters and their fathers and their mothers and their husbands and their wives for the last several hundred years—but because what they began to know about us was that we were fighters and that we wouldn’t give up. We will never give up. Being nice and unthreatening had no part of it. We had a better goal, a clearer goal, and we had better lawyers, and, as the Times said of the New York victory, bigger donors.
In the years since Stonewall, if we have come out, I suspect it was to find a more comfortable and safe place for ourselves. My own motivation for divorcing my wife and moving to Boston didn’t have anything to do with the gay community’s needing me in the fight against the straight world. And that is right. But that made me fight harder and more effectively for my causes. And none of this had anything to do with straight people. The fight, the parameters of the fight, the definition of all the terms, the way we were going to fight, and the people we were going to fight with, had long been defined before the gay community had accumulated a significant number of straight allies. We did this for ourselves.