When I was a kid, growing up in the sixties, “fag” was about the worst thing one could be called. Of course, it had nothing to do with sexual orientation; it was merely a demeaning epithet slung in anger. Long after the word “nigger” was banished from our vocabulary, “fag” was bandied about easily. Even nice, seemingly enlightened people would occasionally mince and lisp mocking homosexuals.
Twenty years ago, a 1996 poll found that just 27% of the population supported gay marriage (the question could not have been asked by a serious pollster in the 60s or 70s). A poll done this week, coincident with the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell that legalized same sex marriage in the US, found that 60% of respondents supported gay marriage. That’s a really amazing change in social attitudes over just two decades.
I’m not really interested in trying to determine how such a change came about (although I’d be interested to read about it), so I’m going to speculate. Looking over the nearly six decades that comprise my life, the change in attitudes is completely remarkable. Gay people have transitioned from outcast perverts to respectable citizens in my lifetime.
The only thing that I can think of that explains the attitude shift is this: some brave individuals “came out” before it was very safe to do so. Then, other gay people felt more able to be public about their sexuality. With each wave of coming out, it became easier and easier to admit the fact of homosexuality. Meanwhile, more and more people realized that they knew gay people and accepted that. This made it easier still for gay people to decide to “come out.” Lather, rinse, repeat.
When I was a kid, no one knew any gay people — and, if someone did, it was a major secret. There were obviously gay entertainers like Liberace and Paul Lynde but the media made no effort to divulge the secret. I’m nearly 60 years old; I have a number of out, gay friends. The gradual opening of the closet eventually caused the door to swing open with a bang. No one can pretend they don’t know anyone who’s gay.
Another recent poll found that people who self identify as gay or lesbian comprise 1.6% of the population. As we celebrate the Supreme Court decision that ameliorated the injustice perpetrated on homosexuals, we should also reflect on this: for most of my life, well over five million gay and lesbian people in the US were 2nd class citizens with attenuated civil rights. That’s a sad thing to think about — even as we stand pleased with the ruling that ended this sort of institutional bigotry in the US.