The headlines have been amazing these past few weeks. Support for marriage equality reached nearly 60% and more than 80% amongst Americans under 30 (1). More than half of the U.S. Senate now supports marriage equality (2). The American Academy of Pediatrics joined the American Academy of Family Physicians and other major medical organizations in recognizing marriage equality as a public health issue (3). Conservatives commentators from Bill O’Reilly to Rush Limbaugh acknowledged that those supporting marriage equality have won the fight (4).
The chart at the top says it all. There has been a sea change amongst Americans in favor of marriage equality. Some (including our Vice President and former Senator Rick Santorum) cite media, especially Will & Grace and Glee, as the reason (5). While this is definitely part of the equation, it tells an incomplete story.
The true story took two generations. One generation fought for 30 years after the gay rights movement found its voice at Stonewall, a fight, without which, Will & Grace would not have even been possible. The next generation, my generation, of gay and lesbian Americans built upon the work done for decades before we came of age. We came out of the closet in droves; we changed the language; we refused to be marginalized.
In March, Rob Portman of Ohio became the first Republican in the Senate to announce his support of marriage equality. He said that he wanted his gay son to have the same opportunities in his relationships that others have (6). Senator Rob Portman’s story, and so many like his, is the main reason why mainstream America has embraced gay and lesbian relationships as no different than their own.
Eleven years after coming out to my parents–the most awesome and loving two people on the planet, imho–my relationship with them is stronger than any time before. Having moved just a mile and a half from me, they spend each day helping us raise my daughter. When I’m out of town for AAFP meetings, my husband often eats dinner with my parents. My mother has figured out Tim’s favorite foods which fill containers in our fridge.
While always supportive after I told them I was gay during winter break of my first year of medical school, they have definitely come a long way. Back in 2001, they were probably amongst the majority in believing that same gender couples should be denied the rights and privileges of marriage. Nine years later, my mother stood with me on top of the Odyssey II in Lake Michigan during my wedding ceremony, and my father gave a speech welcoming our guests during our reception.
During the last 15+ years, so many came out of the closet in their communities. For my parents–a pair of generally conservative immigrants from India–like so many Americans, gays and lesbians went from being an upsetting fringe group bucking the trend to being their sons, sisters, nephews, and cousins; their friends, classmates, teammates, and coworkers. Gay and lesbian couples became gay and lesbian families, with the same love and comfort, struggles and needs as any other.
In the first years after I came out, my mother asked me why I had to talk about my personal life in medical school. I retorted that there was no difference between me talking to others about my boyfriend than any of my colleagues in opposite-gender relationships, that just by being gay, it wasn’t—and shouldn’t be—any more “personal” than anyone coming out as straight through talk of their opposite-gender significant others.
I wasn’t alone in refusing to be marginalized in this way, though it really started many decades before by folks such as Harvey Milk, who said it best: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/641471-gay-brothers-and-sisters-you-must-come-out-come-out
Not only did gays and lesbians come out in droves during the last two decades, but we built upon the work of the previous generation of gays and lesbians and took control of the language. Gays and lesbians of the next generation dropped terms like “homosexual” which emphasized the sexual nature of relationships, ignoring the emotional. Words like “preference” as if it was a switch, and “lifestyle” went away from our vernacular. As we fought to end the second-class status of our relationships, we also stopped using second-class terms. The previous generation paved the way with “commitment ceremonies” with their “partners,” introducing the world to our families. By 2010, no one, straight or gay, called my wedding anything but, or Tim anything other than my “husband.”
The story of marriage equality will be told in two parts. It took a generation of struggles to end the invisibility from Stonewall in June of 1969 until the first episode of Will & Grace in September of 1998, bringing gays and lesbians from under the shadows and the fringe into mainstream communities. It took the next 15 years of gays and lesbians to fight the marginalization, being out and proud and move public opinion so dramatically in favor of equal treatment of our families.
Hopefully, in another 15 years and beyond, America will look back and see another generation of growth in society as we codify marriage equality into law throughout the country, end institutional acceptance of bullying, find a cure for and vaccine against HIV, and fight marginalization of our transgender brothers and sisters.