I wrote this two years ago, and today much of it still rings true. . . . Especially the last paragraph. I do mourn the lost time in getting to this glorious day on which the Supreme Court of the United States of America finally that the bonds and protections of marriage are legal and binding nationwide, but it should not have taken this long. And the decision should remind us that there is still a terrible disparateness in human rights in the country; women and minorities, neither of which is in the minority at all, are still oppressed, and the rights of gun owners are killing our loved ones. We have a long way to go before we have achieved liberty and justice for all, and while I celebrate this momentous day, I want my granddaughters to live in a society of true equal rights.
June 3, 2013
The announcement on Wednesday of the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred federal recognition of same-sex marriages, is unconstitutional set me to thinking about Gay Pride Day, a day we take for granted in New York, an institution. This year it will be more raucous than ever, and with good reason. Yet, as the day approaches, I await, as I always do, with awe, elation . . . and with no small amount of sadness.
It is easy to forget how recently there were so few who were straight without being narrow, so few gay men and women able to admit who they were in public, so few willing to support the notion that being gay was no less normal than being straight. Back then, we whispered secret messages, talked about “gaydar” and prayed whenever one of our friends went out for the night that he or she would be back unbruised, unbowed from a night of partying.
In that distant past of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, gay men often sought beards to protect them from the prying sensibilities of those who might want to out them, and when I, a naïve innocent from upstate New York, arrived on the dating scene with my tentative self image, I was immediately identified as one who would do very nicely.
My very first boyfriend was Mark, a Native American from outside Santa Fe, and he was the perfect match for me. A fellow theater major at the University of New Mexico, he knew just how to make me happy. Squiring me around in his fancy sports car – we even ran away together over spring break to escape the boredom and would have landed in NY if the car had not thrown a rod – he took me to plays and films, taught me to order alcohol, introduced me to all kinds of excitement and never expected me to “put out.” I was 17 and as grateful for his companionship as he was for mine; we co-shielded until I finally found a way to get to New York. I adored him, and I thoroughly enjoyed his friends and family.
When I moved to New York, a bit older and slightly more worldly wise, I was comfortable within that niche I had created with Mark. Uncomfortable with women, I chose to room with gay men instead. At Mark’s behest, I had read City of Night, which led me to expect that things should be far more liberated and out in the open in NYC, but to my dismay, people were nearly as closeted and far more anxious about being outed because here the threat of discovery was far more ominous – night life, clandestine and guarded as it was, was always in some Nosey Parker’s purview.
My last roommate before marriage changed me into a less participatory but equally supportive friend was Barry. Barry was gorgeous – a raven-haired Ned Romero type, tall, muscular, with seemingly black eyes that burned a hole in your heart if he caught your gaze, and a cleft in his chin that looked as though it would be a nifty place to go spelunkering. A brilliant young man who wanted to be a filmmaker if only he could find a camera, Barry drank too heavily, smoked too constantly, and loved too voraciously. He had a lover named Donny, who would today be called his partner. Donny was the gentlest poet I have yet to meet, a deep thinker who adored being challenged by Barry, and it seemed like the two of them had it all; but Barry was restless. He wanted more than anyone could give him. He wanted to be out in the open, to let everyone know that he was gay and proud, and unashamed to be all that he could be.
Which, I guess, is why Barry attempted suicide in the wee hours of the morning following Mother’s Day, 1969, a brief month before the Stonewall Uprising. I had spent the weekend at home with my mother in the Adirondacks and had gone to sleep late, worried I wouldn’t awake in time to catch the early morning bus back to the city.
Mom came into my room and called my name. I didn’t budge. She called me again. Still no response. Then she said, “Carla, Barry’s on the phone.” It was Barry’s name that woke me. “I think there is something terribly wrong.”
There was. A many-hour struggle ensued. I had to call the State Police who called the local precinct in Chelsea where our apartment was, and they in turn called the fire department, who broke down the door and took him to St. Vincent’s to have his stomach pumped. He had taken enough Secanol and Demerol to kill a wilderness of monkeys, but he survived. When I got to the hospital later that day – an eight-hour bus ride sans the solace of information (how did we survive before cellphones and texting!) — he was in ICU. The nurses allowed me to see him briefly, and he was only quasi-conscious.
When he did wake up, he told me to leave him alone. “I didn’t want you to save me,” he said, his black eyes dripping with remorse. “I wanted to be free. I just can’t stand the charade anymore.”
We lost touch . I married, had children. AIDS happened. I lost a nephew who was far too young, far too gentle, just like the friends I watched suffer and die. Then things changed, albeit too slowly for too many. I am positive that Barry fell to AIDS; he was a prime candidate, and so many of our less vulnerable friends did.
In 1982, when I was living in Phoenix, the phone again rang in the wee hours of the morning, and I answered with trepidation. This time at the other end was the poet, Barry’s lover. “Carla.” The voice was unmistakable; few deliciously true bass voices exist in my world of then or now. “Donny.” There was a long moment of breathing. Nothing else. Then, “I just wanted to know if you were still alive,” he finally said and hung up.
I am guessing, though I cannot be sure, that Barry was already not alive. I never heard from Donny again, and I wish I knew if where he might be, if he yet lives, though I fear he probably does not.
For Barry and for Donny and for so many other friends I made and cherished over those years, I weep whenever I see the Gay Pride Parade pass by, as I wept when the Supreme Court made its positive but still wishy-washy decision the other day. So many Donnys and Barrys and gave their freedom, their tears, their blood to the fight; those of our generation who managed to stay together through the decades can now at least “enjoy” the benefits of widowhood, can stop being taxed and fined for their inheritances and can claim the social security payments that are rightfully theirs.
But those men and women who cannot partake of the limited bounty, those who did not live to see these days and those who lost their partners far too soon must be remembered. They earned the right to be celebrated, to be recalled with gratitude for what their lives have wrought.
So I wave, and I cheer, remembering the laughter and the nonsense of it all; and I am glad the gay community finally pulled together, invoked some sanity from the non-gay world and affected all this positivity. I am grateful that except for the –finally! – infrequent backlash to the movement, gays can be who they are with impunity.
But I mourn for the years lost, the lives lost, the dreams lost because up till now the world was blinded to an essential reality that has always seemed so crystal clear to me. It is far easier to find happiness by taking pride in one another’s humanity than to invoke stress by worrying about what consenting adults might be doing under the bedcovers in their own privy chambers.