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Jose Antonio Vargas Headshot

Gay Marriage and a New American Majority

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Amid the flood of coverage on President Obama's endorsement of gay marriage is a historical fact that warrants close attention: the country's first minority president, a son and student of the civil rights movement, openly addressing the need for full rights for another minority group fighting its own civil rights battle.

Of course the two movements intersect. Which is precisely why I instantly thought of James Baldwin upon hearing the president's welcome (though inevitable) embrace. Baldwin, arguably the most influential writer of the civil rights era, was African American and openly gay at a time when America wrestled with the black part and all but ignored the homosexual part. Baldwin came in full. He spoke, wrote and challenged a largely white and largely straight America to see him as a human being deserving of equal rights. He evoked truths that resonate with other minorities, may they be Asians or Latinos or undocumented immigrants -- anyone who's considered a minority, anyone who's felt rejected and thought of as "the other" in America.

All my life I've been a minority. Though I have a Hispanic name, I'm actually Asian -- Filipino, to be exact. ("What are you?" is a question that usually greets me when I visit predominantly white towns, particularly in the Midwest and the South.) In high school, I came out as gay. Twelve years later, after spending my 20s feeling shameful and fearful, I came out for the second time as an undocumented immigrant. As I write this, I still remember the jolt I felt while reading the text of a speech Baldwin once gave.

"Before we can begin to speak of minority rights in this country, we've got to make some attempt to isolate or to define the majority," Baldwin said. "We cannot discuss the state of our minorities until we first have a sense of what we are, who we are, what our goals are, and what we take life to be."

He titled the speech "In Search of a Majority."

Diversity is destiny in 21st century America. More women will hold positions of power. African Americans will keep breaking barriers. Demographically, the country will look more Latino and more Asian -- most of them documented, many of them without papers. And more members of the LGBT community, of all colors, not just gay and lesbian but also transgender people, will continue to come out, insisting that they, too, be seen as fully human, capable of love and worthy of marriage. A different American majority is emerging, and what it means to be a minority in a country that will soon be minority-majority is being redefined.

As a gay undocumented American, my generation is indebted to pioneers like Baldwin -- to older generations of LGBT activists who, through tears and agony, fought to be seen and treated fully. I'm thinking of well-known icons like Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, and Larry Kramer, the AIDS activist who forever changed the way we advocated for our lives and our health. But I'm also thinking of lesser-known trailblazers like Barbara Gittings, who worked tirelessly to disassociate being gay with being abnormal (a fight she helped win when the American Psychiatric Association dropped homosexuality as a mental illness in 1972), and Frank Kameny, arguably the godfather of the modern civil rights movement. A lifetime ago, Kameny, who was fired from his job with the Army Map Service because he was gay, picketed the White House, always in a three-piece suit, carrying signs that read "First Class Citizenship for Homosexuals" and "Homosexual Americans Demand Their Civil Rights." Those signs have become part of history, displayed in the Smithsonian. Kameny died last year, on National Coming Out Day.

In a profile for the Washington Post nearly seven years ago, Kameny, standing in his dusty attic and showing me his historic signs, told me: "The one thing that I want to be remembered for, if only one, is that in 1968, inspired by the slogan 'Black Is Beautiful,' I coined the term 'Gay Is Good.' "

To be sure, the fight for gay rights is far from over. Though Obama said he now supports gay marriage, he also pointed out that issue is to be decided by the states. The federal government still does not recognize same-sex marriage. It is illegal in some 44 states. Still, how I wish Kameny were alive to have watched his president acknowledged his full humanity.