In beginning this blog on The Huffington Post's new Gay Voices section, I decided to share my extraordinary encounter with a person who is larger than life and the lesson it taught me about the importance gay rights has in the ordinary, everyday lives of LGBT folks. Our fight has not been for special rights; it has been for equality in domestic living.
I was about to fly home from San Diego to Newark when I received what every business frequent flier adores: a first-class upgrade. Getting settled into my roomier seat, I immediately took on my well-developed "don't speak to me" attitude, wanting no intrusions from the person to my right. But, 15 minutes after takeoff, I felt a tap on my arm and knew my solitude was about to be disturbed. Looking in the eyes of my seat partner as I answered her question, I suddenly realized I was speaking to Liza Minnelli. My inner voice was pleading with me to keep it together. Calmly, I asked if I was correct about her identity. Receiving smiling confirmation, I raised my hands to my face and loudly exclaimed, "Oh, my God!" Hysterical words continued to spill out of my mouth, and poor Liza suddenly offered me my own usual indifference to in-flight conversation. I really blew it.
There are certain iconic personalities who provide meaning and allure for many gay men. Liza is certainly one of them. Celebrity women whose unbridled flair masks an underlying vulnerability can offer a symbolic character of our experience of being different. While being different can be exciting to some degree, it can also create threat and fear in the minds of those who are uncomfortable with what our difference represents. We who experience this vulnerable position within the larger society need to find a power that can sustain us and drive us to be courageous. While Liza's performances are imbued with celebration and an underlying passion, there is something about her own vulnerability that makes us anxious for her or the character she may represent. As she has aged as a performer, this tension has been heightened as the audience wonders if she can still hit all the notes, if she will make it to the end of the song. Ultimately, Liza's perceived weakness is defeated by the power and energy that she displays. Surprisingly to us but not to Liza, she always seems to come out on top in the end.
After my gushing outburst, I decided to quietly savor the fact that Liza was sitting just inches away from me by listening to every Judy Garland song on my IPod. A couple of hours into the flight, she graciously made a peace offering to me in the form of a box of chocolates. From then on, we had a lovely conversation. She shared some stories about Liza with a Z, which was about to be rebroadcast by Showtime. How could I not want to hear about the CBS censors questioning her provocative neckline by Halston or quips from Bob Fosse? Though she surely must have sensed how fascinated I was by these "behind-the-scenes" tales, Liza did not act like a diva who only wanted an audience for her own stories. As she questioned me about my own life, I never expected her to be very interested when I explained, "We're just your average folks. Two mortgages, two cats -- the kind of guys who like to stay home, cook a nice dinner and watch a DVD." To my surprise, she probed with more questions about our lives. Everyday life seemed as interesting to her as stories of her stardom were to me.
When I think of this time spent with Liza, I am reminded of what is truly important for gay men and lesbians: equal protection in all matters governed by civil law. This is about the stuff of everyday life: our relationships, our work, our safety, our right to serve our country. Equality is a crucial state that is promised to and justly desired by all Americans. Instead of being perceived as a threat to others and their relationships, our demand for equality should make perfect sense. We are not being drama queens who want special rights or special circumstances. We bear the same burdens of every taxpaying citizen, yet we do not receive the same benefits of protection, inheritance, civil marriage, taxation, and much more. Each day we experience inequality that places us in a position of vulnerability, and this is blatantly unfair.
Eventually, on that wonderful flight, Liza and I would talk about our mothers, discussing the ordinary aspects of these relationships and the typical issues of separation that occur between each child and his or her parent. Once we started talking about everyday living, we never went back to the drama of her celebrity life. Some might think that I lost an opportunity to hear some amazing tales. Possibly, I did. But, I am quite pleased that my conversation with Liza was about the things that truly matter.
The ultimate dream of LGBT folks is that we become a simple part of the fabric of our country experiencing equality in the things that really matter. For some, that sounds special. For others, it is so fundamentally American that it should be met with little resistance. For Liza and me, it's the way we all can come out on top in the end.