02/13/2014 08:47 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

From the NFL to Africa to Next Door: Civil Rights for Gays?

These are heady days for gay rights in many quarters. Headlines have been dominated by Michael Sam's introduction to the world as a National Football League prospect who is gay. There is widespread support for gays and lesbians in key areas of the United States and Europe. Yet this is not true worldwide. According to Amnesty International, homosexuality is illegal in 38 of 54 African countries. Where Islamic law is practiced, the penalty can be death by stoning.

I'm reminded of the civil rights struggle in America. I became a Freedom Rider in 1961. My life for the next decade or so was dominated by the racial struggle for freedom and human rights. Dominant figures were Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person when ordered to do so, and Martin Luther King Jr. who more or less defined the parameters of the struggle for freedom. We've come a long way. We have an even longer way to go.

This was illustrated by a seemingly minor or unimportant incident that brushed against my life in the past 24 hours. My gay life partner Mark Thompson, a longtime writer and ediitor, viisited our neighborhood market in Silver Lake, a gay friendly part of Los Angeles. He was making his way through the parking lot, absorbed in his own thoughts, when a man riding a bike suddenly shouted at him: "Get out of my way, faggot." Mark noticed immediately that the angry man was the only figure in the scene who was, in fact, going the wrong way. For Silver Lake the incident was, to say the least, highly unusual. It raised automatic questions. Did the gay critic hate all gays or just some of them? Always a related question is: what triggered him? When Mark recounted the incident, what shocked me was the sudden eruption of anger. (There were no table manners involved here).

Looking back on Mark's description of the event. however, I realize the media context of it is what seemed actually most scary. Come with me for a moment into the Silver Lake market parking lot. Lighthearted. Relaxed. A few people randomly strolling toward breakfast muffins, or roasted peanuts, or lamb chops, or People magazine. But suddenly there is a new element. Another element. Someone is very, very angry. (Why? We don't know, do we). The point is: we're suddenly locked in an irrational mode. Perhaps conflicting images are at work here. Maybe the angry man feels BOTH a victim and SOMEONE IN CHARGE. Maybe he feels BOTH Attila the Hun (embarked on a righteous cause) and the son of Attila the Hun (whose father never understood him).

It's a bit unnerving to realize how varied are many of the reactions to gay people. Funny or depraved? Dead serious or seriously out of whack? Some individuals who seek a kind of fulfillment or misguided men and women who secretly imagine they're movie stars?

We're all the same as just about everyone else and, at the same time, highly individual. There's a paradox for you. We all have something called a life to live. We're all looking around dark corners for at least a glimpse of death, yet we usually don't want anyone to discover us doing this.

Let's respect everyone else's right to live a life, experience love and friendship, make some contribution to the world -- and not be imprisoned or tortured or denied justice because of who we are.