When I was nineteen, nobody was gay.
They were tomboys.
They were artsy.
They were the best dancers under the disco ball.
But gay or lesbian? Not in Rhode Island in 1982.
Of course, I'm being facetious. There were as many gay people in the world back then as there are now, as there were 100 years ago, as there will be 100 years from now. But in my suburban world, they were invisible. So it was with great appreciation that I kissed my nineteen-year-old daughter goodbye as she headed off to one of the first events of her summer internship. She would be accompanying the governor of Massachusetts, and assisting the Obama for America campaign. She would be holding signs and chanting chants. And, oh yeah, she'd be part of the contingent at the front of Boston's Gay Pride parade. Ho hum.
I don't mean to suggest that Gay Pride parades are insignificant or unimportant. Hardly. What's significant and important is how mainstream such events have become, with their high-ranking politicians, opportunistic campaigners and straight girls with rainbow elastics in their hair. No longer are such parades seen as outlandish displays of sexuality, their participants bold statement-makers. They're just plain old liberal events. I find that delightful.
What thrilled me the most about my daughter's assignment, besides telling conservative relatives about her participation in the parade and watching them struggle not to wince, was the fact that it provided further evidence that I'm living through history. Consider the trajectory of my fellow boomers and me: when we were born, adult men and women who weren't married were "confirmed bachelors" and "old maids." Couples hid their relationships, forced to treat and introduce their beloved partners as roommates or buddies in public. Parents lucky enough to have their children come out to them often hid that information from family and friends. Shame was everywhere.
Now it's starting to dissipate. Though gay marriage is still illegal in most of the country, I'm witnessing that antiquated injustice change state by state -- literally. In Massachusetts, where I live, anyone can marry anyone else. In Rhode Island, where I work, the battle continues. But as my generation has aged, society has progressed so far that now it's normal (in many places) to see gay men and lesbian women marry their beloveds, to hold their partners' hands at family functions, and to come out scandal free. Their parents are proud and relieved: they know that gay marriage will lead to more grandchildren, something the confirmed bachelors usually didn't give their families.
As GLBT people have gained life-changing rights, the rest of us have gained the right to embarrass and annoy them with personal questions about their love lives that were once reserved for straight couples. I wonder how many lesbians are secretly pleased when their mothers ask: "Any wedding plans yet?"
I assume the evolution toward comprehensive gay rights will continue so that when I'm an old lady, a conversation like this could ensue:
"Do you have grandchildren?"
"Why yes! I have a straight boy, a straight girl and a gay boy."
Not only will shame be a thing of the past, but descriptions of sexual preference will be commonplace. How else are we Bubbies and Grandpas supposed to get the matchmaking right?
This must be what it felt like to be a woman born in 1900 or an African American born in 1942. You start life and the world is one way. You end it, and the world is another. Our great-grandmothers couldn't vote but our daughters must. A man of color couldn't sleep in certain hotels; now one sleeps in the White House. My high school's gay kids were phantoms. Today's are coming out before graduation and fighting hard for respect.
The universe is terrible and ugly in so many ways, but it's always changing. And once in a while those changes are so good and so big that future generations won't be able to imagine life before them. You mean homosexuality was illegal?, they'll ask. And you didn't have computers?
Living through these kinds of changes is like witnessing a storm. There is peace and denial. There is darkness and rain. There will be clarity and light.
Susan Kushner Resnick is the author of the forthcoming memoir, 'You Saved
Me, Too,' and the nonfiction narrative 'Goodbye Wifes and Daughters.' Follow her at @suekush or www.susankushnerresnick.com.
Follow Susan Kushner Resnick on Twitter: www.twitter.com/suekush