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Big Steps, Little Steps: Change Comes to Rural America

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Rip van Winkle supposedly lay down for a nap on a trail in the Catskill Mountains just a few miles from where I live here in Greene County, NY, and woke up two decades later to find the world around him irrevocably altered. I too have been in this area for about 20 years and even though I've been wide awake during that time I'm amazed at the changes I see in terms of what it's like to be a gay person here.

Giant strides are being made in LGBT rights everywhere, from President Obama's public statements, to Goldman Sachs's amicus brief in the DOMA case, to the Amazon Kindle "Husbands" commercial. Honestly, without Googling it, I don't think I could name all the states with marriage equality.

But in my neck of the woods progress is more accurately measured in baby steps. Greene County, 125 miles north of Times Square, is deeply conservative; both John McCain and Mitt Romney carried it with 54 percent of the vote, so one can't expect to find societal movements of a tectonic sort in this stretch of the Hudson Valley. But the signs are there, if one looks closely.

Just across the river from my village lies Hudson, NY, a picturesque city of 6,600 residents. Three years ago Hudson Pride Foundation (HPF) held its first parade. It lasted about fifteen minutes. Last year's edition stretched close to an hour and boasted sponsorship from many of the merchants in town, including the local Moose Lodge, (whose members shared the float with "Girlgantua,") and even the resident heavy metal-styled tattoo parlor.

"We sought [HPF] out," says Hudson River Tattoo's Pam Grande, who, with her husband Eric, owns the business. "We love the fact that Hudson has a large gay community, and we simply want to show our support."

HPF president Rich Volo is a Wall Street I.T. guy by day but is more widely known as drag queen "Trixie Starr." (The first line of Rich's official bio reads "no real prior drag queen experience".) He estimates that "well over half" of the entries in the parade were from straight-owned businesses, and he tells me that state office-holders and candidates routinely contact HPF requesting to be in the parade. In 2011 the (heterosexual) mayor personally asked to officiate at one of the city's first same-sex marriages after it became law in New York State. And a couple of years ago Hudson made national news when the students at the local high school overwhelmingly voted two gay male best friends as prom king and queen.

But it's the mundane, everyday things that confirm a real cultural shift is taking root.

When I first visited this area two decades ago you'd whisper furtively behind your hand if you saw another gay person in the supermarket or eating at the diner. You knew there were others around, but for the most part it was under the radar. Often now at my local gym every one of the (five) people working out will be gay. And when I sit down alone at the aforementioned diner, the gum-cracking waitress asks me "where's your fella" as she takes the pen from behind her ear. (I don't have a fella; she mistook me for someone else -- you know how we all look alike -- but it was her nonchalance that impressed me.)

The very large lady cashier at Walmart apologizes after I answer that, no, the reason I have so few items in my cart is not because I wisely made my wife wait in the car. I don't have a wife, I tell her, I'm gay. But here's the thing: her contrition wasn't because she was sorry I'm gay, or that she'd made me uncomfortable. Nor, alas, was it for her misogynist joke. No, I got the impression that she was honestly apologizing for her out-of-date assumption.

And let me tell you about the first time Bonnie cut my hair: I go to a real old-timey barber shop on Main Street -- just down the block from the Rip van Winkle satue. You know the kind of place: gruff men-talk, Fox News on the TV, John Wayne calendar on the wall; in short, not a joint where you'd expect outré badinage. On Bonnie's first day at the job she finished my cut and squirted some gel into her palm.

"Hmm," she said, when I told her I don't use it.

She looked down at the blob of milky, gooey slime in her hand and sighed, "Just another Saturday night, I guess."

Nobody blinked an eye.

I don't want to paint too rosy a picture, of course. The old attitudes are still there, even if they're now more an unspoken undercurrent than overt hostility; small towns everywhere still have big challenges. Indeed, the last time I was called "faggot" was two summers ago in Provincetown. But if the Supreme Court does rule in favor of same-sex marriage this term, I have a hunch that the general reaction over at the barbershop -- if there's any reaction at all -- will be little more than a day or two of grumbling followed by a resigned shrug.

Rip van Winkle would be amazed.