11/28/2012 07:08 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Anna Karenina and the Way Forward

While immersing myself in the theatrical film adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina this week, I couldn't help but think of the historic changes we've witnessed this past year. Social standards and their concomitant hypocrisies are common to all human cultures. One hundred and forty years ago it revolved around heterosexual adultery; today it's gender-based bigotry. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

This long novel by Tolstoy, called by Faulkner the greatest novel ever written, with what might be the first example of "stream-of-consciousness" in literary history, is complex, layered, and not easily amenable to film adaptation. It is very much a novel of its times, as Tolstoy shares his thoughts about the sociopolitical world of his contemporary Russia, as seen through the eyes of Konstantin Levin, the landowner who works the fields with his hired hands who had been serfs in his father's home. Tolstoy's worldview was prescient in many ways, and most enduring in the focus on the doomed romance of Anna and Vronsky. That romance occurred at a time when divorce had only recently become less rare (the Bolsheviks instituted no-fault civil divorce in 1918), and while extramarital sex was common in all social classes, it was expected to play out under the covers, and not in public.

So how is this relevant to the LGBT community? There have always been gay and trans Americans, but until recently they, too, were expected, sometimes on the pain of violence if not death, to keep under cover. Was gender variance evident in our culture? Of course. Were same-sex relationships happening in parks and bathhouses, bars and Boston marriages? Surely. And just as Russian society did not really grapple with gender relationships until the Tolstoys of the world boldly wrote of such things, so did American society not take notice of the LGBT community until Stonewall. I personally recall traveling to Greenwich Village the second night of the uprising because, having heard nothing of any insurrection, I had nothing to fear. New York papers carried reports of riots in Harlem and confrontations in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, but gays rebelling in the Village? Unheard of, because "those people" did not exist.

What was most poignant to me in the film were the scenes where Anna Arkadyevna brazenly walks back out into society, overtly flaunting her affair with Vronsky. Heads turned away, whispered breaths and gross comments abound, and you could see the pain in Anna's eyes. Yet she still would not be denied. Damn the hypocrisy -- she was going to live her life as she saw fit, find and cling to her happiness as she defined it. And she was able to do so until she felt betrayed by her lover.

I, too, have felt the eyes of society peering closely at me at times, wondering who, really, is that woman? Just as some gay persons attract more attention than others, the same holds for trans persons, and women more commonly than men. I've survived by years of preparation, years of self-abnegation, focusing on helping others and hoping that I would find inner peace through that life experience. It has worked for me, though others have not been as fortunate. We read their names at the Trans Day of Remembrance each year, and there are countless gay men and women who still suffer the same as well. And, analogously to Anna, many don't make it because they cannot overcome the social disapproval, the rejection at work and at home, and the resultant self-loathing that can easily drive one to despair. I believe most of us are still vulnerable to that self-criticism to some degree, even those who are successful, those who get married, and those who make a difference by helping others. It's hard to outrun your culture's disapproval.

I personally support marriage equality for the same reason I support comprehensive trans rights -- for the human dignity inherent in our Declaration that we are all created equal. We may cut ads portraying loving gay couples to push the agenda forward after our recent victories, but it isn't really about happiness. It's about pursuing happiness, for the wrong reasons as well as the right ones. It is for the right to get divorced as well as to get married. It is for the right to be judged by your skills, not your identity, whether you're capable of succeeding or not. It is for friendship based on the content of your character, not your sexual or gender identity. Frank Kameny, one of the earliest gay rights activists, is known for coining the simple phrase, "Gay is good." But it really isn't; it's neutral, no more valuable than straight. And trans is not better than cis, just different in kind.

We Americans have a fundamental sense of fairness. In spite of the resistance of sizable majorities of the population over the centuries to those who were different, including waves of immigrants, the core principles of the Bill of Rights have stood the test of time. In 2012 it is the LGBT community that has benefited in a grand manner from that sense of fairness. We are accelerating forward.