09/04/2012 12:48 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

My Red Hat: A Better World Is Shaping Up for the 21st Century

When I was 14 I got a red hat for Christmas. It was a hat I'd longed to have and never thought I would have -- too girly for boys at that time.

It was made of red corduroy that turned up all around like a sailor's hat and could be turned down all around in bad weather. I had seen it while my mother and I were shopping in Muskegon, Mich., the city nearest the small town of Montague, where I lived. It was 1944. There was a war on. My father had died two years earlier, and my mother was struggling to keep her four children and herself afloat. She had returned to teaching at school after my father's death, and with the war our lives were not unlike everyone else's: We put up a good front, but there was little money.

In a rather stylish men's store I saw the corduroy hats: black, brown, navy blue, the colors a teenage boy should have. And there was one red one. My mother must have seen me look at it longingly, but I knew it was out of the question for me: too expensive, and much too girly. Out of the question for any number of reasons.

On our way back to the car, she said suddenly, "I forgot something. You go on to the car and wait for me. I will be right there." And she was. I thought nothing of it.

On Christmas Eve, when we traditionally opened our presents, I found one from my mother under the tree. And when I opened it, I felt as though I was seeing a revealed miracle. There was my red hat!

It was then that I realized that things you never expected to happen could happen, and that if a little gay boy from Michigan expected someday to be in love with another man and be happy and fulfilled in that love, it could happen! I was convinced of it, and it has happened to me -- more than once, to tell you the truth.

Now more than then, I think of my mother deciding, "If my kid wants a red hat, he shall have it." She gave me so much more than she realized.

I loved that red, "girly" hat and wore it all the time. It was my look. As I walked down the street, little Mamie Lipka came out on her porch and called out, "Is that a boy or a girl?" I just called cheerily back, "Hi, Mamie!" and went on my way. I wasn't going to be deterred from wearing my red hat because of someone else's opinion.

In high school I wore saddle shoes, which were considered to be girl's shoes at that time. And I was the first male in Montague to wear "penny loafers" (as they were called because of the penny you had to insert in the opening over your arch). These were really considered girl's shoes at that time, but I had my fashion convictions behind me.

Somehow I knew there was another world out there, and I was going to be part of it.

In retrospect I think plenty of other people in that small town of the 1930s and 1940s knew I was gay, but they didn't have words to define it and didn't think much of it. Yes, I was gay in the 1930s when I was 4 years old. My 5-year-old boyfriend promised to marry me. We were lovers throughout elementary, middle, and high school. The rat didn't marry me after all. This all took place before the word "gay" was even used as it is now.

My oldest brother's best friend, Eddy Lindsay, wore a women's fedora and drove an eccentric Model-T car, which was not done. My first driving lesson was with him, and he had me sit on his lap and steer while he worked the pedals. It was his idea to have me sit on his lap. I myself didn't think of it as being at all sexual and never thought more about it, until now. He was killed in the war. My brother always mourned him.

Of course, I was aware of what boys did and did not do.

I played football, which neither of my brothers did. I was usually the class president. I chose the plays my class did. And we had a close-knit, friendly class. In our graduating class of 32 students, 18 of us had been together since kindergarten. I was lucky -- there wasn't anyone there to bully me.

Because of my growing up in a strangely accepting and uncriticizing world, a world without all the information we have today, I suffered very little.

The norm today, although loosening up, is much more critical, condemning, and bullying. It bothers me a lot that many kids and teenagers have punishing years where they are made to feel guilty, bad, wrong, and very unhappy.

If I have any project in mind with my writing and performing, it is to add my energy to a world that is more gay-accepting. In my book How to Be Gay in the 21st Century I say, "Being gay is like being Swedish. A little different but in no important way." If contemporary teenagers can feel that way more and more, and if they can live in a world that confirms this for them, I want to contribute as much as I can to this goal.

During this week's Democratic National Convention, the Democratic Party plans to endorse gay marriage for the first time ever and is calling for the repeal of the 1996 federal law that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. This can only make us all feel hopeful that a different world is shaping up in the 21st century, a world where leaders are consistently compassionate, understanding, and mature instead of bending over backwards to cater to the most conservative and conformist ideas of the last century.

If I have learned one thing in this world, it is that you cannot confront the tide of history and try to turn it back. It seems that younger people are more mature in our present time than the older ones. As Democratic National Committee member and Minnesota state senator Scott Dibble said, "Young people are looking for a political home right now. This has become a defining moral question of our time."

The tide is turning...

In California, the state legislature is poised to enact a ban on the infamous practice of anti-gay "conversion therapy" on minors, protecting them from homophobic families and caretakers. I wonder what my mother -- the same woman who made sure I got my red hat, in spite of what the neighbors might think -- would think about such a dreadful practice on helpless young people.

And less than a year after the repeal of the military's discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy, our country recently promoted an out lesbian to brigadier general. Tammy Smith received her stars from her wife, at the women's memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, all of this on the heels of our president becoming the first ever to say he supports gay marriage.

I was an officer, too, in the Navy in the early 1950s, stationed in the Pacific. As I witnessed the world's first hydrogen bomb tests at Bikini Atoll aboard the U.S.S. Cape Esperance, I was madly in love with an enlisted man in my communications division, the handsomest man in the world. We were lovers and went to New York together after the Navy. He soon retreated back to life in the Midwest, but I stayed in New York, where I found that "other world" for myself that I knew had been "out there somewhere" all along, as a result of being granted that little red hat by my mother so many years earlier. I have seen things come true that I never thought could happen.

Forces are now at work to create a world where people will be primarily concerned with saving our world and sharing it with others, rather than being concerned with making others feel bad about who they are. And the younger generations are leading this new charge.

I have seen things come true that I never thought could happen. It's going to keep on happening.