02/12/2013 07:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

There's a Lot to Celebrate

Random thoughts while driving to the celebration of 2012 at the Center, the local LGBT center in Orlando:

It has been a long struggle. The world has not treated the LGBT community kindly for practically forever. Up until the Stonewall riots in 1969, the LGBT community sort of lived with it in quiet desperation. After Stonewall, things were not the same. That first taste of fighting back almost 45 years ago awakened the fighting spirit and gave rise to vigorous LGBT activism, which is now stronger than ever. One of the reasons was the cultural revolution of the 1960s in music, fashion and the arts, a far cry from the conformist '50s. The most famous LGBT activist, Harvey Milk, born into a middle-class Jewish family in 1930, lived an outwardly normal life for almost 35 years, graduating from college with a degree in mathematics and even serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War.

The LGBT community was at first mocked and ignored, which is how society usually treats people who are different, labeling them as "misfits." In literature and the arts, it was rare that LGBT people were regarded as anything but "odd" or "eccentric." The punishment for breaking these social rules was brutal; witness the sad plight of literary giant Oscar Wilde.

Wilde was the very successful author of The Picture of Dorian Gray, a strikingly dark novel that had some homosexual undertones, and at one point Wilde had three hit plays running at the same time in London. He was widely known for his intellect, sharp wit and biting remarks. He was a married man and the father of two children. He was also "that way" (that's what they called it back then). In Victorian England there was an active community of people who were "that way," only nobody talked about it. Wilde was enamored of Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, the son of the Marquess of Queensberry, a real macho man. Bosie reciprocated, and the affair began. The Marquess, being the macho man he was, publicly denounced Wilde and constantly harangued him. Wilde sued for libel rather than quietly ignoring the situation. Evidence discovered during the trial compelled Wilde to drop the charges, but not before the damage was done. Wilde was arrested and convicted (after three trials) of "gross indecency" with other men. He spent two years in prison, which ruined his health, and he died in 1900 at the age of 46.

In American culture during the first half of the 20th century, there was hardly any mention of LGBT people. There were many American artists and writers living abroad, notably Gertrude Stein, who found acceptance in Paris and other European capitals. LGBT artists who lived here kept it hidden. Composers and lyricists like Cole Porter, Aaron Copland, Lorenz Hart and Leonard Bernstein, and actors, writers and artists of all disciplines, stayed in the closet. In 1934 Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, set at an all-girls boarding school, broke new ground. In the play the school is forced to close following an uncorroborated rumor, started by a student, that the two owners are having an illicit affair. The play captivated audiences and caused the end of a law in New York that made it illegal to mention homosexuality onstage. In the Pre-Code Hollywood days there were a few portrayals of homosexuality, but nothing overwhelming; however, the picture of Marlene Dietrich in a top hat and tuxedo was a powerful image of the decadence happening in Berlin. Greta Garbo's portrayal of Queen Christina was a rare departure from convention. Lesbians were usually portrayed as old-maid aunts, busybodies or sadistic matrons like Judith Anderson's Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, or Cornelia Otis Skinner's Miss Holloway in The Uninvited, or Hope Emerson in Caged.

Men fared a little better. Actors like Edward Everett Horton, Donald Meek, Franklin Pangborn and Eric Blore worked constantly in films, usually as comic sidekicks or as officious department store managers who looked down on their customers and staff. They were never essential to the plot, and when they were, their characters usually looked and acted like Peter Lorre's portrayal of Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon. One of the only openly gay actors who could carry a film by himself and whose characters appealed to mainstream audiences was Clifton Webb. He horrified us in Laura. He made us cry in The Razor's Edge, and he made us laugh as Mr. Belvedere, all while playing himself, an effete snob. In the play Tea and Sympathy, later made into a movie, the central character at a boy's prep school is perceived and taunted by the others as gay, which he is not. The story is about being different and how ignorant people perceive that difference.

After the 1950s, things gradually began to change. In 1962 Advise and Consent featured a senator who had a gay past. The transition was gradual, but LGBT themes and characters in the movies and television have done a 180, and today they hardly raise any eyebrows. Our culture has advanced equality on all fronts, save some diehard churches and certain conservative politicians. Even the Boy Scouts are taking a second look at the organization's longstanding ban on gays. They had better, because their ranks might be thinning out too much.

Wow! There's no place to park!

OK, that broke my train of thought, and here I am at the Center.

My first impression from outside was that there were an awful lot of people inside, and yes, there were, at least 200 of them. It was a real celebration. Many local politicians were there and gave speeches. After all, this celebration was for them. These were the people whom the LGBT community had backed, and they were celebrating those victories. The speakers included Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph, Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh, State Sen. Darren Soto, State Rep. Victor Torres and County Commissioner Tiffany Moore Russell, among several others. Joe Saunders, one of the two openly gay representatives in the Florida House, was unable to attend, because of a last-minute emergency. The highlight of the evening was the premiere of the video "Get Tested," which features prominent politicians and sports stars urging people to get tested for HIV. Testing is free and confidential and worth doing. The idea originated with the Center's director, Randy Stephens, who asked Rita Ashton, wife of State Attorney Jeff Ashton, to help out.


Rita and Jeff Ashton

She did the entire project from start to finish, securing cameras, crew and post production through her professional network, and everyone involved volunteered their time. Although there doesn't appear to be a link on the Center's website, the video is on the Center's Facebook page.

This was one of those occasions where few people left early. There was plenty of time to meet and mingle with the politicos as well as old friends. The cash bar was active, and the food was plentiful and tasty. The politicians were completely accessible and didn't show signs of that defensive wall that they often put up. I spoke for several minutes with Rita and Jeff Ashton, mainly about her video; however, I couldn't resist congratulating him on his decision to investigate the texting scandal. He looked at me and said, "Come on, that was a no-brainer!" His utter candidness made me decide not to ask him the follow-up question.

The evening's events, speeches and tone showed the immense gains that have been made in recent years. I have two thoughts about it: To paraphrase a Virginia Slims slogan, "[w]e've come a long way, baby," and in the words of Oscar Brown Jr., "we've still got so terribly far to go." It is my hope that someday we'll only identify people by their names. And so the journey continues.