10/30/2014 03:25 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

History Lessons: My Coming Out Party at the State Department

This month, we've celebrated a cultural milestone in America as more states began conducting same-sex marriages. But we don't have to look back too far to see how far we've come.

My journey began as a student at Monmouth College, now Monmouth University, where my psychology professor taught me that homosexuality was a serious mental illness. In the 1960s, the American Psychiatric Association's recommended cure for the condition included electroconvulsive therapy and frontal lobotomy.

Days after graduation, I boarded a plane for the first Peace Corps training session in Washington. The priest sitting next to me tried to put the make on me. Had he succeeded, the religion we both were practicing would have condemned us both to eternal damnation.

Upon arrival, President John F. Kennedy welcomed me into federal service. Had he known my sexual orientation, Kennedy would have been forced to fire me, as I was a criminal under American jurisprudence. The only crimes more serious than homosexuality were murder, rape and treason.

After training, I joined the first Peace Corps program in Ethiopia. We were welcomed by His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I. Had the emperor known of my orientation, I risked summary execution.

By 1968, things were starting to change. New York police made a routine raid on the Stonewall, a gay bar patronized largely by black and Puerto Rican drag queens, who for once, decided to fight back - setting off riots that shut down lower Manhattan for three days.

During the riots, I was serving at a diplomatic post in Nigeria. I found a Newsweek cover story on Stonewall and something called "Gay Liberation." I'd never heard the word "gay" used in any context other than "happy." The article quoted activist Don Kilhoefner as the head of the Gay Community Services Center of Los Angeles. Don, a friend from the Peace Corps, didn't tell Newsweek that the Center consisted of nothing more than a Monday night meeting in a laundromat - and a dream.

During two State Department assignments to Los Angeles, I visited Don's center, which had recently moved from Sunset Boulevard to a dilapidated Hollywood Boulevard shack populated by lesbian hookers, transvestite prostitutes and bearded hippies, with names like Morning Glory and Strawberry, who wore lipstick.

I'd never seen anything like that at the State Department. I loved it, and I joined the center as director of counseling. I resolved to never again deny being gay in any social situation where my sexual orientation was relevant.

Coming back to Washington, D.C. in 1972, I joined the Gay Activist Alliance, which was organizing the first national conference on the relationship between the gay community and the federal government. As a federal employee, I had something to say, and I volunteered to speak. I assumed I'd be fired: I had no money in the bank, no alternative employment, and I did not wish to humiliate my mother.

After my speech, someone asked what the State Department thought about my sex life. I called this my coming-out party, leading to a standing ovation. Coverage of my comments in The Washington Post confirmed that this career was ending, and I opted to resign from the job I'd wanted since fourth grade. I moved to San Francisco, spending the next 20 years doing social work with homeless people and AIDS patients.

In the early 1990s, President Bill Clinton ended the policy of firing gay people from diplomatic corps. I returned to the State Department, thinking that discrimination had ended. How wrong I was. My reappointment was delayed seven months by the security service. One of my friends reported that I was gay, and officials weren't sure if she meant I was a homosexual or that I was carefree and frivolous. I'm all three.

Our movement has come a long way a lot faster than other civil-rights movements. Three Irish civil-rights organizations have invited me to help campaign for gay marriage in Ireland. Polls indicate that up to three-fourths of Irish people now support gay marriage.

But the fight is not over. Being gay still merits the death penalty in a dozen or so countries, and Saudi scholars debate whether it's more Islamic to stone or behead homosexuals. Brunei, Nigeria, Russia, South Africa and Uganda recently took big steps backward.

This month, I shared my life's chronology with a new group of Monmouth University students. I'm comforted to know that what's "normal" for them is legalizing gay marriages and Monmouth University professors who support - and study - LGBT issues. This is, indeed, a transformational change from my own undergraduate experience. Perhaps most, I'm amazed by the surprise the younger generation expresses when hearing my tale; many don't truly realize how far we've come.