The Aging Gay Rights Activist
In January of 1976, when I came to Columbus as a Visiting Professor at the Ohio State University Law School, I also moved to the city to explore the gay world for the first time in my life (I was 32). I knew nothing at all about that world. How to find a gay bar, for example, was a puzzlement. I solved that particular problem by looking up “Cocktail Lounges” in the Yellow Pages [remember Yellow Pages? Most students these days don’t], picked out one on Gay Street (yes, there is such a downtown street), and phoned it. I knew it wouldn’t likely be a gay bar, but that didn’t matter. When the bartender answered, I asked him if this was a gay bar, and, surprised, he said darkly that it was not. “What’s the name of the gay bar?” I asked. After a brief pause, he snarled, “The Kismet,” slamming down the phone. That night I went to the Kismet (which I also looked up in the phone directory], but, not knowing that (particularly in those very homophobic days) gay night life didn’t start until after midnight, I arrived at 8 pm. The huge bar had only about ten people it: very strange people. Fellini could have cast a successful movie from the ten patrons lounging around in the Kismet at 8 pm on a Friday night. I beat a hasty retreat.
I eventually did figure out gay life, though in the beginning I stayed deep in the closet. Coming out is a gradual process: you tell this friend, and that friend, and soon you suspect that everyone knows, even at work, and it becomes an open secret. [There are many interesting stories here. They include how my now ex-wife Charleyne encouraged me to take the job at OSU and explore this new world. In one of the most magnanimous statements I’ve ever heard in my life she said, “Doug, it would be a terrible thing to be a homosexual and never know what that means.”]
After the early scary part of coming out, and the “no standards” wild phase, eventually I found love and acceptance in the gay world, and even started coming out to casual strangers if they innocently asked questions like, “You married?” In many parts of the country this casualness might seem routine today, but it was shocking in the late 70s. The Stonewall Riots that had started the modern gay movement weren’t ten years old until 1979. I came out whenever doing so was relevant for two reasons: I wanted to shock people into thinking about it, and—frankly—I didn’t care much about their reaction (unless it involved enforcing the heterosexual viewpoint with a baseball bat). As the Queer Nation agitators of the next decade put it, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”
But how much things have changed in a breathtakingly short period of time! When I began working for the cause, activists like me were fueled by a sense of anger. But today’s young LGBT leaders are motivated by a sense of entitlement: gays are Americans like everyone else and ought to be treated the same. What could be more obvious? And as hundreds of people, thousands of people, millions of people have come to think the same thing, why then—as if by magic—society does change and gays and lesbians are no longer the sinners/mentally-ill/criminals that they were labeled by ministers/doctors/lawyers not that long ago.
This difference in attitude was brought home to me six years ago. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had issued an opinion holding that gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry as a matter of Massachusetts constitutional law. The whole country was suddenly in an uproar. The Massachusetts Legislature sent a question back to the court as to whether it would be acceptable to create “civil unions” for gays and lesbians instead of “marriage.” Before the court could respond, the LGBT law students at Ohio State (who have an organization amusingly named “Outlaws”) asked me to lunch with them and had me tell them about the not-so-good old days. The Massachusetts situation came up in the conversation and I shocked the students by saying that if the court said no to the question and demanded actual marriage, that ruling would unleash a firestorm raging for years and years. As one, all the students turned on me. “You call yourself a gay activist and you’re not in favor of gay marriage!!!” It was useless to explain what I meant; they had stopped listening.
I was right, of course; that firestorm is still going on, but a large part of me wishes I was one of those youngsters, making perfectly justifiable demands no matter the consequences. And, in my defense, I always wanted gay marriages to happen, though at a perhaps slower rate to let society get used to the idea. But even in my current semi-retirement from gay activism, I’ve made a number of speeches and public debates pro-gay marriage. One of those debates occurring at the Unitarian Church here in Columbus became tense when the fundamentalist doctor I was debating brought with him a 30-person escort called the “Minutemen,” a group of supposedly religious people with a very bad attitude towards homosexuals. They took up the first three church pews, bibles in hand, scowls on their faces. There’s a DVD of that debate, but it’s a story for another day. [See "How I Lost a Gay Marriage Debate," April 29, 2010]
What’s left of my activism? Well, now and then the current LGBT leaders remember us fogies and drag us out to drone on about the old days, but except for that sort of thing, I think my gay rights activities are over. Advancing age and too many scars surely give me the right to retire from the battlefield and happily leave it to the youngsters.
“How I Lost a Gay Marriage Debate,” April 29, 2010
“Straight Talk,” May 10, 2010
“Marijuana and Me,” July 11, 2010
"Choose To Be Gay, Choose To Be Straight," January 25, 2011
"The Homosexual Agenda To Conquer the World," February 8, 2011
"Seducing Straight Men," March 3, 2011
"Coming Out: How To Tell People You're Gay," March 27, 2011
"Jumping the Broom: How 'Married' are Married Gay Couples?" July 17, 2011
"The Legacy of Homophobia," August 2, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013
"The History of Gay Rights in Columbus, Ohio," June 4, 2012
“Gays Will Be Able To Marry in All States By July of 2016 (and Maybe 2015): A Prediction,” February 14, 2014
“A Gay Hoosier Lawyer Looks at Indiana’s RFRA: The Religious Bigot Protection Act,” March 30, 2015; http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2015/03/a-gay-hoosier-lawyer-looks-at-indianas.html
"A Guide to the Best of My Blog," April 29, 2013