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.”

In 1981, I joined a fledgling gay activist movement in Columbus at its very start. It was then called “Stonewall Union,” and now, almost thirty years later is still the largest gay rights group in mid-Ohio under the name “Stonewall Columbus”(the photo is from a Gay Rights March in Washington, October 11, 1987; pictured are Craig Covey, first President of Stonewall Union, my partner Jerry Bunge, and me). There were major battles in those days, all captured in a DVD of the local movement’s history, where I can be seen addressing the annual gay pride march on the Ohio Statehouse lawn and teaching the crowd how best to deal with near-by protestors, holding Bibles and teaching hatred to their little children. Some of the battles were public (a near riot in the Columbus City Council meeting when a gay rights ordinance was proposed), some private (I was jumped by a gang of teenagers one night, and was kicked around, most violently in the testicles, which was—how shall I put this?—no fun). Interestingly, I learned how to handle phoned death threats from an unusual source: my mother. Dad by this time was a prosecutor in Dallas, and he was so good at it he’d been promoted to prosecuting “career criminals” (i.e., the Mafia). Mom would get phone calls telling her she and Dad would both die unless he stopped one of these trials from occurring, so she had some practical experience to pass on to her son. “What I do, Doug,” she advised, “is to say loudly, ‘Operator, this is one of those calls, please trace it.’ The caller hangs up immediately!” Then Mom added, “The opposite happened of what he’d planned. He called to scare me.” Of course, in those the days there were no such innovations as caller-ID, which (I hope) has made such calls rarer. I tried Mom’s method and it worked admirably.

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.
Related Posts:
“Homosexuality: The Iceberg Theory,” April 25, 2010
“How I Lost a Gay Marriage Debate,” April 29, 2010
“Straight Talk,” May 10, 2010
“Marijuana and Me,” July 11, 2010
“How To Tell if You’re Gay,” August 31, 2010
“The Thunderbolt,” September 3, 2010
“How To Change Gay People Into Straight People,” September 20, 2010
"How Many Homosexuals Are There in the World?" November 8, 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
"Going Undercover at an Ex-Gay Meeting," September 19, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013
"The Presumption of Heterosexuality and the Invisible Homosexual," October 2, 2011
"Gay Bashers, Homophobes, and Me," January 27, 2012
"On Being a Gay Sports Fan," March 9, 2012
"Sexual Labels: Straight, Gay, Bi," April 15, 2012
"The History of Gay Rights in Columbus, Ohio," June 4, 2012
“I Support the Right of the Boy Scouts To Ban Gays,” July 24, 2012
Straight People: Thanks From the LGBT Community,” November 20, 2012
“Gay Marriage, DOMA, Proposition 8 and the Mysterious Supreme Court,” January 15, 2013
“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;
"A Guide to the Best of My Blog," April 29, 2013


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