When I was 11 or 12 years old I realized I had a terrible secret. I was attracted to other boys. I would develop these intense crushes: a handsome black-haired classmate in middle school, a kid at sleepaway camp the summer I was 12. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling; all I knew was that I felt it, and nobody else did. There was something wrong with me. I tried not to worry about it too much; I just hoped that it was temporary, and that at some point before I became an adult it would go away and I could be normal and get married. But I continued on through middle school and into high school, and it didn’t go away. I started to worry. I decided I must be cursed. My life already seemed bad enough: I was a nerdy, grade-skipping outcast, and yet not academically perfect enough to please my parents. And I hated my Jewish afro hair. On top of all that, why did there have to be this? Why did this alien presence choose to infect me and make me fall in love with boys?
It was the mid-/late 1980s. All I knew about gay people was that they got AIDS and went to hospitals where they wasted away and died. I remember once I heard my mom refer to someone derisively as a “frustrated homosexual.” And one day I came across a copy of a book called Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). It was published in 1969, and it said horrible things about gay people. I didn’t want to turn out like the people in that book. I became even more terrified.
At 19 I told my parents I liked guys. They got mad and said it was not acceptable. So a couple of days later I went back in the closet, to them and to myself. Then I had five agonizing years of mental gymnastics as I tried to figure out what I was, until finally, at age 24, I decided, fuck this — it’s never going away, this is who I am, and I just want to be happy. So I stopped agonizing, accepted that I was gay, started dating and having sex, and the next year, at age 25, I told my parents that I was sure this time, that I really was gay. They were very upset for a few weeks. It was painful for me. But they eventually came around.
Since yesterday morning, when the Supreme Court struck down section 3 of DOMA, I’ve been thinking a lot about my past — mourning it, in fact. I’ve been wondering if I would have been a happier, less scared kid if I’d grown up in a country where gay people could get married, where I could have read an opinion by a justice of the United States Supreme Court recognizing the dignity not just of gay couples’ relationships but of gay couples’ marriages, where my country’s government treated those marriages with the same respect they treated my parents’ marriage and my aunt and uncle’s marriage and my grandparents’ marriage and the marriages of every other adult I knew. I wonder if my parents would have been more accepting of me if they’d raised me in that world. I wonder if they would have thrown away that old book. I wonder if I would have come out sooner, started dating sooner, had sex sooner, gotten more relationship experience sooner.
I’m so envious of gay kids today, and gay teenagers, and gay college students, and gay people in their 20s, for living in a different world from the one I grew up in, just as I’m sure many older gay men are envious of me for growing up post-Stonewall and coming of age in an era when the world knew already about HIV and how to protect ourselves from it. Just as every generation is envious of people who are younger than them.
I was already 22 and out of college when the Supreme Court first spoke up for gay rights in Romer v. Evans. I was already 29 when the Court first said in Lawrence v. Texas that I have dignity as a gay man. I was 37 when the state where I lived said I could get married. Now I’m 39, and I’m getting married to Matt in a few months, and my national government will treat us the same way they treat every other married couple.
In a way it feels very scary and “adult.” We’ve been able to get married for the last two years, but it always seemed like it would be somehow pretend, like playing at marriage: “skim-milk marriage,” as Justice Ginsburg wonderfully put it. But now we’ll be filing taxes jointly, and be eligible for spousal Social Security benefits, and have all the federal as well as state responsibilities of marriage, just like my parents, and my brother and his wife, and Matt’s parents, and all the straight married couples we know. Just like everyone else.
The Supreme Court’s decision yesterday was not the end. Thirty-seven states still tell gay couples they can’t get married. But we are closer to justice than we were yesterday. I see it as one of those pictures where your perception shifts between positive and negative space. Before yesterday, there were 12 islands of marriage equality in a vast sea. But now there are 37 islands of marriage discrimination. Now that the U.S. government recognizes same-sex marriages, the discriminatory states are the outliers, no matter how many there are. That shift in perception is crucial.
I’m happy I’m still young enough to live in this world. I’m happy I’m going to get married.
And I’m happy for all those gay kids who get to grow up in a different world from the one I grew up in.