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Steinberg: Coming out of the closet worked

Demonstrators stoutside Supreme Court WashingtTuesday March 26 2013 where court will hear arguments California’s voter approved ban same-sex marriage Propositi8.

Demonstrators stand outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, March 26, 2013, where the court will hear arguments on California’s voter approved ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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Updated: March 27, 2013 2:42PM



So why now? With so many issues facing our country, what puts gay marriage on the forefront of the American political debate at this particular moment?

Yes, the Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments Tuesday on California’s Proposition 8 ban against gay marriage, and Wednesday on the federal Defense of Marriage Act. But the cases didn’t just drop on the Supreme Court’s doorstep by accident. While the outcome is unknown — maybe the court will rule narrowly, maybe they’ll decide getting married is a constitutional right that should be enjoyed by everyone, or maybe somewhere in between — their deliberation occurs in a time where American attitudes are rapidly shifting. Most Americans now favor gay marriage, and politicians are scrambling to keep up — three more senators announced their support just last week.

“The rise in support for same-sex marriage over the past decade is among the largest changes in opinion on any policy issue over this time period,” declared the Pew Research Center. “Fully 14% of all Americans — and 28% of gay marriage supporters — say they have changed their minds on the issue in favor of gay marriage.”

What made these individuals change their minds? A sudden burst of tolerance? A realization that the practice of gays getting married benefits them while harming nobody?

Those get mentioned. But the biggest reason cited to Pew — 37 percent — is “friends/family/acquaintances who are gay/lesbian.”

Celebration is premature. But as the nation strides toward eliminating a particularly cruel and long held prejudice, we should pause and realize what made it possible:

All that coming out of the closet worked.

Once upon a time, the deal was, so long as a gay person never told anyone about being gay — not his family, often, not her bosses, usually, not the neighbors — they might be allowed to live with only a low level of abuse.

That changed. It would be a more satisfying story if gay people decided that they were American citizens too, dammit, and tired of living second-class lives. And that happened a little — such as at the Stone Wall Riot in 1969 and the demonstrations that followed.

But what really forced gay people out of the closet was AIDS — this terrifying illness killing their friends, a plague most of Ronald Reagan’s America was only too happy to ignore. Suddenly, coming out became an important political act, with groups like ACT UP protesting in the streets, demanding action on research. The old bargain — stay silent and we won’t hurt you, maybe — was now a fatal compromise. Silence = Death.

So gay people became more visible. Families that didn’t know they had gay members discovered — not typically to their delight — they did. Businesses found they had gay employees — and it deserves mention that large corporations, which get such bad press and rightly so, were more nimble adjusting to openly gay people than the government was.

Coming out worked. Research dollars flowed. AIDS went from a deadly plague to a treatable chronic condition, at least in the United States. With human rights, once the ball starts moving, it takes on momentum. Blacks pushing into lunch counters at Woolworth’s landed in the Oval Office 50 years later. Fighting to stay alive morphed into a fight to live that salvaged life with dignity.

We are a vast nation — 313 million people and growing — where it’s easy and usually accurate to question how much any individual action matters. What does it mean if I cast a ballot? Recycle a soda can? It’s all futile.

Not always. Not in this case. Coming out was never easy — it’s not easy now, as growing acceptance is one thing, facing your own dad something very different. It takes courage. And most gay men and lesbians no doubt think of coming out in private terms. But they should also realize that it had enormous political implications, which pollsters like Pew are now seeing. They helped their families understand that religion and morality — the former always equating anything it does with the latter — are not always linked. The persecution of gay people — like all the insane hatreds of the past, from the slaughter of Native-Americans to the enslavement of blacks to the subjugation of women — was never moral, as was claimed. It was, and is — and for a while yet, among a dwindling minority — a faith-cloaked sin, which wasn’t seen as such because they had the numbers.

The history of modern life can be expressed in one phrase: Individuals freeing themselves from the irrational dictates of institutions. You can in fact pray however you like. You can do the work you choose. You can marry whomever you wish. It’s so clear now, in retrospect, but we should never forget that realization took an enormous battle, fought by countless brave individuals, each looking in the bedroom mirror, then somehow calling up the courage to go tell their father something he didn’t necessarily want to know.



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