The Right to Be Ordinary: Weddings, Scouting, Surviving-Gay Men and Lesbians Are More Than What They Do in Bed

By Quindlen, Anna | Newsweek, September 11, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Right to Be Ordinary: Weddings, Scouting, Surviving-Gay Men and Lesbians Are More Than What They Do in Bed


Quindlen, Anna, Newsweek


At last official count nearly 500 gay and lesbian couples had been united in civil unions this summer in Vermont. There were flowers, champagne, brides and brides, grooms and grooms. The sky did not fall. The earth did not split in two. Happy families and happy friends watched happy people pledge their love. Big deal. Ho-hum. Yawn.

It's hard sometimes to put your finger on the tipping point of tolerance. It's not usually the Thurgood Marshalls and the Sally Rides, the big headlines and the major stories. It's in the small incremental ways the world stops seeing differences as threatening. It's in the woman at the next desk, the guy behind the counter at the deli. And it's finally happening for gay men and lesbians. They're becoming ordinary. It's not that Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche came out and came together; it's that when they broke up they were treated like Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid.

Sometimes the advances seem at first like setbacks. The Supreme Court decision that the Boy Scouts of America could keep out gay scoutmasters has turned into a Pyrrhic victory for Scouting. Straight men who were once Eagle Scouts sent back their badges. United Way chapters pulled their financial support. Cities and states that had passed laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation told Scout troops they could no longer use public facilities. Local Boy Scout councils asked the national group to reconsider its decision.

What began as an effort by a gay legal group to protect the rights of gay Scouts and scoutmasters also became a movement by straight people who thought the whole thing stank of simple bigotry. On paper the gay scoutmaster lost; in reality it was Scouting officials who took a beating. "Maybe it should be called the Boy Scouts of Certain Americans," one lifelong Scout told a local paper in Massachusetts as he sent back his Eagle Scout insignia.

Ruminating on the changes in the national climate in the last 10 years, Evan Wolfson of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, who argued the scoutmaster case with the help of one of the largest collections of amicus briefs in Supreme Court history, says, "We've won the war. Now we just need to win the battles."

The war was won in hearts and minds, at school-board meetings and on playground benches. Early on, because of the closet and the climate, most straight men and women didn't know anyone who was gay, or didn't know they did. With the AIDS epidemic, what they knew focused on body fluids, sexual practices and premature death. But in the last decade, with the fight for gay marriage and adoptions, teaching positions and spots as scoutmasters, the image of the gay community has changed to one of ordinary people searching for the ordinary ideal: commitment, love, privacy, work, family. People who, just like heterosexuals, are a good deal more than simply what they do in bed.

The old familiar saws about why discrimination, even revulsion and hatred, are justified have begun to fall away.

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