IMAGINE FOR A MOMENT THAT WE live in an alternate universe where the United States is openly hostile to lesbians and gay men. How hostile? Well, in this world, the liberal state of Massachusetts bans lesbians and gay men from being foster parents. The only gay person you might find on TV--and you'd have to search hard--is either a lisping hairdresser or a young man tragically dying. Three Maine teenagers confess that they've thrown a young man over a bridge to his death because he's gay, and the national media don't even notice; ditto when hundreds of thousands of lesbians and gay men hold a civil-rights march on the nation's capitol. The U.S. Supreme Court issues a major decision comparing homosexuality to adultery, incest, theft and the use of illegal drugs; the chief justice adds, "To hold that the act of homosexual sodomy is somehow protected as a fundamental right would be to cast aside millennia of moral teaching."
My alternate universe, of course, is the United States just 15 years ago. It's dizzying to try to remember how different attitudes were back then; many American lesbians and gay men feel as if we've since been transported to an entirely different planet. Today, of course, you can scarcely find a TV show without a sympathetic lesbian or gay character, and politicians skirmish for the more than 4 percent of the electorate who identify themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual. Perhaps most important is the change in lesbians' and gay men's daily lives: Mentioning a same-sex partner in ordinary conversation--to coworkers, doctors, nurses, teachers, contractors, strangers on a plane--no longer feels death-defying, although it hasn't exactly become a yawn.
And yet open contempt toward lesbians and gay men still erupts. This past February, for instance, the Alabama Supreme Court denied a woman custody of her children, using language in its ruling much like that of the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision quoted above. Nor have American lesbians and gay men won the most important legislative or court battles. "We haven't won on the military, we haven't won on marriage, we haven't won on the Boy Scouts," says Kevin Cathcart, executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, "and yet the world is a completely different place."
Why? How, during one of the most conservative periods in American history, at a time when progressives were badly routed on nearly every front, did lesbians and gay men win the culture war? And can an energized lesbian and gay community win the tougher civil-rights battles ahead?
BETWEEN 1987 AND 1993--THE dates of two exhilarating and massive gay-rights marches on Washington--lesbian and gay issues were dragged out of the Ann Landers and home decor columns and onto the front and editorial pages, where they have remained. (Although bisexual and transgendered people are often lumped into the same organizations and acronyms, their causes haven't yet caught up). Between those two national marches, masses of people came out and lesbian and gay issues emerged as national questions. And as the right wing spewed antigay vitriol, the media crossed over to our side. Why?
Sometimes it takes despair to provoke action. And for despair, AIDS was unbeatable. Until the epidemic, lesbian and gay activists had been the usual motley crew: artsy-lefty types who didn't want to belong to the mainstream anyway or folks who'd been so bashed, blackmailed or ostracized that they felt they had little to lose (and self-respect to gain) by stamping "homo" on their resumes. And until AIDS, lesbians and gay men, like girls and boys at a junior high school dance, kept their political distance: Girls were feminists who worked on issues such as rape or battering or Central America or nuclear disarmament while boys touted (and practiced) sexual freedom. AIDS flushed out passable white gay men, men "for whom gay liberation had meant they could have better party lives--I'm serious! …