When I was five years old, my favorite toy was my mother’s silver charm bracelet. It was a beautiful piece of jewelry; dangling from a delicately crafted chain were 20 intricate charms that included a graceful little hula dancer whose hips actually moved.
I spent hours playing with this lovely bauble, fingering the charms, then putting the bracelet on my tiny wrist. I remember my father’s consternation when he saw me parading around the living room sporting something girls wore. Why wasn’t I interested in the baseball mitt he had given me for my birthday?
This early manifestation of being a gay child was the beginning of a bumpy and often unhappy personal journey that I look back on now, 65 years later, with both sadness and satisfaction — and more than a small dose of resignation. Sadness because my childhood was unhappy; satisfaction because I survived decades of un-deserved meanness and made a success of myself professionally and socially, having excelled at my work and forged a small circle of loyal friends; resignation because I see real change in attitudes coming all too slowly, even from people I would expect to be gay-friendly.
The result, in personal terms, is the survival of a person with a worldview that says “nothing surprises me.” Well, almost nothing.
My thick skin continues to develop new layers of hardness even in liberal, anything-goes New York City. Not long after I moved to Mott Haven, the deceptively tony name for our inner-city Bronx address, my neighbors, seeing me constantly in the company of another man who is my life partner of 33 years, put two-and-two together and figured out I was gay. Suddenly, overnight it seemed, the friendly greetings of “Que pasa, amigo?” and “Wasup, Bro?” that greeted me when I first walked down my block turned to stony silence and averted glances.
Time heals in the sense that now after 15 years, it doesn’t hurt so much anymore. And my thick layer of skin gets nicely thicker. Almost bullet-proof you might say. But not quite. And here’s why.
One of my oldest friends is a brilliant woman who is a fine writer and an outstanding journalist of the liberal, crusading school. In her articles, she attacks injustice and aims to make the United States a better place, one that can be admired and emulated around the world. In her essays, she has railed against Abu Ghraib prison; her article on drone aircraft made me cringe with shame.
So it was with considerable expectation that I waited for Brenda’s article celebrating the recent Supreme Court decision striking down DOMA. But it didn’t happen. Brenda’s silence puzzled me. I was troubled not hearing her voice on this civil rights issue that I felt was so important not only to the gay community, but to American society as a whole.
So I wrote to Brenda asking her when her piece on DOMA would appear. Her reply was nothing short of Edith Bunker-esque, consisting of one short sentence: “ Oh, I didn’t think about THAT!” In a second email I asked her “WHY?” Her answer knocked the wind out of me. Assuring me she was on the forefront of civil rights issues, having fought for gender equality since the 1970s, she said that DOMA and gay rights were not her issue, that she didn’t feel “qualified” to write about that topic. I digested this explanation and wondered how drones and Abu Ghraib had become “her issues” and areas of expertise, but not the striking down of DOMA.
So now when I walk down my block every morning to catch the train to Manhattan, I almost have a warm feeling for the stoop homophobes who ignore me. At least I know where they stand. There is a refreshing honesty in their narrow-mindedness. They are not “thinkers” like my brilliant, liberal journo friend Brenda. They’re just ordinary folks conditioned by what their parents told them. I know I can’t change them, but maybe their kids will think differently.
So let’s celebrate the end of DOMA, all the while realizing that real grassroots social change flows like molasses and that indifference to needed reform sometimes comes from the most unexpected people. And for the time being, I will try to restrain my utter joy about my impending marriage, being careful about whom I mention the words “my husband” to. You never know about some people dressed in sheep’s clothing !
Sam Oglesby is a writer of memoirs whose recent book, “Encounters: A Memoir — Relationship Journeys from Around the World,” won runner-up in the New York Book Festival Awards.