It is a moment in history I never thought I’d live to see. With rare common sense and humanity, the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled so-called “sodomy” laws unconstitutional. For the first time in American history, millions of us are no longer considered illegal in the eyes of our society and the law.
In recent years especially, we homosexuals have been singled out as scapegoats and vilified by extremists in the religious right who often seem to have hijacked our government. We knew what they were saying about us was not true, yet, there they were being taken seriously as if they were experts on human behavior on every talk show in America. There has been nothing pleasant about hearing your life and “lifestyle” constantly held up to ridicule by people who don’t even know you. However, so long as the laws forbidding homosexual acts in the privacy of one’s home stayed on the books, the outrageous claims that we were an “immoral” threat were given some credence. Homosexuals shouldn’t be teachers, the extremists could say, because homosexual acts are illegal in this state.
It should have been obvious to anybody with a mind to think that morality involves a choice. And, please believe me, nobody in his right mind would have chosen to live the way we were forced to live throughout history.
I was born 62 years ago on a hilltop farm in a picturesque village just north of Asheville. If I live to be a thousand, there is a moment frozen in my memory from my childhood. I was in fourth or fifth grade, crossing the street from Woodfin Low School when one of the big boys in eighth grade yelled that awful word “queer” at me. If I didn’t know all the particulars, I knew it was the worst that could be said, one boy of another.
The worst part of it was that I knew in my heart it was true. I was different; I was queer. As I became aware of this deep dark secret, I felt that through some horrible accident of birth, I was cursed to this silly societal category and would always be laughed at as a fruit, a pansy, a fairy, queer. There was not one day in my childhood and early manhood when thoughts of suicide did not cloud my mind. Even today, I am mortified to report, the suicide rate among homosexual teenagers is several times that of heterosexual teenagers. The problem was not the very natural condition of homosexuality; we were born that way. The problem was trying to make a life for yourself in a society where homosexuals were despised by so many people and considered illegal by the courts. I fully understand why so many thousands of us simply could not cope and chose the quick and easy way out.
If all this sounds extreme, consider just a few of the incidents that shaped me. The priest at the beautiful old Episcopal church where I played the organ was arrested after picking up a man at the Asheville bus station and having sex with him. The man “rolled” the priest, an acceptable form of robbery when the victim is queer. But, it was the priest who got arrested on sodomy charges. He was forced to resign the priesthood in disgrace. A man voted most valuable instructor by students at UNC was fired when I was a student there in the early 1960s and working at the Chapel Hill Weekly. The university chancellor told my editor and he told me, “the real reason is the guy’s queer.” There was gossip about a handsome young lawyer who was clearly headed for greatness in Democratic politics in North Carolina in the early 1960s. “He was, well, you knowÉ” And one fine day, he stepped into the backyard of his parents’ house and put another of those pistols to the head, ending the awful confusion in his life. The first year I lived in New York, I remember a page-one photograph in the Daily News, imprinted forever in my mind. It showed a South American diplomat, rounded up in a raid on gay bars, who had leaped out a window and impaled himself on the spikes of an iron fence.
I earned my macho merit badges the old fashioned way–hiding my true nature, lying about my homosexuality. I went through the Army’s basic training at Fort Benning and advanced individual training at the Military Police School at Fort Gordon, Ga. As a UPI correspondent in Vietnam, I witnessed the Tet Offensive in Saigon, the battle for Hue, the siege at Khe Sanh. [You’ll find me among the “Colleagues” in Michael Herr’s book, Dispatches.] And somewhere amidst that awful carnage, I simply got up one morning unafraid to be myself. When I began to live openly as a homosexual and to write about it, I lost no real friends and gained many new ones. I understood the real joy of what one Nazi death camp survivor described: “Freedom is not having to lie about who you are.” The legendary News & Observer columnist Charlie Craven wrote me: “If you’re queer, you’re OUR queer.”
I contend the kinds of societal attitudes that focus on people’s differences are harmful not just to the victims but even more harmful to the society at large. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said as much in her opinion handed down this month: “A law branding one class of persons as criminal solely based on the state’s moral disapproval of that class and the conduct association with that class runs contrary to the values of the Constitution and the Equal Protection Clause.”
Only those of us who have had to live under this terrible legal curse all these years can understand the dreadful implications of what Justice Anthony Kennedy said with remarkable calm good sense after all these years: “The state cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime.”
Tears come to my eyes as I think of all those years being unfairly demeaned. Ten years ago, I came home to a North Carolina that had changed in many wonderful ways, but not in this one. Our own beloved state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Carrboro) persistently introduced legislation to do away with our state sodomy laws. But the shameful truth is North Carolina would never have done away with these laws if the Supreme Court hadn’t forced the issue. As a woman legislator from my home county of Buncombe explained several years ago about her fellow legislators and the subject of homosexuality: “Those boys are just scared.”
What a joyful day in all our lives when we homosexuals no longer have to live in fear of arrest; when the men in power don’t have to be scared of the issue.