It Makes No Difference

By Charles Kaiser
From Entertainment West
June 1979

Ten years ago this month gay men in the Stonewall Inn on Christopher street rebelled when New York city policemen raided the place, and the modern gay liberation movement was born in America.

After one decade its achievements are substantial. Nearly 40 towns and cities have some kind of law or ordinance prohibiting discrimination against gays. So do I.B.M., A.T. & T., 120 other corporations, the United States Civil Service and even the State Department. Twenty-two states have repealed all restrictions on sex acts between consenting adults — and so have most of the sitcoms on prime time television. The C.I.A. and the military still pretend to exclude gays but the Navy at least has begun to give them honorable discharges. And two months ago gays received one of the liberal establishment's most coveted seals of approval: a favorable cover story in Time magazine.

The subtler changes are just as significant. When John Lindsay's Health Commissioner Howard Brown "came out" early in the decade, it made front page news in The New York Times. When the current Cultural Affairs Commissioner Henry Geldzhaler did the same thing last winter, it made one paragraph on page 6 of The New York Post.

Probably most important is the simple acceptance of the fact that homosexuals really are everywhere in this society — yes, Virginia, even football players. (Many would argue that seeing Jackie Robinson play brilliant baseball on national television in the early '50s did more to make racial prejudice unacceptable in this country than anything else until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.)

In 1963, a 12-year-old could encounter the word "homosexual" for the first time in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and not even know what it meant. Now any 12-year-old in Topeka whose parents own a television set could never be so ignorant. (It was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota where 17-year-old Randy Rohl took his 20-year-old boy friend to the prom last month.)

After ten years of trying to compensate for two hundred years of bigotry, the movement has even convinced a few Americans that the sex of the person one sleeps with may not determine much more than the sex of the person one sleeps with.

These are all signs of vastly more civilized attitudes. Yet homophobia — the hatred of homosexuals — remains the most respectable prejudice in America.

The ignorance feeding that prejudice is still all around us. Simple acknowledgment of the existence of homosexuality is called a "threat to our children," even though all evidence suggests that the number of homosexuals is remarkably stable at about 10 percent of the population — and most researchers agree that people's proclivities are determined at a very early age by, as yet, unidentifiable events. Statistics show heterosexual molestation of children is much more common than is homosexual counterpart, but the opposite myth is still trotted out every time an anti-discrimination ordinance gets challenged at the polls.

And then there's the teacher as role model dogma: the idea that despite the overwhelmingly pro-heterosexual indoctrination every child receives from birth, sitting in a classroom with an openly gay man or woman without horns will somehow result in a miraculous conversion. People don't choose to be gay in America, as Nicholas von Hoffman would have it; they accept a reality within themselves that nine out of ten of their peers have pressured them to reject.

But for Mr. von Hoffman, Jeff Greenfield, Adam Wallinsky, and scores of other self-proclaimed liberals — not to mention supposedly enlightened conservatives like George Will — it remains perfectly respectable to oppose the formal extension of the 14th amendment's guarantee of equal protection of the laws to homosexuals. It is still O.K. to be liberal and anti-gay in America.

To take a not unusually extreme example, listen to the sentiments of self-described "liberal Democrat" Mark Henehan, who wrote the following in the letters column of The Times afer the defeat of the anti-discrimination ordinance in Miami:

"What the blatant gay activists who flaunt their sexual aberration really want is society's full approval of their perverted life style so that their recruitment of young boys and girls will be easier and less expensive."

Would The Times have printed such a letter even ten years ago if had suggested the only reason blacks wanted their rights guaranteed was to simplify the seduction of white women?

Like the Greenfields and the Wallinskys, Mr. Henehan would undoubtedly be happier if gays would keep their sexual preferences to themselves, inside their own bedrooms where they belong. It has somehow escaped these luminaries that most gays would probably be happier if that were possible, too.

Most gays do not want to flaunt their sexuality. The reason they shout and protest and even riot, as they did last month in San Francisco, is that they live in a society so backward that the discovery of what one does in one's own bedroom can still jeopardize the very foundation of a person's life. Yes, the major corporations and the Federal government say they will no longer discriminate against gays. But in 1979 it is still true that those who publicly proclaim their homosexuality are probably giving up the chance to rise to the pinnacle of most professions.

As black Americans discovered long ago, not even the most stringent law eradicates the subtler forms of prejudice. But a Federal law guaranteeing gay men and women the same rights all other Americans already enjoy would be a beginning. Until those rights exist for all, no one an safely remain silent about them.

As Mary Calderone wrote in The Times on the same say Mr. Henehan's letter appeared, "Our shame should really be that this is a country that requires such protective ordinances in the first place."

This was the first article I ever wrote about the gay liberation movement. It was published by Judy Barnett in Entertainment West on the tenth anniversary of the Stonewall Riot.

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