Nearly two decades ago a cousin came out of the closet to me. Or rather, his sister did it for him, while we were on a flight for our grandmother’s funeral.
She shared the information about her brother’s sexuality because it was soon to be common knowledge in our family. And while it wasn’t a surprise to me — or to almost everyone else in the family — it did come as a shock to his father, my uncle, who, from what I was told, dropped to his hands and knees and sobbed over his son’s Christmas morning revelation.
It’s been an uneasy truce between the two ever since, with the son rarely bringing his longtime partner to family functions, including my wedding. Most of the time, his dad pretends not to know; sort of like the family version of the now defunct U.S. military policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
But as the Supreme Court’s rulings Wednesday against the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 indicates, my uncle is increasingly in the minority.
A recent Gallup poll indicates that 53 percent of Americans now support gay marriage. In 1996, the percentage was only 27 percent.
Was it really only decades ago that homosexuality was considered a mental illness? And yet last week the nation’s biggest “pray the gay away” ministry, Exodus International, shut down its operations when its president Alan Chambers acknowledged the process of “reparative” therapy didn’t work.
Decades ago actors such as Rock Hudson hid their sexuality. Hudson, like many gay actors, believed the public would reject a gay leading man.
Now actors such as Neil Patrick Harris, Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto are far more willing to reveal their sexuality with little to no backlash. If anything, the revelation seems to bolster their popularity.
At this point in the popular culture time line, Ellen DeGeneres’ 1997 prime-time outing on her sitcom Ellen seems distant. Even more antiquated is Love, Sidney, a 1981 sitcom about an older bachelor who takes in a single mom and her young daughter. The two-hour film on which the show was based, Sidney Shorr: A Girl’s Best Friend, casually implied that Sidney (Tony Randall) was gay. But the series played down his sexuality after boisterous complaints from anti-gay groups to NBC.
Seventeen years later the same network had two openly gay characters in the sitcom Will & Grace.
That’s major progress. Sexual preference, like race and gender, is no longer considered a reflection of a person’s character or ability. And those who feel otherwise are increasingly on the social fringe of what’s culturally acceptable.
This phenomenon of acceptance didn’t occur overnight, but in pop culture — and certainly historical — terms it feels like it. Yes, there remain the anti-gay groups and organizations that decry what they term as “the gay agenda,” a concept that implies that there’s a cabal scheming to indoctrinate the youth with outrageous messages of tolerance.
The truth, of course, is that this seismic social change has hardly been sneaky. It’s been out for years and years. In music. In art. In movies and TV. In literature. And inevitably, we’ll say the same about professional sports.
In terms of popular culture, the gay rallying cry of “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” has never been more true. And in the instance of my uncle … hopefully accepted.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.
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