The Right To Be Ordinary

At last official count nearly 500 gay and lesbian couples had been united in civil unions this summer in Vermont. There were flowers, champagne, brides and brides, grooms and grooms. The sky did not fall. The earth did not split in two. Happy families and happy friends watched happy people pledge their love. Big deal. Ho-hum. Yawn.

It's hard sometimes to put your finger on the tipping point of tolerance. It's not usually the Thurgood Marshalls and the Sally Rides, the big headlines and the major stories. It's in the small incremental ways the world stops seeing differences as threatening. It's in the woman at the next desk, the guy behind the counter at the deli. And it's finally happening for gay men and lesbians. They're becoming ordinary. It's not that Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche came out and came together; it's that when they broke up they were treated like Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid.

Sometimes the advances seem at first like setbacks. The Supreme Court decision that the Boy Scouts of America could keep out gay scoutmasters has turned into a Pyrrhic victory for Scouting. Straight men who were once Eagle Scouts sent back their badges. United Way chapters pulled their financial support. Cities and states that had passed laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation told Scout troops they could no longer use public facilities. Local Boy Scout councils asked the national group to reconsider its decision.

What began as an effort by a gay legal group to protect the rights of gay Scouts and scoutmasters also became a movement by straight people who thought the whole thing stank of simple bigotry. On paper the gay scoutmaster lost; in reality it was Scouting officials who took a beating. "Maybe it should be called the Boy Scouts of Certain Americans," one lifelong Scout told a local paper in Massachusetts as he sent back his Eagle Scout insignia.

Ruminating on the changes in the national climate in the last 10 years, Evan Wolfson of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, who argued the scoutmaster case with the help of one of the largest collections of amicus briefs in Supreme Court history, says, "We've won the war. Now we just need to win the battles."

The war was won in hearts and minds, at school-board meetings and on playground benches. Early on, because of the closet and the climate, most straight men and women didn't know anyone who was gay, or didn't know they did. With the AIDS epidemic, what they knew focused on body fluids, sexual practices and premature death. But in the last decade, with the fight for gay marriage and adoptions, teaching positions and spots as scoutmasters, the image of the gay community has changed to one of ordinary people searching for the ordinary ideal: commitment, love, privacy, work, family. People who, just like heterosexuals, are a good deal more than simply what they do in bed.

The old familiar saws about why discrimination, even revulsion and hatred, are justified have begun to fall away. What remains is largely inchoate, or Biblical. (Note to interested parties: I already have that verse from Leviticus. Have received it many times. Don't send it again.) The best response to all that suspiciously selective Scripture is a goof letter to Dr. Laura Schlessinger making the rounds on the Internet. (Note to the anonymous author: bravo.) It thanks the conservative radio-talk-show host, who has a loyal following of people who apparently were not yelled at enough as children and are trying to find someone to make up for it, for educating people regarding God's law on homosexuality. But it raises a few questions about Biblical passages that seem to be conveniently overlooked:

"Leviticus 25:44 states that I may buy slaves from the nations that are around us. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans but not Canadians. Can you clarify? I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself? A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Leviticus 11:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?"

If there are good laughs, can full equality be far behind? Sure, there is still plenty of prejudice. Even the civil unions in Vermont are only a second-rate kind of marriage, smacking of second-class citizenship. There are still too many gay bias murders, too, and too many committed by young men who feel threatened by the very notion of homosexuality. That's one of the saddest things about the decision by the Boy Scouts, that they send a clear message to those who most need to learn tolerance that homophobia is acceptable, natural, even praiseworthy. (Question for the candidates: the president of the United States is the honorary head of the Boy Scouts of America. Will you refuse the job in light of the organization's exclusion of gay men?)

The Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force did a survey over the last year that showed that almost one in three gay men and lesbians in Pennsylvania had reported some discrimination in the last year. Those figures differed little from the results of similar surveys done almost a decade ago. That's probably true of women, too, and black Americans, and Latinos, that there is still enough prejudice, both individual and institutional, both subtle and overt, to go around. But there is no doubt that things have changed.

It is almost tangible, the ways in which ordinary people who happen to be gay have become unremarkable. This summer the attention of the entire nation focused on a game show whose desert-island participants needed to be physically competent and hugely canny. The guy who won "Survivor" was a gay man. His sexuality was a subordinate clause. He was swamped with endorsement offers and interview requests, and now he's in one of those milk ads. Big deal. Ho-hum. Yawn. Oh, and hurray.