Shades Of Gay

In their small town in central Pennsylvania, Gary and Greg, both in their late 30s, are known to neighbors simply as "the guys." The town is fairly conservative, and the two men thought twice before buying a house there. But Greg grew up nearby and trusted the people. In two years they've had few bad experiences. They call each other "honey" in the grocery store, and the children of their straight friends call them "uncle" and "uncle." At Gary's office, his straight co-workers tend to be more up on gay issues than he is, not to mention the plot lines from "Will & Grace." "They realize we have the same worries they do," says Gary. "Now in tax season, they'll say, 'That sucks that you can't put Greg on your return'." Yet within this cocoon of small-town bonhomie, the two men and their friends straddle the paradox of gay life in 2000: with every increment of progress in politics, Hollywood and the workplace, there arise new nodes of friction.

No longer bracketed by the AIDS crisis or the daily thrum of overt bigotry, gays and straights are engaging in each other's lives in more intimate ways than ever before, with a contradictory mixture of progress and resistance. In the following pages, NEWSWEEK explores the often-disorienting frontiers of a struggle no longer easily defined by protests or rabid rhetoric: the thorny play between gays and straights in the family, the schools, the military and the church.

Across the country, men and women like Gary and Greg negotiate lives that would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago. Open homosexuals cut an unprecedented profile in politics, on television and movies, and in the mundane vicissitudes of even small-town America. With role models like rock star Melissa Etheridge and her partner, Julie Cypher, more couples are having or adopting children, and so engaging in the civic life of schools, day-care centers and sports leagues. Employers are increasingly extending health benefits to same-sex partners. For gay teens, whose experience has often been one of dark isolation, about 700 high schools now have gay-straight alliances. And the Internet has become a boundless mecca for gay social life. Even Republicans are taking at least cautious note of the rising political bloc. After some awkward sputtering, George W. Bush last week agreed to consider meeting with the gay Log Cabin Republicans, a tentative but landmark step for a party and candidate that actively court constituencies opposed to gay rights. "The anti-gay vote," says Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, who is openly gay, "is shrinking."

But this tide of good news describes only one half of the paradox. Last week California passed Proposition 22, becoming the 31st state to pass a new law banning same-sex marriages (Colorado will soon become the 32d). These are key losses in what has become one of the most contentious fronts of the gay-rights movement. Against the protest of gay groups, Paramount TV announced an upcoming show of Dr. Laura Schlessinger, whose radio broadcasts reach 20 million listeners, and who has called homosexuality a "biological error" and gay sex "deviant." Hate crimes like the murder of Matthew Shepard and Pfc. Barry Winchell, beaten to death in his bunk at Fort Campbell, Ky., last July, shatter the most deeply cherished notions of security. Gay people of color, in particular, often find themselves buffeted by competing biases. "Holding hands walking down the street?" asks Kevin McGruder, executive director of Gay Men of African Descent in New York. "That's not something I'd do in Harlem." For the first time, more gay and bisexual black and Latino men than whites were diagnosed with AIDS in 1998. For gays and lesbians, as well as their families and friends, this push-pull between progress and resistance cuts directly through their lives--how to live in a culture that loves Rupert Everett but kills Barry Winchell?

This ambivalence plays out in two new NEWSWEEK Polls--one of the general public, the other of gays, lesbians and bisexuals--that draw strikingly different lines of perceived acceptance and discrimination. About two thirds of the general public say they have contact with openly gay people. This familiarity has brought a level of comfort. Fewer (46 percent, down from 54 percent in 1998) say they believe homosexuality is a sin, while a high percentage think gays should have equal rights in employment (83 percent) and housing (78 percent), and that gay spouses should get benefits from health insurance (58 percent) and Social Security (54 percent). A small majority of gays, lesbians and bisexuals (56 percent) say straight people are becoming more tolerant. Only 9 percent say straights are less tolerant. (Polling gays is notoriously tricky, and this sample, provided by a marketing company, is likely to be more upscale and openly gay than the larger gay and lesbian population.)

On more intimate questions, though, straight people are not always so comfortable. For all their expressed good will toward homosexuals, 57 percent are opposed to gay marriage; 50 percent say gays should not adopt; 35 percent oppose gays serving openly in the military; 36 percent say gays should not teach elementary school. Six in 10 gay men and women perceive "a lot" of discrimination against homosexuals. "Gays and lesbians as a group are still among the most despised minorities," says Columbia University researcher Alan Yang, who has analyzed a wide array of nonpartisan polls. For all the progress of recent years, he says, the public still ranks gays on a par with undocumented immigrants.

In her home in conservative Orange County, Calif., last week, Denise Penn, 40, felt the bitter sting of this contradiction. Penn, who is bisexual, has always felt comfortable in her community. "In my home life," she says, "I'm a mom and people I meet just treat me that way. When some dykey-looking women come over to my house, my neighbors just casually wave hi." But the battle over Proposition 22, the ban on gay marriage, shook her. Neighbors displayed a sea of blue and yellow signs reading protect marriage. She wanted to put up a red sign opposing the initiative, but her 15-year-old son worried. "He's afraid people will hurt me," she says.

The courts and the political arena reflect the conflicted instincts of the nation at large. As California and Colorado were moving to ban gay marriage, Vermont's House Judiciary Committee earlier this month approved a bill that would recognize same-sex "civil unions" (the bill must still go before the whole House and Senate). The state's auditor, Ed Flanagan, is now running to become the first openly gay man elected to the U.S. Senate. His eight-year career in office, he maintains, has been neither helped nor hurt by his sexual orientation. "The most significant thing about coming out [in 1995]," he says, "was that there really was no change."

On a Sunday afternoon in Pennsylvania, Gary and Greg and their friends grapple with their mixed fortunes. Instead of rhetorical fury, they alternate between casual ease and an edge of nuanced grievance. They mention a mutual friend--goodhearted, straight, liberal. "But he doesn't think gay people should adopt," says Barbie Sunderlin, 37, a courier for Federal Express. "Ed," a dentist, says his brother and sister accept him, but don't want their kids to know he's gay. "I guess there must be something wrong with what I am," he says. Peggy Lichty, 41, who runs a small business, complains that her local Blue Cross/Blue Shield underwriter doesn't offer a plan that would enable her to cover her employees' domestic partners. Even acceptance, says Sunderlin, echoing a lament from the civil-rights movement, has come at the cost of self-censorship. "We make our inroads in society because we purposely make ourselves mainstream. Not that you deny your individuality or your sexuality. But you don't automatically say what you think."

These are the subtle conflicts that shape life in the diminuendo of the AIDS crisis. Until very recently, the framework for such struggles didn't even exist. Just six years ago, says Beatrice Dohrn, legal director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, "the gay-marriage project... was considered on the loony fringes of the movement. Judges would say children shouldn't be in the custody of gay couples and that's it. Now, having children is a serious option. It's a sea change." Such are the growing pains of a maturing movement. Three decades after the Stonewall Riots in New York's Greenwich Village, it's these intimate battles, the home fires, that have become the fire this time.

Photo: Out and About: Left to right, from previous page: Judge Michael Sonberg, police officer Gale Griffiths, filmmaker Catherine Gund and poet Melanie Hope with twins Kofi and Rio and daughter Sadie Rain (seated), opthalmic technician Nancie March, Vermont state auditor Ed Flanagan, internal physician Michael Donatelli and Tim Tutt, third-grade teacher. Everybody's experience is different. Flanagan, who is running for U.S. Senate, says coming out changed nothing politically for him. Judge Sonberg says: "It's very strange to be part of the establishment and yet know you're part of a despised minority. But you learn to live with it."

Photo: Out and About: Left to right, from previous page: Judge Michael Sonberg, police officer Gale Griffiths, filmmaker Catherine Gund and poet Melanie Hope with twins Kofi and Rio and daughter Sadie Rain (seated), opthalmic technician Nancie March, Vermont state auditor Ed Flanagan, internal physician Michael Donatelli and Tim Tutt, third-grade teacher. Everybody's experience is different. Flanagan, who is running for U.S. Senate, says coming out changed nothing politically for him. Judge Sonberg says: "It's very strange to be part of the establishment and yet know you're part of a despised minority. But you learn to live with it."