How will the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage alter the way Americans feel about the country, and how we feel about ourselves?
I can’t speak for everyone. But I can speak for this one 12-year-old boy.
He stands out among his siblings because he lacks their optimism about things, even their quickness to smile. He has a darkness that they don’t. He’s a worrier, a brooder. He’s also more self-conscious. He can’t get comfortable with himself.
And while this may be his wiring, it may also be something else. He has noticed that his heart beats faster not for girls but for other boys, and the sensation is as lonely and terrifying as it is intense.
He doesn’t know what to do about it. He’s sure he'll be reviled for it, because he hears all of the bigoted jokes that people aren’t necessarily aware that they’re telling, all of the cruel asides that they don’t always realize that they’re muttering. He craves some assurance that he'll be spared their disdain and disgust. But the world hasn’t given him any.
I can speak for a 16-year-old boy. He has a word for what he is - “gay” or “homosexual” or something worse, depending on who’s talking - but he doesn’t have answers for what that’s going to mean. At the mall one afternoon, he surreptitiously breaks away from his friends and steals into a bookstore. He’s looking for something to quiet the fear inside him.
He finds an examination of “being gay in America” that’s called “Alienated Affections.” The phrase rattles him. It sounds like a diagnosis or sinister prophecy. To understand it better, he riffles hurriedly through the pages, glancing over his shoulder repeatedly to make sure that no one’s watching, listening carefully for any approaching steps.
His nerve doesn’t last long; he manages to take in only a reference to drag queens, an explanation of bondage, an exploration of homoeroticism among prisoners.
These are his options? Feathers, chains or the chain gang?
The title of one chapter in particular catches his eye: “Beyond Gay or Gloomy: The Ordinary Miseries of Everyday Life.” Gloomy? Miseries?
He’s not sure he has the stomach for this, or the strength.
He closes the book, along with a bit of his heart.
I can speak for a 20-year-old college student. He has opened up to his family and to many friends about who he is, not because he possesses any particular courage but because being honest involves less strain, less effort, than keeping secrets and dreading their exposure. Also because he wants to meet men like him, develop crushes he can act on, even fall in love.
And so far, there’s been no terrible price. His family doesn’t wholly understand him, but they want and resolve to. For every friend who now keeps a distance, there’s another who draws closer.
He’s overwhelmed with relief.
But he wishes there were a way to be honest without wearing a tag, without being put in a category, without one adjective preceding all others when people describe him. Their tendency to do so is a constant reminder that he’s not “normal.”
So are the laws of his land. It’s illegal in many places for two men or two women to have sex. It’s legal in most places for them to be fired because of who and how they love. Even the language in public discussions sends an ugly signal. People are congratulated for their “tolerance” of gays and lesbians.
He is someone to be tolerated.
And he is always having to explain, to one inquisitive person after another, that he didn’t choose this path, that it’s not a statement or a caprice, that he neither rues nor relishes it, that it’s just there: fundamental, foundational, forever. The ritual grinds him down.
I can speak for a 30-year-old man who owns and lives in a house in the suburbs with another man his age. They’re romantic partners. A couple. A white picket fence surrounds the yard behind their red brick colonial. It keeps the German shepherd from straying off.
But this fantasy has been edited, abridged. The man and his partner have never spoken of children, because that would involve special, intricate arrangements and because most people don’t really approve.
They have never hugged in the front yard, never kissed in front of a window, because what would the neighbors think? What would the neighbors do?
And while he thinks of these as minor adjustments, to the extent that he thinks of them at all, there’s a toll to such vigilance. It’s that old self-consciousness in a new form. And there’s a longing beneath it - to be appraised solely on the expanse and the limits of his talents, on the goodness he musters and the goodness he lacks. To be deemed and regarded as the equal of anybody else.
I can speak for a 45-year-old man who marvels gratefully at the changes all around him. Although he himself doesn’t plan to have kids - he has too little energy at this point, and is too set in his ways - he sees many gay and lesbian couples starting families. If they live in the right places, they pretty much blend in.
But there are still wrong places, and there’s still plenty of oxygen for religious extremists who brand people like him wretched, evil, godless. In some countries, these extremists do more than brand. They kill, and it’s a horrific thing to know and to see. In the man’s country, the extremists don’t go that far, and they’re increasingly a minority, but they’re undaunted, unabashed and too often indulged.
He wonders when he'll see more cracks in that indulgence. It’s time.
In 2015, on the last Friday of a month fittingly associated with both weddings and gay pride, there’s something bigger than a crack. There’s a rupture.
Following a few extraordinary years during which one state after another legalized same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court rules that all states must do so, that the Constitution demands it, that it’s a matter of “equal dignity in the eyes of the law,” as Justice Anthony Kennedy writes.
I can speak for a 50-year-old man who expected this to happen but still can’t quite believe it, because it seemed impossible when he was young, because it seemed implausible even when he was a bit older, and because everything is different now, or will be.
Tomorrow’s 12-year-old won’t feel the foreboding that yesterday’s did. Tomorrow’s 16-year-old will be less likely to confront, sort through and reject so many sad stereotypes of what it means to be gay or lesbian.
There won’t be so many apologies and explanations for the 20-year-old, 30-year-old or 45-year-old, and there won’t be such a ready acceptance of limits. There won’t be the same limits, period.
And that’s because the Supreme Court’s decision wasn’t simply about weddings. It was about worth. From the highest of this nation’s perches, in the most authoritative of this nation’s voices, a majority of justices told a minority of Americans that they’re normal and that they belong - fully, joyously and with cake.