By Lee J. Kahrs
Vermonters are generally known for keeping to themselves, not getting into their neighbor’s business, and respecting each other’s privacy. Gay Vermonters are no exception.
For the last eight years, I have kept my personal life and opinions separate from my job as the editor of The Reporter. I am a pretty private person, and I maintain a clear line separating my journalistic life and my home life, as all good journalists should. A reporter’s worst nightmare is to become the subject of the news they report.
But it’s hard to be private this week, because I’m gay and the Supreme Court decided a few days ago that I am not a second-class citizen. By a vote of 5-4, the court ruled that I have the right to marry the person I love in any state I choose. It is a historic civil rights decision that I never thought I would see in my lifetime. It’s like the Emancipation Proclamation for gays and lesbians.
I came out 30 years ago this year. In 1985, I was a scared and uncertain 19-year-old college sophomore stuck in conservative Fort Collins, Colo. I fell in love for the first time in my life, that year, and then endured my first heartbreak, and I was completely alone in my struggle to figure out who I was.
But in the spring of that year, my housemates sat me down and gently outed me. These two straight, white girls from Colorado told me they knew I was gay and that it was O.K. I just cried. I was still so worried about what my parents would say, but in that moment, I felt understood and accepted.
Last Friday, as I read Justice Anthony Kennedy’s remarkably sensitive and poignant closing summation of the decision, I felt it again, but on such an enormous, national scale that hyperbole doesn’t justify it.
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these man and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to dine its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded form one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
There isn’t a word in that passage that doesn’t validate every gay cell in my body. I am 49 years old. When I came out, Ronald Reagan was president. For the eight years he was in office, from 1980-1988, Reagan refused to even acknowledge that AIDS existed and was killing thousands of gay men, and therefore refused to fund research into finding a cure.
Then, in the 1990s, Bill Clinton was president. We thought things would get better. Economically, they did. But his “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy regarding gays serving in the military came up short in allowing gays to serve openly. Then again, it was seen as a victory for Gay Rights. I never understood how not being allowed to be yourself and still do your job could be a victory.
In 2004, I met my soulmate here in Vermont and we availed ourselves of the hard-fought Civil Union law legalized the year before. In 2009, when Vermont legalized gay marriage, we had another wedding to celebrate.
When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it sounded great on paper. Legally and technically, it meant that black people held as slaves in the rebellious states were declared free.
As we all know full well, and in light of recent events in South Carolina, black people struggle every day against racism and the threat of violence it carries, now — 152 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. They fought for their civil rights during the 1960s to bring about the end of the Jim Crow south, but here is 2015, we’re still talking about the Confederate flag and what it means.
Last week, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee gave landmark status to the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement touched off by the Stonewall Riots that began on June 28, 1969.
Our struggles have parallels, and it was never clearer to me than when the first black president of the United States stood in the Rose Garden on Friday and lauded the High Court’s decision.
“Our nation was founded on a bedrock principle — that we are all created equal,” the president said, saying that progress on the journey to equality “comes in small increments. Sometimes two steps forward, one step back.”
“And then sometimes there are days like this, when that slow steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt. When all Americans are treated as equal, we are all more free. Americans of good will continue to hold a wide range of views on this issue. For all our differences, we are one people — stronger together than we will ever be alone. That has always been our story. Today, we can say in no uncertain terms that we made our union a little more perfect.”
I re-read Kennedy’ closing paragraph again and that same thunderbolt overwhelmed me. I put my head on my desk and wept. It was relief, it was disbelief, it was acceptance, it was real.
We as a society are far from perfect. Racism and homophobia will exist, and taking down Confederate flags or rulings in favor of nationwide gay marriage are not silver bullets. Minds have to change before the behavior can. Last week, I dare say we took a leap in that direction. In 30 years, I can’t remember feeling as much as a first-class citizen of the United States as I do now.
Lee Kahrs is the editor of The Reporter weekly newspaper in Brandon.