At 11:55 last night -- only days before New York's Gay Pride Parade commemorating the 42nd anniversary of the birth of the gay rights movement -- the state became the largest in the nation to approve same-sex marriage.
Gay men and lesbians throughout the country rejoiced at a further recognition that they are equal to any other person regardless of whom they love. What a victory for all those individuals who grew up being told that there was something wrong with them.
Well, yes and no.
Here are some of the comments gay men and lesbians read or saw continually during June, the month of pride:
Same-sex marriage is "unjust and immoral" and poses "an ominous threat" to society (New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan). It will lead to "anarchy" (former New York Giants receiver David Tyree). We should not encourage "sodomites" who are "spreading sin, disease, deviancy, and a higher suicide rate" (Torah Jews for Decency, oblivious to the fact that comments like theirs are what lead to a higher suicide rate). And let's not forget comedian Tracy Morgan's infamous rant that he would stab his son to death if he were to come out as gay.
Imagine being a gay man or lesbian and hearing these comments from religious leaders, celebrities and sports heroes. Or walking in the Gay Pride Parade past "godly" people carrying signs proclaiming that AIDS is God's punishment for homosexuality. It's easy to dismiss these outrageous rants, but what about the subtle messages LGBT individuals get every day.
Imagine the guilt and hurt of knowing your parents, though accepting, blame themselves for your sexual orientation -- since, clearly, someone must be to blame. Or steering conversations at work away from what you did over the weekend for fear that coming out might hurt your career. Or to be a gay man who is afraid to hold his son's hand in public for fear of being reported for child abuse.
Remarkable progress has been made in the 42 years since the Stonewall riots. Yet nine out of ten LGBT students report experiencing harassment and nearly two-thirds of them feel unsafe in school. The incongruities are astounding -- young people are coming out far earlier then ever, yet suicide related to homosexuality remains the second leading cause of death among youth. For the first time, public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage and New York joins five states and the District of Colombia in allowing it. Yet 39 states and the federal government (through The Defense of Marriage Act) specifically ban same-sex marriage. Several more outlaw gay people from adopting or becoming foster parents because of the "risk" they pose to children born to crack addicts and dangerously abusive parents. And the Tennessee State Senate recently passed a bill that made it illegal to even discuss homosexuality in any school prior to ninth grade.
The more things change, the more homophobia remains ingrained.
Three decades after the psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual belatedly removed homosexuality as an illness, I still sometimes treat men and women tormented by their same-sex attraction; adults and adolescents disowned by family or forced to go to counselors not to treat their shame and depression but to change their sexual orientation. I also see many lesbians, gay men and bisexual patients who are out, open and proud, and supported by friends and family.
Homophobia will never be eradicated. We all grow up in a heterosexual society usually in straight families. Sometimes we forget to examine our own subtle fears and assumptions. A couple of years ago, I taught a course in Gender and Sexuality to a group of open-minded psychotherapists. Several people wanted to know what caused homosexuality. Could it be the result of childhood sexual abuse? I noted that no one wanted to know what caused heterosexuality. Could sexual abuse make someone straight? As psychotherapists, when we are sitting with heterosexual patients, do we ever think to wonder about how their sexual orientation affects them?
We should. The difference between homosexuality and heterosexuality is not that one is normal and the other not, it is that one is the unquestioned norm and the other can be a frightening threat.
So let's celebrate the actions of the New York Legislature and Gov. Mario Cuomo. But let's also remember the words of a man celebrating outside the Stonewall Inn where the gay rights movement began: "We are there, finally, but we are not all the way there; this is only one step."
-- Eric Sherman, LCSW