Out of the margins, into the mainstream
In a strange way, AIDS saved Fran Fifis's family.
Six years ago, her younger brother Leo, diagnosed with HIV, begged their parents to come spend what would be his last Christmas at his home with Fran and her family. The Greek immigrant couple - who had been estranged from their daughter for five years, since she'd divorced her husband and come out as a lesbian - arrived in Boston looking uncertain, but soon settled in around the tree with Leo and his male partner, and Fran and her partner Mary Cardaras, with their two young sons.
The family photo from that Christmas shows Ms. Fifis's father with his arms around his wife, children, and grandchildren; Ms. Cardaras and Leo's partner stand off to one side, "so if you wanted to cut, you could cut us right out of the picture," Cardaras says.
By this past August, a different image had emerged. In a family photo taken at Mr. Fifis's 80th birthday party, he and his wife stand amid a riot of children, grandchildren, and in-laws - with Fifis, Cardaras, and their children at the center. They're joined by Fran's older brother. He and his family had opted not to join the rest of the family at Leo's last Christmas.
Over the past three decades, America's attitude toward its gay children has evolved much the same way: gradually, sometimes painfully, one family at a time. But change it has, at a pace that has quickened perceptibly every decade. Surveys show public acceptance of gays underwent nearly a generation of change between 1990 and 1995 alone, and US court rulings have more or less kept pace.
It is a change catalyzed by an AIDS epidemic that shattered long-held silences within families, neighborhoods, places of work, and houses of worship. It's a change advanced by successful legal challenges; a change driven by a new generation of children with same-sex parents, some of whom are the products of new reproductive technologies, others the result of a dramatic rise in adoptions by gay couples. It's a change both reflected and incubated in American popular culture.
And it's a change born of an unexpected accidental intimacy, of gay sons and daughters as likely to surface among the nation's Cheneys and Gephardts as its Ginsbergs and DiFrancos.
"There is no turning back," says anthropologist Gilbert Herdt, head of San Francisco State University's National Sexuality Resource Center. "You can't do that in a democracy. Once [equal] rights have been bestowed [on gays] and there's a recognition that they're just, you reverse that at grave peril to the democratic process."
Not all agree. While most Americans would likely support reuniting divided
families and eliminating harassment, such convictions don't change the discomfort many feel with the reality of gay parenting and the prospect of gay marriage - a prospect made imminent by last month's Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling.
"The civil rights argument is a very, very compelling one," says David Blankenhorn, a marriage expert and father of three. "At the same time, everything I know, everything I have ever learned, says that children need a mother and a father."
A recent Gallup poll shows a split in opinion: 48 percent of Americans say gay unions "will change society for the worse"; 50 percent say they would be an improvement or have no effect.
Enough Americans are uncomfortable with the pace and trajectory of social and legal change that they've proposed constitutional amendments - both at the national level and in at least seven states - to bar gay couples from marrying.
Members of the gay community aren't uniformly happy either. Some are impatient with the pace of change; some fear America's newfound "acceptance" extends only to the most stereotypical and conformist images of gays and gay family.
But whatever the enduring discomforts, one development seems irrefutable: Discussions about gays and gay life have entered the mainstream of American culture in a way unimaginable a few decades ago.
The resulting national conversation on gay issues is unprecedented - a far cry, Cardaras says, from the silence into which she came of age 30 years ago.
Then, on weekends, she'd drive from her parents' house in Gary, Ind., to gay bars in Chicago, stopping at a gas station along the way to comb out her stiff perm and take off her makeup and heels. "I felt like I was in drag," she says. "But that was what you had to do then."
For generations, the nation's gays and lesbians made similarly lonely journeys. If it is safe today to hold hands with a same-sex partner on some American streets, it has not been so for long.
Over the years, the twin threats of arrest and social ostracism have kept many from revealing secret lives and loves to close family and friends.
Growing up, Cardaras says,"I don't remember hearing anything about gay people. You'd hear about an eccentric friend of the family who had never married, but that was all. I was very much alone."
But even then, historians say, America's attitudes had begun to change.
Riots in the New York streets. That's how history remembers the start of the modern gay rights movement: with patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village gay bar, violently resisting a 1969 police raid. Subsequent battles for gay legal rights, social acceptance, and freedom from persecution have been waged through the US courts, and within individual families and communities.
Though gay activists have long compared these struggles to those for women's and African-Americans' rights and social integration, the parallel is incomplete. "Gay integration" is qualitatively different from these: White parents don't wake up one day to learn their biological children are black, nor do employers regularly find that the men they hired are women.
Still, many of the legal benchmarks have been the same: equal employment; equal housing, property ownership, and inheritance rights; adoption and custody rights; freedom from harassment; freedom from hate-motivated violence; and now, the legal right to wed.
In the majority of these cases, says Mary Bonauto, the attorney who brought the recent Massachusetts marriage suit, the civil rights argument has proved persuasive and has laid the groundwork for future battles.
Such cases have been, fundamentally, the stuff of family life - or more precisely, of the protections enshrined in US law to encourage and protect stable families, without which it can be difficult to achieve.
In 1986, California was the first state to allow an adoption by an openly lesbian couple; today only Florida totally bars gays and lesbians from adopting. Despite setbacks, in the late '90s courts began increasingly to find adoption and custody cases in gays' favor. In 2000, Vermont became the first US state to institute "civil unions," which codified some legal protections for same-sex couples.
Nowhere had the lack of these protections been more apparent than during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. The disease devastated gay communities in the space of a decade. Even young couples confronted their legal vulnerability in the starkest personal terms.
Ms. Bonauto remembers getting panicked calls from men turned away from their partners' hospital beds, from men in phone booths who'd just lost their companions of 25 years and had no one to call, from men saying: "His family's here and they're emptying out the house and I don't know what to do."
Frightened, shocked, and angry, unwilling to keep lying to the people they loved in the time they had left, more and more men and women came out to family, friends, and colleagues. Each drew a chorus of new voices into the national conversation.
Then came the "gay baby boom," as the '80s and '90s brought revolutionary changes in the science and technology of babymaking. As more same-sex couples gave birth, others began adopting in record numbers.
Parenthood, too, created feelings of legal vulnerability for couples, who suddenly had reason to worry about inheritance and custody protections.
Still, as with the AIDS crisis, new parenthood meant healing for some divided families. Many of the gays and lesbians interviewed for this article reported that parents unable to come to terms with their sexual orientation had rejoined their lives as grandparents.
In the 1990s, popular culture started to reflect these family-by-family changes - and to cause some of its own. In 1996, comedian Ellen DeGeneres was the first celebrity to come out on a prime-time sitcom; "Ellen" was canceled the following season.
That same year taught historian John D'Emilio how TV was shaping perceptions. Dr. D'Emilio answered a call to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force from a Michigan high school student who was working on a report, who wanted to know how many states allowed gay marriage. None, he told her.
She seemed startled, he remembers; she'd seen a gay wedding on "Friends," and assumed gay marriage was legal.
Over the next few years, prominent gay characters appeared on such prime-time blockbusters as "E.R." and "Will & Grace," and on HBO's "Six Feet Under." Next season, the popular and campy "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" will be one of four gay-themed cable shows.
Meanwhile, throughout the 1980s and '90s, gays and lesbians were increasingly going to court to demand opportunities denied them under United States law: to serve in the armed forces, to legally co-parent children, to share health benefits, and not to be fired on the basis of sexual orientation.
By no means did they always succeed. But rulings that activists considered failures sometimes advanced the public debate better than big wins, Bonauto says.
President Clinton's 1993 "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue" policy disappointed activists and forced gay and lesbian service members to remain closeted or face dismissal. It also, Bonauto says, moved an untold number of average Americans to examine their own beliefs about personal identity, service to country, sexuality, and secrecy.
Now, as Massachusetts stands at the threshold of same-sex marriage, the Bay State is consumed by a debate likely to play out in next year's presidential election and beyond. But it's a different argument from a month ago: not whether to recognize same-sex unions, but how best to do so.
Fifis is a pessimist about these things. She doesn't want to get her hopes up.
But at 10 a.m. on Nov. 18, Fifis, a TV news producer, put her reporter on the air to announce the high court ruling and called her partner of 11 years. There, standing in a glass control booth, she asked Cardaras to marry her.
The couple doesn't have any firm plans yet: A trip to the courthouse in May, if the Legislature comes through, and a party with friends. Maybe even a honeymoon - "I never imagined myself using that word," Cardaras says - in Tuscany.
Still, Fifis hasn't broached the subject with her parents yet. She is not sure they would be comfortable at the ceremony.
It is an ambivalence many Americans share. Last month, 56 percent told the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press they either didn't know what they thought about, didn't strongly oppose, or didn't strongly favor gay marriage.
Cardaras says her concern is not whether states call her ceremony a civil union or a marriage - she wants the benefits, and the recognition. "I just want to be like everyone else," she says.
Even in a country where opinion has shifted radically in recent years, it remains to be seen whether that wish will be granted.
1969 A riot following a police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York, becomes the symbolic start of the American gay rights movement.
1973 The newly formed National Gay Task Force and Lambda Legal Defense Fund successfully lobby the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.
1981 The first cases of a mysterious immune deficiency among gay men are documented by the Center for Disease Control. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, gets its name the next year.
1982 Wisconsin is the first state to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
1988 Gay Americans celebrate the first national "Coming out day" Oct. 11.
1989 Denmark becomes the first country to recognize a registered partnership status for same-sex couples. Over the next decade, Norway, Sweden, Greenland, Iceland, and the Netherlands also move to grant partnership status to same-sex couples.
1990 President Bush signs the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, making antigay violence punishable under federal law.
1993 President Clinton signs a new policy into law on gays in the military. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" says gays and lesbians can serve if they conceal their sexual orientation.
A March on Washington brings between 800,000 and 1.2 million marchers to the capital, one of the largest gatherings in the nation's history.
1996 Clinton signs the Defense of Marriage Act, denying federal recognition to same-sex marriages and allowing states to do the same; 37 states go on to pass DOMAs.
The US Supreme Court strikes down Colorado's Amendment 2, which denied gays and lesbians protections against discrimination.
1997 Comedian Ellen DeGeneres comes out as gay on her TV show "Ellen," which is killed the following season. Some blame homophobia, others a lack of funny material.
1998 Wyoming youth Matthew Shepard is beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die in Laramie, a case that draws massive news coverage and fuels debate about hate crimes legislation.
Two Dutch men become the first same-sex couple in the world to legally marry.
2000 Vermont creates "civil unions," establishing a relationship that affords same-sex couples some of the legal protections of heterosexual marriage.
The American version of "Queer As Folk," a popular British TV show known for its frank depictions of gay sex, debuts on Showtime.
2001 The Netherlands becomes the first country to grant same-sex couples the right to marry.
With its gay title character and flamboyant sidekick, TV sitcom "Will & Grace" wins three Emmys and carves a solid niche in the Nielsen Top 20.
2003 June 10: North America's first legal same-sex marriage takes place in Canada.
June 26: The US Supreme Court strikes down Texas's sodomy ban, ruling that couples have a right to privacy.
" Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" wins top ratings as one of three major gay-themed cable shows.
Nov. 17: The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court finds it unconstitutional to bar same-sex couples from marrying, and gives the state legislature six months to amend state laws to allow gays to wed.
Sources: American Civil Liberties Union, CQ Researcher, Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, Prof. Kees Waaldijk. Congressional Quarterly Researcher (April 1995), The Boston Phoenix.