Prop. 8 and coming to the end of fear
‘Fear, after all, is our real enemy,” Colin Firth’s character rants to his college students in the film “A Single Man.” In 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, the closeted homosexual English professor lectures about minorities and how our differences make us afraid. “Fear is taking over our world,” he shouts. “Fear is being used as a tool of manipulation in our society.”
In 1978, when I was 20, I rode the train from Indiana to San Francisco. Like Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” character, Mary Ann Singleton, I was a naive straight woman transplanted to a new world. The first time I saw two gay men kiss, I was appalled. When a lesbian at work brushed against me, I recoiled. When, nine years later, I broke up with my fiance and fell in love with a woman, I was astounded.
In the late 1980s, lesbian and gay couples were just beginning to celebrate unions in churches and temples, but it wasn’t common practice. My lover, Pam, and I exchanged vows, and gold and black jade wedding bands, at a secluded spot on a ridge overlooking the Pacific Ocean, our only witnesses that day a flock of terns sweeping past. We couldn’t imagine our families celebrating our union, and we didn’t want anything marring our joy. We had told no one of our plans.
Afterward, Pam and I clasped hands and sat on a boulder facing the ocean, enjoying the pungent breeze, keeping a lookout for whales migrating north. When voices crashed into our reverie, and the four capped heads of hikers bobbed into view, we loosened our grasp and gently dropped hands.
We feared the hikers’ faces would wrinkle in disgust as they passed by us on the trail. On a city street, I sometimes wondered if a posse carrying baseball bats, wool hats covering their faces, would follow us after a late movie: Teach you lezzies a lesson. In those days, images from news stories rose up. It was the era of Jesse Helms and Jerry Falwell. The Moral Majority. Rep. Barney Frank had just come out, it’s true. But Matthew Shepard’s murder was still a decade in the future.
Pam and I took no chances. For months, we lied to almost everyone about our true relationship, and for years, we were closeted at work because we were afraid of losing our jobs. California’s Briggs Initiative hadn’t passed in 1978, but it had established a mood of paranoia by threatening to bar gays and lesbians from public school teaching. We didn’t tell our parents the truth until some years later because we were afraid of losing their love.
As a teenager, I’d had crushes on boys and infatuations with male rock stars. My bedroom walls were covered with posters of Shaun Cassidy, Bobby Sherman and Davy Jones. I was on a love, marriage, baby-carriage life plan. When I was 15, my mother pulled her ivory wedding gown out of the closet, and I held it up, studying my reflection in the mirror, imagining my own wedding day. I loved the idea of tradition, a mother’s wedding dress becoming her daughter’s. “I want a normal, happy home life and family,” I wrote in my journal. Normal.
But normal changed. On the drive back from our commitment ceremony, I told Pam, “I’ll give up the wedding but not the babies.” We registered as domestic partners with the state of California and visited the sperm bank to make our two children. Our first son was born the year before Roseanne and Mariel Hemingway kissed on national TV, and his birth finally pulled us out of the closet completely. Despite our fear of being shunned, we didn’t want our kids to have to lie about who we were or how we had made our family. Then, when our eldest went off to preschool, we discovered he was the envy of his classmates for having two moms.
Over the years, each time I told the truth to someone in our community -- at a PTA meeting, a Little League game -- I was surprised. Each incidence of acceptance chipped away at my fear.
Then the same-sex marriage battles began in California, painting a topographical map of acceptance and rejection: The coastal counties and large cities voted with us, the Central Valley and mountain towns against. We watched as same-sex marriage lost some rounds and won others. Weddings were celebrated, nullified, then re-validated, and finally the whole process was brought to a halt by Proposition 8. Barely able to keep up with the back-and-forth, Pam and I stuck with our private vows, exchanged so long ago.
Now the constitutionality of Proposition 8 is being argued in a San Francisco federal courtroom. Is the measure motivated by anti-gay prejudice, which would make it unconstitutional, according to a 1996 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, or does it simply profess a “special regard” for marriage as a union between a man and a woman? Stanford University professor Gary Segura recently testified: “There is no group in American society who has been targeted by ballot initiatives more than gays and lesbians.” He cited opinion polls showing that “the American public is not very fond of gays and lesbians” and is more hostile to them than to racial and religious minorities.
In an ironic twist, the opponents of same-sex marriage now claim to be afraid. Witnesses have been withdrawn and the trial isn’t being broadcast, in part to protect Proposition 8 backers who are supposedly at risk of “harassment, economic reprisal, threat and even physical violence,” in the words of one their lawyers.
Over time, I have passed through many stages: I have been angry; I have been resigned; I have laughed at the absurdities of some of the arguments. But I am now certain that despite fickle legislatures and sluggish appeals courts, same-sex marriages are inevitable.
I believe this because my 14-year-old straight-identified son flaunts pink fuzzy socks at his urban high school, and his Facebook group, Hugging People of the Same Sex, attracted hundreds of members shortly after he put it up. And because the mayor of San Diego, like so many other leaders, changed his mind about gay marriage when his daughter came out. And because it’s just a matter of time: Young people raised in a society with fearless, out-of-the-closet teachers, elected officials and celebrities don’t see the point of defining marriage as only between a man and a woman; they have more important things to worry about.
Colin Firth’s character was right: It’s a matter of overcoming our real enemy. And I’m proof, along with Pam and our sons and so many others, that we won’t let fear take over the world.
Katherine A. Briccetti is a school psychologist in the Bay Area. Her memoir about adoption, “Blood Strangers,” is due out in May. www.kathybriccetti.com