Freedom Comes Out

Gay Freedom does not matter yet to most Americans — but it will, soon enough. Andrew Cuomo’s profile in political courage in mobilizing the New York legislature to allow gay marriage is a civil rights landmark. It is also more evidence that public attitudes have tipped. Twenty years from now, people may wonder what the fuss was all about, but today Cuomo deserves our profound thanks.

One of the great strengths and great weaknesses of humans is that we form tribal attachments. We are drawn to people like ourselves, which allows us to form families, communities, enterprises, and governments. Tribes enable science, education, commerce, and religion. Tribes enable stories and stories enable tribes. Tribes probably enable language itself.

The problem, of course, is that the bonds that tie also enslave. Tribes have boundaries and reject those who cross them. They must, or it isn’t a tribe. Children have a known tendency to wander from their parent’s tribe. Thank God for that — human progress surely depends on the freedom to form and demolish tribes. In general, the more of both the merrier. Tribes matter — we cannot and will not do without them — but they rarely evolve very quickly.

Gay freedom is at least in part about the ability of people to re-form or reshape our tribe of birth. Most members of the LGBT tribe were not born into it and most people outside the tribe are nervous about their kids or friends joining it. It’s an unusual tribe because, unlike being female, black, or Asian, being gay or lesbian isn’t visible. Imagine the history of feminism if first, one had to acknowledge the socially unpopular fact of being female.

This is the context for Tales of the City, the exuberant musical now on at San Francisco’s ACT. It is a huge, sprawling, production based on bits from the beloved books by Armistead Maupin. The play, (like The Beginners, featuring George Plummer as a man who comes out at age 75) is saved from a meandering and implausible script by wonderful characters and spectacular acting, just as the music is saved from forgettable melodies by terrific lyrics and enthusiastic performances. I have not enjoyed myself at a musical this much since Avenue Q, (the talented Jeff Whitty wrote the libretto for both).

Even three years ago, following the passage of Prop 8 in California, it was not clear that New York, backed fully by Wall Street and large numbers of business Republicans, would endorse gay marriage. It was very clearly not true in 1976, the setting for Tales of the City. But some small decisions made that year have rippled forward to the present day.
Recall that in 1976, San Francisco mayor George Moscone prevailed in a campaign to legalize homosexuality by repealing California’s sodomy laws. That same year, San Francisco was gripped by the trial of Patty Hearst for helping an apparently drug-addled group called the Symbian Liberation Army to rob a bank. Patty was the granddaughter of William Randolf Hearst, the American publishing magnate who printed, among other rags, the San Francisco Chronicle. Then, as now, the Chron was not a real newspaper. We bought it to find out when movies were playing and to read Doonesbury. Also Herb Caen, the irreverent cataloger of left coast life and father of three dot journalism…When interest in the SLA trial began to wane, the editors of the Chronicle decided to try something new: a serialized novel.

Printing a novel in daily installments in the local newspaper was actually an old idea, not a new one. It is how much of Charles Dickens, first came out (US papers would plagiarize each episode without paying Dickens or his publishers a dime. Made him mad as the dickens…). The Chron ran a column by writer nobody had ever heard of. Armistead Maupin, who called his column Tales of the City.

The effect was unbelievable. It was like soap opera – discussed constantly everywhere and you could not miss an installment. Pretty soon you actually cared about the friends and neighbors at Barbary Lane — the fictional community invented by Maupin. The plots never made any sense (a cult of cannibals at one point took over St. Mary’s cathedral on Nob Hill), but it was a lot of fun. And not only that, it was outrageous gay fun — which at the time seemed considerably more fun than the sort the rest of us were having. This was the year that George Moscone nominated a respected community leader, Jim Jones of the People’s Temple, to San Francisco’s Housing Authority and banned roller-skating on public streets. It was the year that Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, and Ringo Starr performed “The Last Waltz” with The Band at Winterland, which Martin Scorcese made into a fine movie. Within two years, Maupin was a successful author and an important voice of a gay community that continued to grow in power. In 1978, the Gay Freedom march drew 250,000 people — double the size of the San Francisco antiwar marches of a few years earlier. Reaction was swift: orange juice commercial queen Anita Bryant launched a Save the Our Children Campaign, a crusade that received national attention and politically galvanized conservative churches. The gay community retaliated, boycotting Florida Orange Juice, costing Bryant her lucrative endorsements, and driving her into bankruptcy. John Briggs, the Orange County Republican, tried to ban gays from teaching positions in California. But the cause of Gay Freedom seemed only to grow, spreading from San Francisco and New York to major cities around the country and the world.

What could stop this sort of delirious progress? It was a dizzying, naive, and stupid time — wonderful and amazing to recall. To preserve the momentum he saw building, Moscone played hardball: he led San Francisco to district elections. This meant that San Franciscans voted by neighborhood. For the first time, they elected a Chinese-American leader, an African American woman, a single mother, and, most incredibly and for the first time in US history, an openly gay man: Harvey Milk of the Castro.

Those who wondered when the progress would end soon found out. San Francisco was forming new tribes and demolishing old ones at a record pace. Some tribes were crazy like SLA wannabes such as the Red Guerrilla Family and the New World Liberation Front. Or the People’s Temple. Moscone responded by installing metal detectors in City Hall. But in November, Jim Jones, who had left the Housing Authority and taken his followers to Guyana, killed 900 of them in a mass suicide. Nine days later, Dan White, a disgruntled Irish Catholic cop and former supervisor who had lost out in district elections, assassinated both Moscone and Milk. He avoided Moscone’s metal detectors by crawling in through a basement window.

Within three years, gay men were being diagnosed with an illness nobody understood. Doctors knew that it was an immune disorder, but had no idea what triggered it, so they could only call it a syndrome, an acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The disease is now a global pandemic and has killed more than thirty million people. Nobody in San Francisco survived without having their heart broken again and again. Nearly two million people still die from AIDS each year, even though it is now a disease that can be medically managed. I can think of no social movement in human history that has been so disproportionately affected by a contagious illness that targets its members. AIDS slowed the cause of gay rights by at least twenty years.

Amidst the grief and the chaos of the AIDS epidemic, another voice emerged in a new medium first called weblogging, then just blogging. Andrew Sullivan, the talented, conservative, Christian editor of the New Republic found his voice. Amidst the tears and fury of the AIDS epidemic, he began to call for the right of gay men and lesbian women to marry. Not civil union — marriage. The idea made liberals and progressives nervous. What about church and state? What about conservative rural areas? What about Aunt Sally? Sully kept at it year after year and slowly he began to persuade. Gay marriage is coming to America not because of Andrews Sullivan or Cuomo, but because millions of people are learning that someone they love — a friend, a cousin, a brother is gay. But new tribes need a voice as they form. The day that gay marriage is legal throughout the United States — and that day is not far off — Andrew Sullivan should go on a postage stamp. He has helped changed America profoundly and for the better. He is forcing every other tribe to adjust.

Liberty and the pursuit of happiness cannot happen in a closet and often cannot happen in one’s tribe of birth. Those who care about freedom, and that is a very large group, need to defend the freedom of all people to define, discover, and celebrate their own identity at least as vigorously as we protect our ability to form tribes.