My activist days are pretty much behind me. I am no less passionate about my politics, but I am much less apt to do much about them except vote. For a decade I worked at a non-profit that lobbied Congress on world hunger issues, and even though I was just the office manager (and sometime receptionist), I proudly counted that toward my liberal bonafides.
The 1993 March on Washington was life changing. I marched with my church, and somehow, in a crowd of a million or more, I ran into every single person who had been important in my life as a gay man.
Truth is, I was never much of an activist. I’m not big on demonstrations (I’ve been to three in all, and the last one gave me heatstroke). I think the best politics are local and personal, anyway.
I remember one morning I had breakfast at my favorite diner in the little Vermont town of Poultney. It was during the height of the controversy over civil unions. Signs telling citizens to “Take Back Vermont” from the liberals were everywhere, and gay rights were a frequent topic of conversation.
As I waited at the cash register to pay my bill, next to a native Vermonter (or so I assume from the John Deere cap and the Vermont accent) who was seated at the counter, we struck up a conversation with one another. He was reading the Rutland Herald, and he pointed to a headline about the impending civil unions vote. “Somethin’, ain’ it?” he said.
“Sure is,” I said. “I’m for it, ya know. Civil unions.”
He looked surprised, then frowned. “Well, I don’t wanna see ’em walkin’ down the street kissin’ and stuff.”
“Neither do I,” I said. “Then again, I don’t want to see straight people making out on the streets either. Some things are better done in private.”
He laughed. “I think you’re right. But I don’t know about this whole marriage business. Civil unions and stuff. ’Course, I really don’t know any gays.”
“Well,” I said, “I bet you do. You served in the military, didn’t you?”
He nodded. “Navy,” he replied. “Naval carrier.”
“Think back to your time in the service. I’ll bet you can remember one or two of your buddies who weren’t interested in going out to find girls everytime you got into port. Maybe they weren’t quite as rugged as some of the other guys, but you still got along with them, right?”
“Yup, I can think of two guys right offhand. One was my best buddy in the service.”
“Have you kept in touch over the years?”
“Yeah, got a Christmas card from him this year. He never got married….” You could see the wheels beginning to turn. “You don’t think…?”
“I do. Now let’s say your buddy fell in love, found someone to share his life with. Don’t you think he deserves the same rights you have?”
“Well, like if he got sick and went into the hospital. Don’t you think his partner should be able to make medical decisions for him, the way your wife could do for you? And what about when you die. You’ll have provided for her, right? Shouldn’t your friend be able to do the same for his partner?”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
“That’s all they’re asking for in this civil unions thing. Not special rights, just regular, everyday rights.”
“You know, it’s different when you put it that way. When you think about a buddy or someone you know, not being able to have the same rights you do just because they’re a little different, that’s wrong. I mean, we’re all a little different, in one way or another, right?” he laughed.
A boisterous fellow had entered the diner and was loudly greeting the waitress and various regulars. I smiled and replied, “And some of us are a lot different, wouldn’t you say?” He was still chuckling as I left.
A few weeks later, on a very rainy day, I was in a grocery store checkout line in that same little town. A jock and his girlfriend were ahead of me, and she was leafing through a tabloid with Michael Jackson on the cover. “Faggot,” sneered the boyfriend, “like this one here,” gesturing at me.
I’m not sure what indicated I was gay; I hadn’t spoken a word, wasn’t humming a show tune, wasn’t wearing lavender, didn’t have a Silence=Death button, hadn’t made any particularly faggy gestures.
The girlfriend hushed him up, and we both checked out. When we got outside, the rain was pouring, and boyfriend stood there trying to decide whether to make a run for the car and pull up to the curb, or help girlfriend carry packages and brave the wet.
I stood next to him, put up my umbrella with a smart Thwack, and said, “Well, at least THIS faggot had sense enough to bring an umbrella!”
Sometimes personal politics are not very politic.