Dear Jim, Hello from 2015.
I’ll bet that sounds downright Jetsonian to you as a 17-year-old in 1975.
So I’ll settle one big question at the outset: we do not have flying cars.
There is, come to think of it, something called a personal computer that I know you’ll appreciate for at least a couple of its features in particular: it will check your spelling for you. Hold your tears. I know you’ll love that.
And then there’s the Internet, which is also hard to describe, but it will eliminate the need for the family’s old Encyclopedia Britannica. And there’s a whole lot of, well, anything you might ever want (publicly or secretly) on the Internet, such as movies and music and travel guides. And, umm, well, let me just say, kids your age today aren’t even thinking about agonizing over how to convince the sales clerk at the 7-Eleven to sell them a copy of Playgirl.
Yeah, I know about your secret Playgirl stash.
See, I’m you, grown old. I’m you 40 years from now.
I know very well how alone, scared, and heartbroken you feel about yourself and being gay. I know that you’re terrified that your friends and family will find out; and that strangers might beat you to death.
I know you believe you’ll be lonely and single the rest of your life, and the only information you can find in books and magazines tells you that being gay is a mental illness. Your church is ready to send you straight to hell. And you feel like the only other gay person in the whole world is Charles Nelson Reilly—and he’s not exactly your type.
I remember it well. How relentless it is for you. How there’s nothing to make you think or feel or imagine in the least that it could be otherwise.
I remember because, there’s a lot of you still here in me.
But, I’m happy to report that, over the past 40 years, impossible things have happened and unimaginable changes have occurred—events that would change how you perceive yourself and your future if only you could know.
So, at the off chance that time travel or communication with the past becomes available in the future, I’ve been keeping this time capsule from the first inklings of change, wishing I could assure you of what’s to come.
Dear me-at-17: It’s a mere eight years into your future and, look! We’re typing on an IBM computer. (Notice your spelling!)
So, recently, I’ve/you’ve been hearing about small gay neighborhoods in cities like San Francisco and New York. You’re curious, but the thought terrifies you more than anything else. From what friends have sent you from these places, they appear to have great postcard shops.
There’s nothing like it in St. Louis where you’re living. Just one small dirty bookstore hidden away all the way downtown (where no one you know ever goes) with a small section of gay magazines, that are definitely not Playgirl. And the guys are gay, but definitely nothing like Charles Nelson Reilly.
A horrific illness is rampaging through gay communities. It’s been called “GRID,” “the gay cancer,” AIDS. It’s terrifying and heartbreaking. There’s no cure, and so many gay men are dying, some quickly, some slowly. A couple guys you know have died, rumored to have been from AIDS, but no one’s talking. And once again you’re panicked.
Young men in their prime suddenly look like old men with canes and spotted skin.
For most victims, when they get sick and near death, it’s the first time their families and friends find out they’re gay, making it all so much more shameful.
You won’t believe this: Rock Hudson is gay.
Hi Jim. A lot has happened in the past couple years. You got therapy. Psychotherapy. No, not because you’re crazy. You live near San Francisco—everyone’s in therapy here. And doing aerobic exercise.
Anyway, you came out of the closet, a little. “Out of the closet” means you told people that you’re gay. You only told a few family and friends, but—drumroll—they still love you. It went pretty well. Your worst nightmares didn’t happen. Not a one.
An AIDS Memorial Quilt, larger than a football field with the names of some two-thousand people who have died of AIDS, is being displayed all over the country. Friends’ names are on some patches, and you travel to see it.
Oh Jim, Jim, Jimmy. You know that tall, dark, handsome man you never thought you’d meet? I think you’ve met him, here in New York where you are now in art school. His name is Bob. Be on the look out for a tall, handsome sculptor named Bob.
ACT-UP. The government has been doing very little about HIV and AIDS for over a decade. Over 100,000 people have died. So gay people are trying to affect change themselves. You will not believe how many gay people are coming forward to do something.
Hey Jim, make sure you’re sitting down before you read this: Mom and Dad now know you’re gay. It didn’t kill them. They both still love you. Mom asked surprisingly great questions. You kind of wish you’d told them sooner, but who knows if they would have been ready.
You being truthful with them gave them the opportunity to be their very best for you.
Hey Jim, I’m typing this in Wordperfect for Windows. This typeface is Garamond. It’s classy.
So, now, not only do mom and dad know. Your boss knows. Your friends know. Who cares who else knows? You won’t believe how that feels: surprisingly great, cautiously liberating. Even your health insurance covers Bob.
Bob and you walk hand-in-hand in Greenwich Village. It’s still scary, because gay people are getting “bashed” regularly. But, Bob is 6’3″. You’re going to feel very safe with Bob.
You and Bob went to Rehoboth Beach for vacation. You’d heard the place was gay friendly, but even middle-aged couples in nice restaurants derided you for holding hands, and teenagers threatened you on the beach. The lesbian couple that owned the bed-and-breakfast made sure you had a safe place to stay. (A “bed-and-breakfast” is a kind of homey motel, with muffins.) I guess, like in the military, you can be gay in Rehoboth, as long as it’s not outside your bedroom. Everywhere else it’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
This week a lesbian comedian named Ellen became the first to play an openly gay lead character on a TV show. A lot of uproar with sponsors and conservatives, but you’ll be surprised at the supporters. People are talking a lot about it in AOL chatrooms (which are basically a way for people to talk dirty to each other on their computers).
Just a note about fashion: clothes and music have simply been a rehash of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s since you graduated from high school, with the exception of hip-hop, which I can’t even begin to explain.
I don’t even want to tell you about what happened on September 11th. It was one of the most terrifying and heartbreaking days of our life. Airplanes full of passengers and fuel were used as giant weapons by terrorists. They were not looking to negotiate like your airplane terrorists of the ’70s. They just flew the planes directly into skyscrapers and government buildings with the sole purpose of killing themselves and everyone on the planes and on the ground.
A gay rugby player named Mark Bingham was one of several passengers that tried to stop the terrorists on one of the planes, but it crashed in Pennsylvania.
New York has smelled like a smoldering electrical fire for months. And the hole in the sky feels bigger than the hole in the ground.
Many people are discussing the idea of legalizing gay marriage. It’s already legal in The Netherlands, but they’re the Netherlands, not the United States. It makes little sense to you. You can’t imagine anyone would go for it. You begin writing an essay on how, as a gay man, you think it’s a waste of time and buys into a crumbling eco-political institution that is questionable even between straight people. But you stop yourself, wondering, “what if they’re right?”
You discard the essay, but you still can’t imagine gay marriage ever being something real.
Belgium legalizes gay marriage. You still can’t imagine it in the U.S.
So what state would you guess to be the first to embrace gay marriage? California, right? That would’ve been my guess, too. But it wasn’t. Both sides of the argument were too strong in California, and there had already been a state law preventing it since 2000, which the mayor of San Francisco briefly defied, issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. (Your friend Mike and his partner Randy were among them.) But the California Supreme Court put a stop to all that.
So instead, back East, on May 17, 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage.
This is one of those days I most wish you had known about at 17, back when you longed for a partner so badly it hurt. I’d love for you to know that this is possible. It’s exhilarating, yet still seems much like a tenuous isolated experiment, like a hippy commune or an “open classroom.”
And much of the country is still against it. In fact, George W. Bush, hands down the worst president in history, got reelected to a second term with a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage as one of his campaign promises.
Spain and Canada legalized gay marriage last year. Now South Africa this year. Still can’t imagine it here.
The seesaw continued in California this year, with it’s supreme court striking down the ban on same-sex marriage, followed by the voters approving Proposition 8 to restore it. All this after a bill that would have legalized gay marriage was vetoed by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (don’t laugh—we already had a President Ronald Reagan).
Meanwhile, back East, Connecticut legalized same-sex marriage.
And we have our first black president, by the way. I don’t know why it took so long for the country to elect someone other than an old white man. Still haven’t had a woman president.
Iowa, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire became the third, fourth, fifth and sixth states to legalize gay marriage, along with the District of Columbia. Norway and Sweden were the next countries to legalize same-sex marriage.
A health scare of your own on the Garden State Parkway, sent you to an emergency room in a small town in New Jersey, a state that offered no protection to gay couples. Bob was not in the ambulance with you. He followed in the car, and you worried about whether or not Bob would be granted permission to be at your bedside or make decisions for you, if needed.
First, the federal Defense of Marriage Act was struck down as unconstitutional. Then California’s Proposition 8 was finally struck down, though not without an appeal, of course.
Argentina, Iceland and Portugal all legalized same-sex marriage. In Argentina, Catholic Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio issued a letter calling gay marriage and adoption by same-sex couples the work of Satan, “the father of lies.”
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed on the tenth anniversary of September 11th.
Maryland, Maine and Washington legalized gay marriage, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear challenges to Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act.
Our current President Barack Obama, following the lead of his wife and his vice president, expressed his support of same-sex marriage, a reversal of his earlier beliefs.
Last year, Denmark. This year Uruguay, Brazil, and New Zealand. France, too, though surprisingly, French conservatives erupted in massive protests and violent riots, even a suicide in Notre Dame cathedral.
Meanwhile, in England and Wales, everyone was quite civil, as Queen Elizabeth (yes the same Elizabeth you know) signed the bill and declared, “Isn’t it wonderful!?”
A gay man was murdered down the street from you, among several others around lower Manhattan. It was clearly a backlash. You and Bob walked holding hands in the neighborhood, nevertheless, but with an eye to your surroundings once again.
So, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to same-sex couples, granting married same-sex couples the same benefits as heterosexual couples. And the countries of Luxembourg and Scotland legalized same-sex marriage.
Twenty-seven other states have legalized same-sex marriage, with various amounts of resistance. While states like Utah, Nebraska, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, North Carolina, and Tennessee continued to fight any possibility in the state and circuit courts.
Finland. Ireland. And then….
June 26, 2015: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Constitution guaranteed the right for same-sex couples to marry in all fifty U.S. states.
That night, you and Bob walked hand-in-hand through Chelsea and the Village and people smiled at you, as if the Supreme Court ruling suddenly gave you the freedom and courage to do what you’d been doing for 25 years. You took a “selfie” in front of the Stonewall Inn like everyone else, and went home to watch an episode of “House Hunters.”
There is still so much more work to do. There will be appeals, I’m sure. Not everyone’s protected everywhere. LGBT people in other parts of the globe live in fear of punishment and death. HIV and AIDS are still a global threat.
And even here, in many of our own states, same-sex couples can now legally marry on Saturday, but nevertheless get fired from their jobs on Monday if their employers don’t like it.
And while we celebrate this victory for LGBT people, Black churches are burning in the South. Women still get paid less than men. Immigrant families are vilified by politicians.
So much still seems impossible.
Though, in this moment I trust a little more, that our country’s Constitution will continue to bend toward justice and equality, since it finally did on my behalf, as I never expected or asked for or imagined.
Note: Bob and I were married on February 19, 2016 in the city clerk’s office, New York. We still celebrate the first week of September as our anniversary, since we met when we each first arrived for the fall semester at NYU in 1989.