While sitting with Dad in rainy West Virginia in July, we went through the album you and Mark put together to celebrate our 50th Anniversary. So many years, so many memories.
One photo stood out to me in light of our recent conversations about the Supreme
Court decision on marriage equality. There Dad and I were all dressed to the nines going out to dinner with our friends in Florida during a 1966 car trip south for Easter vacation. Besides looking so young it brought back memories of the travel through the South, the shock of seeing “colored” and “white” drinking fountains and restrooms. It was shortly after the Civil Rights legislation was passed, but not quite implemented yet.
Of course after years of watching the Civil Rights movement right in front of my eyes on TV I certainly knew of conditions in the South. I was so very impressed with the courage of black and white people who came together to fight and even die for the cause of greater freedom and dignity.
Yet even in our Northern living rooms and classrooms I saw discrimination against African-Americans. As a first year teacher at an integrated school in the city, I remember my chagrin when another teacher said something to the effect that black kids can’t learn. And there were jokes about these students when white teachers got together in bars and living rooms after hours. I remember Dad and I having all night debates with family members about the justice of greater rights for African-Americans. Some thought there were too many breaks being given by that “crazy” President Johnson.
But coming face to face with reality of separate and unequal in the South was sobering. On the back roads we saw many shacks with poor black people living in poverty. Our white Cadillac, compliments of Gram’s loan, stood out for its width and its New York plates which brought many suspicious stares from white Southerners. Were we those bleeding heart agitators instead of four kids looking for Florida fun for a week?
After the passage of legislation there were opinion pieces critical of the strategy of focusing on voting rights for African-Americans, there were other issues more vital commentators said. There was criticism of the move to integrate public places like restaurants and even restrooms. More important issues the naysayers said. But in that spring of 1966 traveling though the South I saw first-hand the insult to dignity to some of our citizens.
The issue of dignity seemed very clear just two weeks ago when my dear friends, Jimmie and Geri, were married in front of family and friends. It was a perfect day. The sun shone in the garden and they were walked down a short path escorted by their family. All of us dabbed the tears from our eyes. Jimmie, a wonderful poet, and Geri her dynamic partner of 35 years, could finally be recognized as a married couple by their state. Yes, most of us knew of their love over the years. Yes, a few years ago they were married in Canada, but now their own country and their own state publically recognized them. It reminded me how long this has taken to be real.
At the beginning of their relationship, 35 years ago, Jimmie and Geri had to be secretive, especially in work situations. Geri’s work in the business world made it hard for them to be out in that venue. As a teacher Jimmie could be freer. Some years ago they were featured as a gay couple in a story in the Buffalo Spree, a glossy magazine that has a large following in the Western New York area. The Buffalo area tends to be very conservative. Geri has private clients she works with in the business arena. So it was brave for her to be out. They have seen lots of changes in their years together. On that day it felt a privilege to celebrate marriage with them.
It made me think how things have changed so much in the 20 years since you came out. During the party Geri said to me, “This means a lot to you doesn’t it.” Yes it does. And each time I see and hear of a gay couple married, it makes me understand the importance of that public affirmation. It is much more than taxes, or even visitation in the hospital, and parental rights, though all of those things are important. It is the recognition of a common humanity.
I can see all the more clearly why African Americans fought so hard for voting rights, and integrated public venues. It makes clear the recognition of their very humanity. And that is what marriage equality does for you and Patrick, for Jimmie and Geri, and for all the LGBT community.