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The Balm of Perspective
summer, in the innocent months between California’s recognition of gay marriage
and the abrogation of it by Proposition 8, I watched many same-sex couples
exchange vows. There was a lot of pressure in Los Angeles, where I live, to do
so. Friends kept saying: to be gay and unmarried is the new smoking.
Unlike boys in high school, Yale men found smart women sexy.
was supposed to shame me, I think, because I am single. But secretly I was
pleased—having been pathetically inept at the old smoking. I tried it once at a
college party. Wearing a black turtleneck, affecting coolness, I accidentally
set the rug on fire.
was not good at being gay back then, either. As a surf-hating, book-loving
teenager in Southern California, I had not been prom queen material. But unlike
boys in high school, Yale men found smart women sexy. And because I enjoyed
this novelty, I spent my undergrad years as the belle of the heterosexual ball.
In fact, when Libby Halstead '00MBA asked if I would represent the 1970s on a
panel at the GALA reunion, my first thought was: can’t you do any better? I
mean, I was married to a man for 14 years. Libby, however, assured me that
“B”—as in bisexual—was part of the LGBT acronym, and my story was probably as
emblematic as any.
preparation for the panel, I made notes on cards. I envisioned a cerebral
presentation, charting my odyssey from Roman Catholicism to secular humanism. I
expected the other presentations to be dry and intellectual.
they were heartfelt, and powerfully so.
the first panelist invoked the cruel invisibility of gay life in the 1950s, I
thought of Remembering Denny, a memoir by Calvin Trillin '57 about a classmate who
never lived up to his potential. Denny was the boy everybody thought would be
elected president. As it happened, Denny was also gay, and he killed himself at
age 55. This would have been sad, but Trillin makes it awful. He combs through
Denny’s gay past as if it were a locker of dirty gym clothes. For all its good
intentions, the book was a homophobic horror. Yet thinking of it made me brave.
I resolved to tell my story—because I didn’t want some well-meaning classmate
writing it after my death.
dropped my cards and told a roomful of strangers what had happened. I had not
intended to fall in love with another woman in my early 20s. This was not part
of my goal-driven game plan—or, for that matter, hers. For all the feeling that
had brought us together, a social stigma tore us apart. In the 1970s, this
relationship was frowned upon. And just when we had achieved a sort of
resolution, a few days before my 25th birthday, she was shot and killed in a
is more to tell—and someday I will tell it—but the short version is this: I
associated my sexuality with murder. I locked it away. This association,
though, seemed almost a sign of the times. In 1978, Harvey Milk, an out gay
member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was killed by a fellow
supervisor who essentially got off by blaming processed sugar for his mood
swing. Recoiling, I married a man who was kind enough to shepherd me through my
grief—but not so kind some years later when the marriage ended.
“Coed dorms,” that controversy from the 1970s, has become quaint.
of course, changed everything. In a world where “silence = death,” people threw
open closet doors. At the reunion, I learned how Yalies had defiantly
proclaimed, “One in four, maybe more,” and how “co-ed dorms,” that controversy
from the 1970s, had become quaint. The issue now, according to a transgendered
recent grad on my panel, is “gender-free” dorms.
soaked up this new Yale with awe, amazed by its diversity. Many attending the
reunion were people of color, and 20 percent were women. No one followed the
same path. Far from renouncing faith, a panel of religious professionals talked
about “queering” it.
wanted to observe everything, but I had to leave before the final dinner. I was
most sad to miss remarks by Bruce Cohen '83, producer of Milk, a poignant movie on the San
Francisco supervisor. It had opened all my old wounds—then healed them again,
with the uncanny balm of perspective.
years ago, Harvey Milk fought Proposition 6—an amendment to the California
constitution that would have banned gay people from teaching in the public
schools. An amendment of outrageous bigotry. Not unlike the current Proposition
8, which I hope will soon be overturned. Because you never know: I may just
want to give up smoking.