The Defense of Marriage Act used to adorn my bedroom wall. Just as many aspiring authors display their letters of rejection, so too did I display HR 3396, a societal letter of rejection, if you will, to gay America. It would greet me every morning; sometimes I would give it a mere passing glance, other times I would take the time to read it. The bill, which conferred second-class status on an entire group of citizens, never failed to provoke me, and for almost a year it hung on my wall, taunting me, challenging me, and most importantly, motivating me.
This summer I found a new motivation right here in Madison, Wisconsin. When I came here two years ago, I did so believing Madison to be the “Athens of the Midwest,” as many of its residents describe it. I naturally assumed that along with its liberal academics, avant-garde artists and Green Party activists, Madison would also call itself home to many gay people.
My first few weeks, then, caught me somewhat off guard. The ubiquitous rainbows notwithstanding, I was surprised at what I felt to be the rather conspicuous absence of gays and lesbians in this putatively libertine and bohemian city. Walking down State Street, I found myself wondering where exactly the gay/straight amalgam I had imagined the city to be really was.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized gays and lesbians are indeed an everyday part of life in Madison, but in a closeted sort of way. My epiphany occurred when I encountered a gay couple I know walking down the street. I was puzzled by the sight of a couple which, privately, was decidedly affectionate, taking a lazy constitutional on a warm July evening without even holding hands. My knee-jerk response was to brand them cowards, too ashamed of who they are to let the world see it.
But then, in a rare (for a twenty-year-old) moment of introspection, I realized that for years I have been deluding the people in my life and, to a large degree, myself, into believing the reason I eschew public displays of affection is because I find them “tacky” or “obnoxious.” That simply isn’t true. My reluctance to hold another man’s hand in public stems not out of an aversion to public displays of affection, nor out of embarrassment or shame, but rather old-fashioned fear. Even here in “tolerant” Madison (“to tolerate,” observed Goethe, “is to offend”) it is by no means uncommon for a same-sex couple, displaying even the most benign gesture of affection, to be verbally harassed. Oftentimes a goofy sideward glance is enough to incur a homophobic tirade.
What is worse is that many times these vicious assaults do not stop with mere words. In my two years as a student at UW-Madison there have not, to my knowledge, been any violent crimes directed at a person because of his or her sexual orientation. But I wonder how many crimes go unreported, either out of a victim’s fear of being outed, or out of skepticism (warranted or not) about the police’s commitment to gay victims of crime. I also cannot help but wonder how many such crimes have been prevented by two people, as much in love as any man and woman, who are forced to refrain from expressing that love to the world (and one another) through the most simple and quintessentially human gesture of holding the hand of the person they love. I often ask myself if the choice between safety and honesty can really be called a choice at all.
In an eloquent speech given at the March on Washington, Madison’s much adored and openly gay Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin said, “[T]here will not be a magic day when we wake up and it’s now okay to express ourselves publicly. We make that day by doing things publicly … first in small numbers, then in greater numbers, until it’s simply the way things are and no one thinks twice.” Well said, Tammy. Unfortunately for our struggle, even in one of the most “tolerant” cities in the country many, gay people have chosen, as I have, to put their personal safety above “the cause.” So while I continue to take pride in our victories and to admire the resolve of those doughty couples who express themselves publicly, my happiness is always tempered by the thought of those of us too afraid to walk down the street holding our significant other’s hand.
In a sense I have become my own DOMA, though it is now my own fear, and not the U.S. Congress, which is my motivation. Which of these obstacles would be easier to surmount is debatable, but I have to ask myself if, given the very real risk involved with gay public displays of affection, a victory over my fear would not in the end be a Pyrrhic one.
–Chris McCall ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in German and political science.