= Throwback Thursday =
In 1922, science fiction writer Ray Cummings put it this way: “Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.” Makes sense. You drop an egg. A half-second ticks by. The egg smashes on the kitchen floor. Time separates the egg from its demise. And us from ours. But then… some wisecrackers came along and challenged our notion of time as nonsense. They plunked down this idea at the intersection of physics and philosophy: the past, the present and the future are all happening, together, all at once. The fabric of spacetime folds back onto itself and the point of contact – the now – is also the past and the future. It gets even more bizarre, but let’s leave it at everything-happens-at-once. And here’s a joke, because it never was/is/will be more relevant to any post I ever did/do/will do:
The past, the present and the future walked into a bar.
It was tense.
I cannot explain how the past, present and future can coexist. But… when I look at this photograph, I sort of get it. It’s not just that I remember exactly where this was taken or why we were there… it’s not that I remember the excitement of the moment… it’s not that I remember being there with Eileen… it’s not even that I remember thinking I can’t believe I’m wearing a t-shirt that says Homos For Hillary (it was a gift from my sister). It’s that this doesn’t feel like a memory at all. That 31-year-old me is peering out from this photo and connecting with himself, which is to say, with myself – the 51-year-old me. Him. Well, you know. The photo is just an artifact, but that moment is somehow contemporaneous with this moment.
My friend Eileen sent me that snapshot in a “happy Throwback Thursday” email today. It’s one of our favorite pictures of us together, and for so many reasons. First of all, we’re so young this is practically a sonogram. It was 1993. Eileen lived in Boston, I was in San Francisco. We met in Washington DC with entourages of old and new friends in tow. And we were there for two reasons.
And these two:
Our pals Mario and Jim tied the knot (for the first time) waaaaaaaay back in 1993. Before it was legal. Or fashionable. Or even a thing. They married again in Connecticut in 2009. And their federal government finally got around to recognizing their legal marriage less than a year ago, when the Supreme Court tossed DOMA on the trash heap of bigoted legal history. So… the photo Eileen shared with me today triggers a cascade of memories and emotions and connections. That weekend in Washington was one of those times in my life where the personal and the public got tossed in a blender and puréed.
Americans gather in stadiums for sports. We gather on the Fourth of July for parades and fireworks. We gather at beaches and parks over Labor Day weekend. But I think it’s fair to say that most Americans have never marched in the streets – for any reason. And even fewer have traveled to the nation’s capital to join hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens to say, We’re here. We matter. And this is what we want. It is powerful stuff, putting yourself out there, using your body, your voice, your self… to try to change the world. Standing up, being counted. It is part of our birthright as Americans, explicitly protected by the 1st Amendment to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights:
Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting
the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;
or the right of the people peaceably to assemble,
and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
These are not abstract notions. Look at the horror unfolding this week in the streets of Kiev. Ukrainians have turned out en masse to protest the games being played with their lives by Russia and the EU. And the government has viciously attacked its own people, firing on them, killing dozens or hundreds, escalating the violence. It is a war zone, and the Ukraine is on fire. The US certainly has its problems – but Americans can march on their capital to demand change, criticize our leaders and their decisions… without worrying about being murdered by the police or the military. This is precisely why it is so important to fight for your rights when they are being denied.
So, there we were in 1993, coming from every corner of the country to demand equal justice under the law. Equal rights, not special rights. There was another component of this March on Washington: AIDS. Only a decade into the epidemic at that point. The dead already numbered in the tens of thousands. The gay community and its allies had rallied magnificently to take care of our own. But the FDA was plodding along in the face of an ongoing disaster, taking entirely too long to approve new drugs and treatment regimens. ACT-UP was taking the fight to the government, and this March on Washington delivered a powerful dose of urgency to the Clinton Administration – then only three months old. Part of our presence in Washington that weekend was a massive display of the Quilt – the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt – on the Mall. I have never experienced more raw emotional power than the times I’ve stood in the midst of the Quilt. It is overwhelming, in every way: the crushing weight of the loss, the fierce love in every stitch. Tens of thousands of 3′ x 6′ panels; the dimensions of a grave. Handmade with heartbreaking intimacy, awash in tears. Each panel commemorates a person, a man, a woman, a child, a life… lost to AIDS, lost to a decade of murderous disregard and unforgivable inaction by our own government. The Quilt acted as a lens, gathering all of our grief and anger and loss and sorrow and focusing it like a laser beam of resolve: to be relentless in our demands to take care of the sick and to stop this disease from wiping out an entire generation, or more. To be recognized as human beings, to say We’re here. We matter. This is what we need.
Still, it would take another four years of constant pressure before the new class of anti-retroviral drugs was made available to combat HIV infection and the progression of AIDS. That was a huge victory, both medical and moral. But those were also the years when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) and the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) were passed by Congress – and signed, shamefully, in the middle of the night by Bill Clinton. Those were dark days for me, for mine, for this country. Little did we know it would only get worse with the cataclysm of the coming Bush years.
But the arc of history does bend toward justice… slowly… slowly. It’s messy. It’s a knife fight. It’s two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug. But you keep going. Because it’s your life you’re fighting for, and for the lives of those around you. And also for the country you believe in, even when it seems to have abandoned you. As Gandhi is said to have said:
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you – and then you win.
The general perception these days is that the fight for equal rights for gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender Americans is just cruising along at presto-chango speed! But I’ve lived now through enough of that arc of history to know that the successes of the last few years could never have happened without the blood, sweat and tears of all the generations past, to the beginnings of the last century. We stand on the shoulders of giants: Larry Kramer, Cleve Jones, Harvey Milk, Margarethe Cammermeyer, Barney Frank, Annise Parker, Harry Hay, Frank Kameny, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, Troy Perry, Bayard Rustin, Tammy Baldwin, Dan Savage, Urvashi Vaid, Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer, Ellen DeGeneres, Billie Jean King, Armistead Maupin, Eugene Robinson… hundreds of trailblazers… thousands of unsung heroes… millions of people living their lives in quiet dignity, waiting for the day when that dignity could speak with a louder voice. Many never saw that day. And that is why we never gave up, will never give up. If you’re a kid who feels different today, a wide path has been cleared for you – but you still might need to hear that “It Gets Better”. Because it does. Because we all came together, so many times, in so many places, across so many years, to make it better. We gay folk, the LGBT you hear so much about, have been ignored. We’ve been laughed at. We’ve been fought at every turn. And now, we’re winning.
It’s about time. And I wonder if this continuum of past, present and future means that an older me is on the future end of this party line. Are we like those hideous Russian nesting dolls? Wherever we are in our lives now, we contain all of our younger selves; we are, likewise, contained within all of our older selves. We just haven’t met them yet. It’s like temporal schizophrenia. Only better. Because there’s something comforting in the notion of the past and the future having a party.
Day 045 #100happydays