"You can't hardly separate homosexuals from subversives ... A man of low morality is a menace to the government, whatever he is, and they are all tied up together." —Republican senator Kenneth Wherry, New York Post, December 1950
There are at least 10 million lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans in the United States. That number includes judges, State Department representatives, athletes, and celebrities. It also includes millions of less prominent Americans, who live their lives routinely, who go to work, take care of their families, and are part of their community without fanfare or fame. In other words, most of those 10 million LGBTQ Americans are remarkably unremarkable.
We've fought for, and won, the right to marry, the right to serve our country, the right to be exceptional for something other than our sexual orientation or gender identity. But there is no achievement in the fight for LGBTQ equality in America more notable than the fact that a person can now be, in a sense, quietly queer.
In 2017, millions of Americans live in places where they can peacefully post their wedding photos on Facebook or discuss their plans to adopt children. Millions of young people can come out to their parents, or their sports teams, or their coworkers, and find not just acceptance, but a sense of normality, a sense in which being LGBTQ is descriptive, like a hometown or a hair color, rather than proscriptive — a limitation.
Only decades ago, this would have been almost unimaginable. Until recently, being openly LGBTQ meant enduring intense and incredibly corrosive stigmas and discrimination. LGBTQ people who lived, worked, and fell in love in the years when our parents and grandparents were born usually could not tell their coworkers about their dating life, or even go on dates to "straight bars." The Stonewall Inn — which, though most certainly not the first site of protests, is widely considered the launching point for what we consider to be the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement — was a bar controlled largely by organized crime gangs, and endured police raid after police raid purely because men danced with other men there. Officers who raided the bar would then ask wealthier people visiting the bar for bribes in order to keep their arrest for homosexual activity out of the papers.
Until the mid-1990s, the federal government was not a source of refuge, but a scourge on the lives of ordinary LGBTQ people — denying them, in effect, the very right to be ordinary and using the power of the presidency to do so. On April 27, 1953, then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which banned gays and lesbians from working for any agency of the federal government — from the White House to the Internal Revenue Service. Eisenhower's order also encouraged private contractors to purge lesbians and gays from their ranks.
The reasoning behind the bill was that simply being gay was so obviously and deeply shameful that an LGBTQ person could be blackmailed by Soviet spies into subverting their government in order to keep their sexual orientation a secret. Or, by Republican national chairman Guy George Gabrielson's logic as shared in a 1950 party letter, perhaps "sexual perverts" were just as bad as Communists themselves. More than 5,000 people were fired from the federal government during the subsequent "lavender scare" that lasted until the 1970s. One man, upon being fired, shot himself on a street corner outside of his office.
Among those fired was an ordinary man named Frank Kameny, a World War II veteran and an astronomer for the U.S. Army. A graduate of Harvard University, he was working for the U.S. Army Map Service until he was fired for being gay in 1957. But he fought back, and did so for 50 years. He picketed outside the White House and the State Department at a time when being gay was considered a mental illness. The year he died — 2011 — was the year that the so-called "don't ask, don't tell" policy was finally rescinded, ensuring that gay men and lesbians could openly serve in the military. But Kameny told an interviewer once that had none of this ever happened, had he not been unjustly fired from a job he loved because of whom he loved, he might have become an astronaut. “I might have gone to the moon,” he said.
Despite this progress, discrimination of course still exists. There are few overarching federal protections to safeguard LGBTQ people nationwide. Trans women, for example — particularly trans women of color — are regularly forced to contend with life-threatening violence. In Texas, transgender students and LGBTQ adoptive parents are being barred from bathrooms and child-rearing, respectively, because of who they are and whom they love.
But those are horrifying exceptions in a country in which LGBTQ people, by and large, can achieve absolutely anything. Because of Frank, and Bayard Rustin, and thousands upon thousands of pioneers before us, LGBTQ people can go to the moon. Or can run for mayor in South Bend, Indiana, and win. Or, perhaps most joyously, we can do absolutely nothing of public consequence and simply meet a person, fall in love, get married, have kids, and die at the age of 92 after eating a slice of pie. In doing so, we will have achieved a dream that seemed almost impossible barely two decades ago — to be ourselves, to be openly gay and yet remain unremarkable.
There's a street near my home in Washington, D.C., that's named for Frank Kameny. Thousands of queer couples have passed under the sign honoring his work, quietly holding hands on the way home from dinner or brunch or a kickball game. Because of Frank and so many others, they — and I — can be free to be exceptional, or perfectly ordinary. What a tremendous gift.