In June, an ideologically right-wing Christian Supreme Court majority in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that made access to abortion a constitutional right in the United States. In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that “in future cases, we should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell. Because any substantive due process decision is ‘demonstrably erroneous,’ we have a duty to ‘correct the error’ established in those precedents.”
All these rulings—Roe, Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell—loosened our destinies from our gender. Griswold (1965) was the Supreme Court decision that struck down state bans on contraceptives. Lawrence (2003) struck down state laws prohibiting homosexual sex. Obergefell (2015) struck down same-sex marriage bans. Roe and Griswold gave women control over the use of their bodies for reproduction, and Lawrence—and maybe Obergefell, though I find marriage more complicated—gave homosexuals control over the use of their bodies for sexual relationships, intimacy, and pleasure. What joins the Christian conservative desire to overturn all of these is a compulsion to prevent people from, and to punish people for, violating rules of behavior according to gender, as determined by the tenets of the Christian faith practiced by a Supreme Court majority.
It must feel nice to be needed / To have someone wish you were there. That’s what I need—someone that needs me as much as I need him/or her/anyone!
(January 3, 1977, diary entry. I was 15.)
Shortly before she died, my mother and I were discussing my coming out, and we realized we had two completely different memories of the event. What I remember is that at 22 I fell in love with a boy in New York, Eduardo, and I took him home to Indiana to meet my family and see where I grew up. This was August of 1983. Both Eduardo and I had bleached our hair platinum blond and wore oversized Bermuda shorts and black boots. We looked like every other kid in the East Village that summer. The bus dropped us off in front of the Greyhound station in Greencastle, Indiana, which was inside Marvin’s Pizza Place near the DePauw University campus, and we walked to the college library a few blocks away to meet my mother at work. Our appearance made a stir. A janitor at the library taunted my mother about her queer son, and she cried that night. I don’t remember saying, “Mom, I’m gay.” I probably didn’t; I probably assumed the events of those couple days added up to a revelation.
My mother’s story of my coming out takes place four years earlier, during my first visit home from college in Ohio, fall of my freshman year. She and Dad and I were having lunch at Moore’s Bar downtown on the courthouse square. Mom says I came out to them that day over lunch, and that my father talked about his father, Edward Cheslik, and told me that it was fine that I was gay, that they knew already, but not to tell anyone else and to be careful because “there are men who will hurt you if they find out.” My mother’s memory was always better than mine, but it’s hard for me to imagine having said “I’m gay” out loud in a bar in the middle of the day in Greencastle, Indiana in 1979.
On a family trip to Minnesota when I was 10 or 11, we drove around Winona, the city on the Mississippi River where Dad grew up. We pulled over in front of his childhood homes, and I took a picture of each one with my Instamatic camera. I still have the photos. Five are of houses and one is of a tavern (Lenore and Ed ran the tavern and the family lived in the apartment above it). Dad talks about “scandals” that forced them to move around a lot. Details are scant in these stories; Dad was a young boy, and it was a long time ago. My father has never said what the danger was exactly, my father doesn’t say much, but in the 1930s and early ’40s in a small city in the rural Midwest, it’s easy to imagine the risks of even a rumor of homosexuality.
When Dad was a teenager, his father began to disappear periodically. His wife, my Grandma Lenore, would find him in a nearby town, always with a man, the same man, whom my father has called his father’s “boyfriend.” Eventually, GrandpaEd started going farther afield, down the Mississippi River, and then to the various towns down the shore of Lake Michigan. Grandma would pack up the kids, hit the road, and find him where he was shacking up. Eventually they found themselves in Waukegan, Illinois, where my father met my mother, married, and where I was born.
My father’s anger at his father for abandoning them and his anger at his mother for always taking his father back is still palpable when these stories come up, but it never overwhelms his sense of the injustice that his father’s and his mother’s, and his own, happiness were undermined by prejudice, by fear, by shame. Sometime in the early sixties, Ed disappeared and this time, no one chased him.
Arizona Daily Star, June 1, 1965
Autopsy Ordered In Transient’s Death: A 59-year-old transient was found dead underneath a trailer at 3255 S. Fourth Avenue in South Tucson yesterday. Sergeant Fernando Romero said the man had apparently crawled under the trailer to sleep. Officers found a Minnesota driver’s license on his person, when the body was discovered about 3:30 p.m. Romero said no foul play was suspected, but an autopsy was ordered for today. The body was taken to Tucson Mortuary.
Edward Cheslik’s obituary in the Winona Daily News says the cause of death was a heart attack. His younger sister Sylvia flew to Tucson to identify his body and have him buried. No one in the family, that I know of, has ever mentioned why he was in Tucson. The four years between Ed’s final disappearance and when he was found dead and homeless under a truck haunt me. Why Tucson? Did he go straight there for some particular reason, or did he take a meandering path and Tucson was just the end of the road?
I found a granddaughter of Sylvia Cheslik on Ancestry.com and sent her a message asking if she had heard any family stories about my grandfather. She had not, but she contacted her aunt (Sylvia’s daughter), who recalled that Ed had named her mother as next of kin, so she was the one who got the call when his body was found. She and the minister were the only ones at the funeral. My mother told me that soon after I was born and just before he disappeared for good, my grandfather came to visit and that he held me as a baby. There are no photos and I have no memory of it.
My first memory of the printed word “homosexual” was in a copy of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), the 1969 bestseller billed as a frank, honest discussion of sex. I found the small yellow paperback on my Grandma Lenore’s bookshelf when I visited her at 13, and I spent a whole afternoon on her bed reading it, lying on my stomach to hide my erection:
What do homosexuals really do with each other?
[. . .] According to one homosexual, it goes something like this: “Whenever I feel like sex, I drive down to the bowling alley and walk into the men’s room, find an empty cubicle, go in, pull down my pants, and sit on the toilet. Then I wait. Pretty soon another guy sits down in the next cubicle. I watch his feet. If he’s a gay guy, he’ll slide his foot over and kind of nudge mine. That means he’s ‘cruising.’ If I’m interested, I nudge back. Then we get started. I always use a piece of toilet paper to write some kind of note—usually I just say ‘Do you suck?’ Sometimes if I have time I add something else like, ‘How big are you?’ I throw the paper on the floor, he picks it up, comes over into my cubicle, and sucks my penis. That’s how it ends—sometimes I suck his penis but usually I just go home.” No feeling, no sentiment, no nothing.
Also on that visit, I discovered how to masturbate to orgasm while taking a bath in Grandma’s tub.
On May 1, 1977, I admitted to myself, in writing, I put into words and sentences in my diary, an idea that had been falling into place in my mind for years. And then I cut the pages out with an Exacto blade and destroyed them. The following January, I mustered the courage again:
January 21, 1978, 3 a.m.
Fasten your seat belts because this is going to be a long and shattering chapter. It’s very hard for me to admit this to myself but I guess I’ve known for years.
I am a homosexual.
God that relieves me. It hurts though too. Years ago I knew that I liked to see men’s bodies more than women’s. I knew that the other boy scouts really got me excited in the showers. I didn’t realize it then, I guess all along I haven’t been really able to come to grips with it. To actually admit it to myself.
. . .
I go thru stages of—1st accepting my homosexuality and saying I’ll learn to live with it. Then sometimes I want very badly to love women as much as I do men. The desperate yearning in me to be heterosexual, to be normal. I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever be normal. When I think in terms of future, I usually change the subject, I can’t face it. I can’t handle the stark reality that I’m different that I’m homosexual. I keep telling myself Hey, you’re not so bad. But will society believe it?
I was 16.
The plot of a 1961 educational film, Boys Beware, follows various fictional teenage boys as they encounter normal-seeming but dangerous men who lure and groom them for sex. One of the boys, Jimmy, thumbs a ride from and then develops a friendship with an older man named Ralph. The narrator’s tone is concerned but authoritative: “What Jimmy didn’t know was that Ralph was sick—a sickness that was not visible like smallpox, but no less dangerous and contagious—a sickness of the mind. You see, Ralph was a homosexual.”
I was born in 1961. This film, and others like it, were made to be shown in high school boys’ health and sex education classes.
For a period of several weeks during my sophomore year of high school, a group of kids brought squirt guns onto the school bus and sprayed me with water as I sat near the back reading. I was holding my book “like a fag.” The following year, I was standing at my locker at the end of the day putting books into my backpack to take home with me. When I turned around, I saw a much larger boy, a familiar face but not someone I knew well, walking up the hall toward me. When he passed by, he shoved me hard in the chest with the heel of his hand, throwing me back into the row of lockers, and muttered under his breath, “Faggot.” The torn cartilage in my sternum made a small lump that lasted for decades as a memento. Late one night in my early twenties, on the corner of 10th Street and Fourth Avenue in New York, I kissed the man I’d just been on a date with and continued walking east alone toward my apartment. As I crossed Broadway, a station wagon careened around the corner, full of boys hanging out the windows shouting, “Faggot!” and throwing bottles that smashed on the sidewalk around my feet. I turned around and ran back on 10th Street, a one-way street so they couldn’t follow me. But when I reached the next corner, the car had already gone around the block and was again coming toward me, bottles flying. I turned again and ran all the way home. I assume they couldn’t negotiate all the one-way streets deftly enough to get to me again.
April 8, 1978
I’m going tonight to his apartment. I can’t wait. I hate myself for it, but this is what I’ve been waiting for. Even though he’s over 40, he’s familiar w/ the other gays in the town, and I will make myself known to them. [. . .] I don’t know if I can handle this experience. I feel like a real degenerate. I pray, if there is a God or anything like him, that he won’t let me enjoy having sex w/ this man. I know I will, but the guilt will never go away. Why couldn’t I have been born normal? It would be so much easier for me.
Technically I’d had sex with my best friend Terry when I was 15 and we were drunk on his mother’s vodka. It was very brief and there were no orgasms. When we “woke up,” he said, “What happened? My dick is wet,” and I said, “I don’t know. Mine is too.” But since it was unacknowledged and secret, to my mind then it didn’t count as my first sexual experience. In the spring of my seventeenth birthday, I pursued a man who had a reputation in Greencastle for inviting teenage boys to his apartment to watch pornographic films and, it was implied in the way people talked about him (kids in town used his first name as a slur to mean “gay”), have sex. In Indiana in 1977, just to say the words would have been shameful and suspect, so no one did. I was determined to verify my recent self-admission.
April 8, 1978 (later)
I just had the most terrible experience in my life. I can’t go into it because it hurts but it’s for the better, because now I can see what I’m doing to myself. From now on I hope I am turned off enough by homosexuality to stay straight where I should be. I know it will be hard, because now all the gay people will know I am. I’ve got to control myself. Why did I have to be born this way? What did I ever do to deserve this? I’m a good person, and thoughtful and sensitive. I don’t deserve this punishment. I will try to overcome it. I’m hurting myself, and my parents, and my friends.
When I was in high school, my mother got me an after-school job at the DePauw University library where she worked. The summer between my junior and senior years, I worked full-time assisting the reference librarian, a former Catholic nun married to a former priest. She was the first woman I’d ever met who’d hyphenated her last name when she married. She was loud (for a librarian), expressed strong opinions, talked about her gay friends right there in front of anyone who might be listening, gave me a copy of Andrea Dworkin’s Woman Hating, and I was in her thrall. I’d never encountered anyone like her. That friendship, our long conversations on slow summer afternoons, her unspoken but obvious (to me, anyway) recognition of my queerness, put the world in order. She explained to me how misogyny and homophobia are two iterations of the same thing, a view I hold to this day.
I’d always been a kid who questioned authority, but suddenly now it was personal. As far as I could determine, the only reasonable response to hate was defiance. Opposition. “I don’t respect your laws and norms and I will defy them.” I was an artist, a feminist, an outsider. I was absolutely certain that I could not come out as a high school student in Greencastle, Indiana, but it was around that time that I began plotting my gay life. I chose a college where no one who knew me was going, and I was out from the day I arrived.
From Chief Justice Warren Burger’s concurring opinion in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), in which the Supreme Court upheld Georgia’s anti-sodomy law and with it the laws prohibiting private, consensual gay sex in two-thirds of the U.S.:
Decisions of individuals relating to homosexual conduct have been subject to state intervention throughout the history of Western civilization. Condemnation of those practices is firmly rooted in Judeo-Christian moral and ethical standards. Homosexual sodomy was a capital crime under Roman law. [. . .] Blackstone described “the infamous crime against nature” as an offense of “deeper malignity” than rape, a heinous act “the very mention of which is a disgrace to human nature,” and “a crime not fit to be named.” [. . .] To hold that the act of homosexual sodomy is somehow protected as a fundamental right would be to cast aside millennia of moral teaching.
The shame and fear and silence are the point. We are meant to be shunned, to hate ourselves, to arouse hate in others.
You would think I’d have a specific memory of how the Bowers ruling felt—I was 25—but it doesn’t stand out except as one more blow among so many during that time. President Reagan and most of the federal government seemed not to care if we lived or died. Nearly everyone—certainly conservative Christians who pronounced AIDS our punishment from God for anal sex—hated gay men or were at least terrified of us. When the Supreme Court upheld state laws prohibiting us from having sex with each other it couldn’t have been a surprise. The following year, I started attending ACT UP and Queer Nation meetings, joining protests. We had so many reasons to be angry, so many reasons to scream in the streets.
Queer intimacy is always an act of defiance. The ethos of Queer Nation boiled down to this: if you tell me that it’s dirty and shameful, then I’m going to rub your nose in it. We staged “kiss-ins”—events where at a prescribed time in a public place we’d . . . kiss. I wonder, now that I’m older, how my life as a sexual being, how the ways I’ve interacted sexually with men all my life, might have been different if sex had not been a protest, had not been a political act.
I came home Saturday night, or Sunday morning and I felt really sad and called Eduardo (at 5 a.m.) and he was still up drawing. I want to be with him every minute of our lives. Did I tell you we’re going to get married? We’re going to have a real wedding, sometime in June I think, for the anniversary of being together.
(Letter to a friend, November 14, 1983)
My love for Eduardo and his for me was the kind of obsessive, grasping love that at 22 you think is the only kind and is earth-shattering when it’s mutual. Friends called us “the love affair of the century.” We spent every moment of a hot New York summer together. I went back to Indiana that fall. We sent each other letters every day and talked on the phone every night, and in December I moved back to New York because I couldn’t stand to be away from him another minute. In February he told me he couldn’t have sex with me anymore. His friend Ramon, a student from Spain, a couple years older and also gay, a man Eduardo greatly admired, had told him that they could have fun in New York while they were young, but the gay lifestyle was sinful, and when they finished school they would have to go home, find a girl to marry, and have a family. Eduardo, from a conservative family in Mexico, knew Ramon was right. Not long after our relationship ended, Eduardo married a woman and they had a son. Eduardo died of AIDS in 1992.
I want to live happy and comfortable with you. In your arms all the time. When I’m gone in the day I’m going to miss you so much! Even more than now. But then we’ll come to our little castle, you’ll be my prince . . . and I’ll be with you forever.
(December 9, 1983 letter from Eduardo in New York to me in Indiana)
My husband comes from a large Southern family. His cousin’s children are all in their twenties now and getting married. We’ve been to one or two weddings a year for several years running, big church weddings, white dresses, bridesmaids and flowers and flower girls, receptions, cakes. I find myself holding my breath, scared for them. They’re so young. I say marriage is great, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone under 50. I was 50 when New York State made same-sex marriage legal, 54 when Obergefell made it legal nationally. Eduardo and I would have married at 22, and I would not have been up to the task for a thousand reasons, but unlike my husband’s cousins’ kids’ marriages, which are bolstered by not just their families and friends, but by their communities, churches, the culture within which they live, and the federal government, my marriage is vulnerable every day, every minute, subject to disdain, disgust, “tolerance,” the possibility that those who are endeavoring to pass laws against it will succeed, court rulings that erase it, and on and on.
My husband and I were married in 2012, soon after same-sex marriage was legalized in New York State but not yet nationally. They were heady times for gay people. The campaign for “marriage equality” seemed to be persuading people; public opinion was shifting fast.
I never liked weddings until Chan and I began to plan ours. I’d been in two long-term relationships already, both committed and serious but non-monogamous and both had ended in upheaval, emotional and otherwise, as long relationships do. I had no intention of entering another when I met Chan, but humans fall in love and then they have to figure out how to build a life around that fact. The structure, the traditions, the rules of a conventional marriage appealed to me. It was like opening a present you never imagined you’d get. I absolutely fell for it. There was even a moment when I considered going to Chan’s father and asking for his permission to propose to Chan. How absurd. Chan and I were middle-aged men. But I’d grown so fond of my Republican father-in-law-to-be, and he of me, and I thought he’d be touched by the gesture.
I wanted a very conventional wedding. I thought the more conventional, the more subversive it would be with two men at the center of it. Maybe I was the only one who saw the subversion; I suspect a large portion of the palpable joy our families felt on the occasion was relief that we were not so weird after all, that they were in a world they recognized. Or, I should say, we were in their world. Not so much subversion as assimilation. We were not married in a church but our officiant was a Unitarian Universalist minister, we wore tuxes, we had groomsmen and groomswomen, bouquets and boutonnieres, vows, a kiss, a fancy reception. Friends and family came from North Carolina and Virginia, Connecticut, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and up from the city. It was a beautiful wedding, everyone said so, in a Victorian hotel on top of a mountain in the Catskills and I was deeply moved by my mother’s tears.
Soon after we announced our engagement, we were with my in-laws in North Carolina for Christmas, and at the end of dinner one evening, Chan’s father stood up, nervous, tears welling up in his eyes, and toasted me and his son. He told us how happy he was to know that his son had found someone to spend his life with. Later in that visit, the subject of Amendment 1 came up. The North Carolina House and Senate had just voted in favor of an amendment to the state constitution that read, “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State,” and in May, days after our wedding, the question was to be put to the voters in a referendum. Chan’s father, a devout Catholic, said he planned to vote in favor of it. Chan was able, after a tearful, angry argument, to persuade him to at least not vote.
In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that two people of the same sex have a fundamental right to marry. The ruling, however, contained within it clear instructions for how to flout this “fundamental right.”
Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.
(Justice Anthony Kennedy, Obergefell v. Hodges majority opinion)
Three years later, in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Court decided that a so-called Christian baker could refuse to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple. The ruling was narrow and legalistic, but it made clear that the door was open to discrimination against same-sex marriages on the grounds of “religious liberty.”
It is a disorienting time to be gay in the world, in America. Rainbows and “love is love” in one realm, vicious hate coming from another. Some of us celebrate Gay Uncles Day on Facebook while, for others, calling queer people child molesters is a winning electoral strategy. Some of our families love and accept us, and many of our marriages may soon be invalidated in the states where we live, where we grew up. With social media shaping nearly every conversation, these divergent attitudes seem to no longer have geographic or cultural boundaries. They both exist everywhere all the time.
It’s astonishing to live to see a generation of queer people grow up with no memory or knowledge of the intense cruelty of the pre-Obergefell years. Bowers was less than 40 years ago. Lawrence, which overturned Bowers and struck down sodomy laws across the U.S., was less than 20 years ago. We are not safe. Obergefell did not make us safe. We should never have let ourselves believe that it would. If this Supreme Court can so breezily erase the right to abortion that women had for 49 years, how solid is the Lawrence decision which is only 19 years old, or Obergefell at seven?
I am more astonished by my own willingness to have believed in the notion of a new world where we are valued and loved without qualification. We want so badly to belong. We all want to be held by our families.
My husband’s brother’s wife recently gave birth to twins. My in-laws are a very close, traditional, conservative family, and it wouldn’t occur to them that the spouse of their son, the newborn babies’ uncle, would not attend their christening. This caused me weeks of mental turmoil that I kept mostly, but not completely, to myself. I was being asked to choose between, on one hand, my desire to be present for this deeply meaningful event in the lives of my nieces—in other words, to be a full member of my own family—and, on the other hand, holding onto my hard-won but unsteady grasp on my own sense of worth and dignity in the face of the humiliation of participating in a religious ritual in a church whose doctrine teaches my nieces that their uncles’ intimate connection is “an act of grave depravity” and their homosexual orientation “objectively disordered.”
For a while it felt like we were on a fast track to a better world. The apex bullies were dying off: Jesse Helms, Reagan, Phyllis Schlafly, Anita Bryant. The Supreme Court decided not only that we could have sex but that we could marry each other. But it was always to some extent a fantasy. Supreme Court rulings don’t mean the world has changed its mind. They might reflect shifts in attitudes, but they also reflect the vicissitudes of elections. Flukes of politics change the ideological bent of the Court, back and forth. Most straight people at best don’t understand queer lives. If you’ve spent any time around adults and toddlers (children of any age for that matter, but it begins practically at birth), you know how immediately the boyfriend/girlfriend talk starts when a boy and girl happen to make friends. That does not happen to little boys who make friends with little boys. Queer kids learn early on that we are on our own to figure it out. Stephen Colbert, everybody’s favorite late-night liberal, for months told homophobic jokes about Trump and Putin’s relationship and then dug in his heels when he was criticized for it. Straight friends might not want to kill us, but many of our “allies” will wonder aloud why we can’t just get our cake at another bakery. If the Supreme Court, as Justice Thomas believes it should, overturns Obergefell and Lawrence, it will be less a cultural shift than a cultural unmasking. We live in a homophobic world. Conservatives’ current campaigns to ban books, or even conversation, containing queer people or characters, or queer subject matter, and then calling anyone who opposes their efforts “groomers,” is identical to Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign to fire gay and lesbian teachers in the late 1970s, and any number of anti-gay crusades going back centuries. To think that it will ever end is an irrational sort of hope that I have less and less of as I get older.
The overturning of Roe fills me with rage. The possibility of this panel of right-wing theocrats on the Supreme Court overturning Lawrence and Obergefell makes me furious. But the fury feels familiar, as if somehow these events are restoring a natural order. How bleak that sounds. How sad. I want to say that I used to be more optimistic. Maybe idealistic is a better word. But I don’t think I was. I was more defiant. We were more isolated, better buttressed.
The mistake in promoting ourselves as “just like you”—and I don’t think there’s any serious doubt that this was the idea that won over the Supreme Court in Obergefell (the ruling is based on this argument) and won over public opinion so quickly and dramatically—is that we are not like everybody else. We should be protected from persecution and discrimination not because we are like everybody else but because we are not.
Contemplating the demise of Lawrence and Obergefell, and the narrow and conditional quantity of acceptance they provided, forces me to consider that maybe this era has been no more than a pleasant dream, and that our natural relationship to straight society is opposition. We are not just like everybody else. We have a culture, a way of seeing, a sense of humor, a canon, a way of being with each other, a voice, a language, a whole world apart. We are not like everyone, because everyone else told us we were not welcome in their families. We have always created our own bonds, our own institutions, family structures, marriages, our own norms, existed outside the law, so what has changed? What can change? Is it possible still to insult us? “We’re just like you” was always political rhetoric, never strictly true. Can we admit that now? Can we find our power in being different, together? Can we find our power in something other than approval?
Click here to read an essay by Jon Roemer on the rollout of the Monkeypox vaccine in San Francisco
Click here to read Christine Henneberg’s observations on the post-Roe abortion climate in California
Click here to read Steven Cheslik DeMeyer’s Recollections of the East Village of the 1980s