Small Town Gay America by Adam Goodheart


With the passing of Question 6 (same sex marriage) in Maryland last Tuesday, there will undoubtedly be some readjustment for the Upper Eastern Shore, but not much of one.  As Adam Goodheart, Director at Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, noted nine years ago this month in the New York Times, there has been a “quiet tolerance”  on this side of the Chesapeake for sometime. 

Chestertown, Md., November 23, 2003  

A year ago, I moved out of the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, the heart of the city’s substantial ”gay ghetto,” where I’d spent most of the past decade. In Dupont Circle — a mile or so from the White House — the sight of same-sex couples holding hands is a common one, and by the time I left, it no longer surprised me to see two men pushing a baby carriage.

When I resettled in a small town across the Chesapeake Bay, on the rural eastern shore of Maryland, some of my friends — straight and gay alike — worried that I was moving to enemy territory, to a place where, as an openly gay man, I’d be shunned, or worse. But I quickly discovered that there are plenty of gays and lesbians here, too. You won’t see couples holding hands on High Street, but a quiet tolerance prevails; when two men held their commitment ceremony in a nearby farming town a few weeks ago, there were no protesters, just 200 guests on hand to celebrate.

Now, with both liberals and conservatives girding for a cultural Armageddon over gay marriage and gay rights, the battle lines are being staked out not just in the courts and legislatures, but also in places like this. Perhaps more than any other national political struggle since the Civil War, the fight for gay equality has been waged community by community and family by family. Last Tuesday’s ruling by Massachusetts’ highest court in favor of gay marriage will put personal relationships as well as political principles to an unprecedented test.

The rapidly growing acceptance and visibility of gays and lesbians over the past 30 years can be explained by simple exponential math: each person who comes out of the closet brings at least some of his friends and family over to the pro-gay camp, and this in turn makes it easier for others to live openly. It’s a phenomenon alien to the politics of race; rarely, alas, does a racist wake up one morning to discover that he has an African-American son or brother.

The most difficult obstacle that the foes of gay marriage face is that no matter how they choose to frame their side of the debate — ”traditional family values,” ”defense of marriage,” ”our Judeo-Christian heritage” — they will be pitting a mere abstraction against millions of very real people across America who have told their friends and relatives and co-workers that they are gay.

While the majority of straight Americans tell pollsters they oppose gay marriage, these attitudes may well change if the grounds of debate shift from vague constitutional and religious principles to more emotionally tangible questions. The ”defense of marriage” side has no poster child as compelling as the plaintiff in the Massachusetts case who, when her partner was in a hospital giving birth, had to pretend that the two were sisters in order to be allowed into the neonatal intensive care unit.

Many lesbians and gays feel that the Massachusetts ruling has come at a politically inopportune moment, that activists should have waited for a more favorable social climate rather than risk provoking new anti-gay legislation in response. Yet I suspect there are also very few who do not inwardly believe that in being forbidden to marry, they have been denied a basic human right. As the issue is debated at family dinner tables and office Christmas parties in the weeks ahead, many may find themselves staking out a more radical position. For all the talk of a ”straight backlash” against gay marriage, the prospect of a gay backlash in favor of it is just as real.

If conservatives continue their push for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage — a movement that is already gathering steam — they have to be prepared to slog their way, state by state, through a brutal grassroots battle that will divide families and communities. Even if the proposed amendment dies in Congress, there will most likely be a similar struggle in the event that Massachusetts starts granting marriage licenses to gays, which will force other state governments to decide whether to honor them.

With full marriage rights now at stake, it’s going to become much harder for moderates — straights who favor some form of domestic partnership, gays who just want to keep their private lives to themselves — to maintain their stances. As with those well-meaning 19th-century Americans who favored gradual emancipation of slaves, or eventual resettlement in Africa, their positions may become increasingly untenable: ultimately, questions of equality admit no shades of gray.

Individual politicians’ stances on the issue may end up being determined as much by personal and family loyalties as by party affiliations. Republicans, after all, are as likely as Democrats to have gay children. Vice President Dick Cheney, who treats his lesbian daughter’s partner as a member of the family (the couple sat among the Cheneys and Bushes in the presidential box at his inauguration), came tantalizingly close to supporting gay marriage in a campaign debate in 2000.

Even President Bush, who this week pledged to oppose the Massachusetts ruling, has in the past spoken publicly about the role that his gay friends and acquaintances have had in influencing his views on homosexuality. It is difficult to imagine President Bush’s father — who exploited gays as cheap targets in his 1992 campaign — making a similar admission.

Indeed, the generational divide is a critical fault line when it comes to gay rights. An October survey by the Pew Center for the People and the Press found that Americans overall are against gay marriage by a nearly two-to-one margin. But it also found that members of what might be called the ”Will & Grace” generation — those between 18 and 30 — are evenly split on the issue.

And while there aren’t poll numbers yet, there are plenty of informal signs that the next generation of Americans may end up squarely in the pro-gay camp. In one small-town Maryland high school this week, two girls — both heterosexual — made headlines by kissing each other atop a cafeteria table as a protest against homophobia. (The principal suspended them, which prompted the news media attention — as well as further protests by their peers.)

I was born the year after the Stonewall riots, in 1970. That was also the year of ”The Boys in the Band,” a movie that depicted gays as lisping, suicidal freaks. It all seems very far away from 2003, which even without the gay-marriage ruling might fairly have been called the Year of the Queer — as in, ”. . . Eye for the Straight Guy.” (Who could ever have imagined so many heterosexual men wanting to be more like us?)

It’s often said, among gays as well as straights, that America still isn’t ready for full acceptance of us, that such seismic shifts in attitude can’t happen overnight. But in fact throughout American history, whenever a sweeping social change has occurred, it has tended to occur within the span of a single generation.

In 1830, very few Americans favored the abolition of slavery; by 1860, they elected an antislavery president. In 1960, help-wanted ads were still routinely segregated by sex; by 1990, a myriad of state and federal laws protected women in the workplace. What gays and lesbians have accomplished since 1970 is almost as dramatic and remarkable a story.

None of this is to diminish the enduring force of deep-seated cultural and religious aversions to homosexuality. Whichever side ends up prevailing on gay marriage, it’s going to be a grim and ugly fight. But no matter what happens, it’s also far too late to turn back the clock. Gays and lesbians have already infiltrated not just fashionable urban enclaves, not just prime-time cable programming, but thousands of American communities and millions of American families. And perhaps — to a degree that is still uncertain — millions of hearts and minds as well.

The New York Times – November 23, 2003


Chestertown, Md., November 13, 2012 Like many historians, I’m usually better at postmortems than predictions: my political forecasts, I must confess, often turn out wrong. But I do feel happy that this op-ed on gay marriage that I published in the New York Times nearly a decade ago, inspired by my then-recent move to the Eastern Shore, seems to be coming true. Last week’s historic referendums approving same-sex marriage in three states – Maryland, Maine, and Washington – show just how quickly public opinion has shifted. More and more Americans, including in rural communities like Kent County, recognize that the decision to marry the person you love is among the most private and fundamental of human rights.

And while I’m disappointed that the measure fell short in Kent County by a couple of hundred votes (4,774 to 4,582 by the current count), I’m thrilled that what seemed a decade ago like an extreme liberal position would gain such significant support both here and in other rural Maryland counties. After all, as recently as 2001, a majority of Americans were opposed to legal homosexual relations between consenting adults — let alone same-sex marriage. As late as the 1990s, notes Alex Ross in this week’s issue of The New Yorker, “talk of gay marriage sounded kooky and futuristic, like something out of a left-wing version of ‘The Jetsons.’”

Voters in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs pushed gay marriage over the top last week, of course, but it still would not have succeeded without the votes of hundreds of thousands of people, both Republicans and Democrats, in more conservative parts of the state. Same-sex marriage won majorities in just four of Maryland’s 24 counties. But in 12 other counties, most of them substantially rural, same-sex marriage received more votes than President Obama did. These included four Eastern Shore counties: Cecil, Queen Anne’s, Talbot, and Worcester. In other words, despite the state Republican Party’s “no” endorsement, many GOP voters crossed party lines to support gay family members, neighbors, and friends. (The conservative political writer Walter Olson has published a smart analysis of this.)

Nationally, of course, the fight is far from over. But I’m optimistic that – just as I found a hopeful premonition here in Chestertown a decade ago – last week’s results in the Free State will herald eventual victory for for one of the most important civil-rights movements in American history.


Copyright 2003 by Adam Goodheart, reprinted by permission of the author

Letters to Editor

  1. Bravo – Gays & Lesbians should have equality. Isn’t that what the constitution says, equal rights for all. And yet it’s taken this long. Bravo to all who favor equal rights. And I have faith it will only get better!

  2. Margie Elsberg says:

    We were delighted, in 2003, when we read Adam Goodheart’s New York Times commentary, and today, it’s not only delightful to read his words again, but it’s fascinating to read his analysis of the county-by-county vote on Question 6. We’re proud of Maryland, Washington and Maine and believe that here in Maryland and throughout the country, most everyone will eventually come to the conclusion that marriage equality is a question of fairness and justice.

    • Like Margie, we’d seen the Adam’s op-ed when one of our dearest D.C.- area gay friends alerted us to to it. His comment that day was, “Whew. It’s really okay.” He said he’d always been worried for us that local people might not accept us if it became obvious that not all of our friends were white and straight!

      Over the years that friend and others have been here countless times. He – and they – love Chestertown. They aren’t worried for us any more! Thanks, Adam, for your words, and all the amazing stuff you’ve brought to C’town and to the college. Best, Connie Godwin

  3. Maryland has lived up to its nickname — “Free State” — by being a historic first (tied with Maine and Washington State — bravo to them!) to have a popular vote for same-sex marriage.
    Yes, it’s surprising to have the matter resolved by a vote instead of in a court, but, to all intents and purposes, it’s resolved.
    More and then more states will approve same-sex marriage and then … what’s next in our long national odyssey toward equality, fairness and the Golden Rule?

  4. Joan Cramer says:

    Thanks for both the piece and the postscript, Adam. A joy to read in celebration of a generally terrific election night.

  5. “The Angels of our better nature” have won!

  6. The right for all to marry in Maryland is a milestone that will continue to be celebrated for months to come! Many local families are thrilled and relieved of worry at the same time. As volunteers for Parents, Families and Friends of Gays and Lesbians (PFLAG) Chestertown maintained a visible presence in our Farmers’ Market most Saturdays since last spring, subtle shifts in our citizens’ reactions were noted. Early in the year many folks would offer comments of surprise and support as they read the signage and realized who we were representing. Others would read the signs and quickly grab their companions’ arm and pull them in the opposite direction as if to “protect them” from even seeing us. It was interesting to watch. As the weeks went on, the comfort level of both our volunteers and our citizens seemed to mellow. Our visibility became predictable, our advocacy message for the vote was simple and our friends and families enjoyed “hanging out” at our table. What a wonderful season it was…thanks everyone!

    Being gay is Chestertown is now more like being “whatever” in Chestertown. Yes, this place of quiet tolerance and acceptance is truly that. Now we can celebrate being both visible and legal in the same year! What next?

    PFLAG’s answer to “what’s next?” is to offer support and education to everyone who reaches out to us and to our schools. We intend to continue to be visible and we are thankful to have so many supporters who have affirmed the need for our presence. The happy stories are to be noted, but just as real are those individuals of all ages, stages and situations who are struggling to find their places in this complex and quickly changing world…yes, changing…even on the Eastern Shore.

  7. Hugh Silcox says:

    When I came out as a Gay man in 1993 (after a sixteen-year marriage and as the father of a then-nine-year-old daughter), I had been away from my hometown for thirteen years. I now live in Baltimore. There is comfort to be found of the relative anonymity of big-city life. Growing up closeted in Chestertown was the antithesis of comfort, but both that closet and that discomfort was largely of my own creation, albeit with some justification. I heard the slurs and snickers, in school, among my friends and acquaintances, even in my own home. I knew they were directed at me, even though my closet was quite secure.

    I thought I could never find comfort and safety as long as I stayed in Kent County — that is, if I were to live my life honestly.

    I was stunned — and made very proud — by the tally from Kent County on Question Six. Thank you, Mr Goodheart, for your patience with Chestertown and Kent County. And for your bravery — something I seem to have lacked.

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