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    Tuesday, April 16, 2024

    We may be entering a new era of activism for gay rights

    I remember when, some ten years ago, New London's gay mayor attended an ecumenical service in his city marking Martin Luther King Day.

    As the keynote speaker, addressing about 100 people at St. James Episcopal Church, the mayor talked about a lifelong commitment to civil rights because of the discrimination he faced as a gay man.

    "Twenty years ago, my future did not look very promising," the mayor said. "But 20 years later, a mere 20 years later, I stand before you today in this pulpit, a legally married man who could not be fired from any job on account of my identity, who could serve openly in our military."

    "Despite all obstacles on the horizon 20 years ago, I am the mayor."

    He went on to announce that he was donating five percent of his salary to the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Trust Fund.

    But the mayor was criticized in many circles for equating the discrimination he experienced as a gay man with the debilitating racism directed at so many Black Americans. And he did it at a ceremony honoring the life of a hero in addressing that racism.

    "He's never walked into a bar in Plainfield and had every head in the room turn to look at him because of the color of his skin," New London's Black representative to the General Assembly at the time complained to me after the mayor's remarks at St. James.

    The legislator made a good point. And I say that as a gay man, one who has experienced some discrimination and a fair amount of alienation over the years because of my sexuality.

    But there is no equating discrimination against gay people, especially white ones, with the overwhelming, systematic racism that continues to corrupt this country. I know I am well insulated by my white privilege.

    Still, despite the great and swift progress in gay rights cited by the mayor ten years ago, I worry for young people, gay and trans, white or not, who are going to continue to struggle with an identity that sometimes can be hard for straight society to accept.

    And I know that coming of age with that burden, sometimes at odds even with your own family and people of your own race, is perhaps less traumatic than it was when the former mayor was growing up, but still not easy for many.

    Even today, in blue Connecticut, a new super PAC organized by a wealthy Stamford hedge fund manager who has supported campaigns against abortion, gay marriage, gay adoption and trans rights has pledged $1 million to help elect the Republican candidate for governor. The Republican candidate has yet to renounce the hating PAC, and every day that goes by when he doesn't is worrisome.

    An ultra conservative U.S. Supreme Court seems poised to apply the same precedent-denying legal logic through which it is preparing to strike down decades of protection for abortion in Roe v. Wade, to attack a host of other settled American rights, interracial marriage, contraception and gay marriage.

    As that frightening prospect comes more into focus, I believe the fair-minded and reasonable people of Connecticut, a clear majority of voters, will do their best to erect defenses here against the growing righteous tyranny of a minority emboldened by the Republicans' misguided party building.

    Gay rights have progressed at warp speed, but it's no time to be complacent. The biggest challenges may still lay ahead, defending what's already been won.

    I remember when, not long after gay marriage became legal here, I applied for a marriage license with my now-husband at Stonington Town Hall. Everyone there was very polite and respectful, even happy for us, trying to make it seem routine.

    But of course it was hardly routine, and I think they were as surprised it was happening as we were.

    I struggle to cite a single instance in eastern Connecticut when, as a single or married gay man, I have been treated with less respect than straights. I am enormously grateful to live in such a place.

    The most egregious example I can think of was the time when, appearing in the studio of a local right-wing talk radio station, I was chased off by the mean-spirited attacks of an afternoon host, who then said on the air that I "took my purse" and fled.

    Of course I wasn't so surprised to think there are still people who think of all gay men as effeminate. I guess I was very surprised to know that there is a place around here where the folks in charge would give one of them a radio microphone. I've never been back to that studio, a place I've come to think of as a local forum for hate.

    As we mark gay pride season here in 2022, the gay community might want to both celebrate and remember that the political fight, even here in Connecticut, might just be beginning.

    This is the opinion of David Collins

    d.collins@theday.com

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