Time brings each new era a higher level of tolerance

November 25, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN PHILADELPHIA, where Adam Goodheart grew up, he heard stories of police rounding up gay men, shaking them down for bribes, blackmailing them to keep their secret. In Chestertown, where Goodheart lives now, he can proclaim his sexuality to the world without serious worry. On such differences do we measure a nation's sensitivities. But now comes a generation's newest test.

In Massachusetts last week, the state's Supreme Judicial Court gave approval to gay marriages and sent reverberations across the country. In Washington, President Bush opposes such marriages. In Maryland, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. opposes them - and says he would veto any measure to legalize them.

In Chestertown, where Goodheart teaches, he understands the politicians with their ears to the ground, trying not to alienate voters. But he believes they should pay attention to a considerable silence, from people who tacitly accept homosexuality as a piece of the human fabric.

Goodheart is a fellow at Washington College's C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience. He teaches history and creative writing at the college. On Sunday, on The New York Times op-ed page, in a piece called "Small-Town Gay America," he described moving from sophisticated Washington's Dupont Circle "gay ghetto" to the Eastern Shore's little Chestertown, where friends worried "that I was moving to enemy territory, to a place where, as an openly gay man, I'd be shunned, or worse."

It has been nothing like that.

"No question, this is a more conservative place," Goodheart was saying Sunday night. "When I moved here a year ago, it wasn't until I settled in that I realized how comfortable I had become in Dupont Circle - not looking over my shoulder and worrying what people are thinking about you.

"At first, I felt like a pioneer here. But then you find out there are others here. It's not like I kept my sexuality a secret. I'd mention it to people I got to know. They'd say, `Oh, there's two guys around the corner from you.'

"Then you find out there are people on the faculty. And they're the ones who laid the groundwork for people like me," said Goodheart, who is 33. "They're the heroes. They're the ones who had the really difficult years."

As he spoke, Goodheart was still looking through e-mail, dozens of messages from various parts of the country, responding to his newspaper piece. All were supportive, he said. One was from a teen-age boy in North Carolina, thanking Goodheart for giving him courage.

That's important. In his own adolescence, when Goodheart was first coming to terms with his sexuality, "it was deep in the Reagan era. All we heard relating to gays was the AIDS scare. Or the traditional negative stereotyping. The hardest part is coming out, making that leap off the high dive."

There was also a phone call from a man in Chestertown, "telling me his family is straight, except for a lesbian daughter who lives with her partner in Colorado, and he loves her. And he said he's glad I'm in Chestertown."

It's nice to hear such things. There is a cliche about American small-town insularity, about wanting to keep out "the others," whoever they are. Goodheart hasn't felt it.

"This isn't Dupont Circle or New York's Chelsea," he said. "It's a quieter kind of tolerance. I'm not even going to say it's anything as far along as approval, let alone enthusiastic celebration. But this is what's been lost in the debate: simple, quiet tolerance.

"And that was such an important value to the founding fathers. Jefferson wrote the statutes of religious freedom in Virginia. He was enormously proud of that. What they say, essentially, is that part of being an American is learning to live side by side - and not believing that someone else's freedom encroaches on mine. The American mission is to create more freedom, not less," he said.

Recent polls give comfort to Bush (and Ehrlich) - 75 percent of Republicans oppose gay marriage. So do 52 percent of Democrats.

But Goodheart sees something beyond the poll numbers: Married or not, more men and women are declaring their homosexuality.

"And that makes it easier for others to live openly," he said, "and brings more of their family and friends into the pro-gay camp."

It changes the argument from one of code words - "traditional values," "Judeo-Christian values" - to the faces of real people who have told their friends and relatives and co-workers that they are gay.

"I feel like I've lived history on this one," Goodheart says. "You look at how far we've come since gays were excluded and despised and thrown in jail." His father was a prosecutor in Philadelphia. "He told me how gays were routinely entrapped by police, shaken down, blackmailed for bribes. Some of these people, he said, would kill themselves. A lot of straights haven't come to terms with the damage that was done."

What a new generation has done, though, is learn acceptance. Maybe the country isn't ready for gay marriage yet. But a considerable distance has been traveled. Goodheart has watched it from Philadelphia all the way to little Chestertown.

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