The last time I got as close to the White House as I did this week was many years ago—six years after the Stonewall riots, when I was a 13-year-old National Spelling Bee participant from St. Margaret's School in Lowell, Mass. We spelling bee kids didn't make it into the White House that day—we stood outside as first lady Betty Ford spoke to us from a balcony. By then I already knew I was gay. Raised in a staunch Catholic home and taught (and tormented) by nuns, I was certain that an open homosexual (that was the only term I knew back then) could never be allowed inside the White House. I knew nothing of the nascent gay-rights movement—it hadn't reached Lowell in 1975. All I knew was that that whatever words there were to describe what I was, it would have to be suppressed forever. I assumed that I would have to either become a priest or figure out some other way to hide. (Article continued below...)
Thankfully, time marched on, and I eventually became a politicized college student rather than a candidate for the priesthood—and ultimately I kicked open my closet door and came out. But I can't help thinking about that personal history as I replay the reel of yesterday's visit to the White House in my head. As the executive director of SAGE, an advocacy group for LGBT senior citizens, I was invited, along with some 200 other LGBT leaders, to join the Obamas in commemorating gay pride—which falls this year on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
I was accompanied by three SAGE members: a lesbian couple who are 86 and 91, who reminisced about voting for FDR and described Barack Obama as "the most inspiring politician since Adlai Stevenson," and a Stonewall veteran and founder of the Gay Liberation Front, an activist group formed in the aftermath, who proudly chose his SAGE T shirt over the ties worn by every other man in the room.
Apart from celebrating, we had gone to the White House to make a point: that older people have to be included in the Obama agenda for LGBT progress. And we did what we came to do, with one of our members (the Stonewall vet) even receiving a personal meeting with the president and Mrs. Obama. But as I stood with my partner, in the front row, some five feet from the presidential podium, I realized how intensely personal this experience was for me. I thought about how each member of the SAGE contingent has had our own life's journey—and each of us was moved deeply and differently by that moment.
For me, standing in the East Room listening to the president was emotional in a way I had not imagined—not because of any new promises but because of an overwhelming sense of the long road we have traveled. What struck me repeatedly was the fact that 30 years after I first came to the White House as a Catholic-grade-school student who couldn't imagine life as a gay man, I was standing a few feet from a president who was declaring the LGBT struggle to be his. He reminded us that 40 years ago nobody could have imagined that we—or he—would be standing in that room. He promised we would see the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," of DOMA, the enactment of a federal LGBT rights bill and hate-crimes legislation, and he talked about lesbian couples and LGBT high-school students as though they were his family.
None of this means our work as advocates is done—or that we should be satisfied with progress to date. We have so much more to do, especially at the federal level, where we are still treated like second-class citizens. SAGE's constituents, many of whom are in their 80s and 90s, don't have time to wait. Today we will return to that reality, and the relentless push for change will start all over again. But as I write this, the night of our meeting, I'm letting myself remember that there was a time when 12-year-old gay kids couldn't imagine anything but shame. And I'm reminded, as I think back on listening to our first African-American president declare his commitment to LGBT equality, that we have indeed changed the world. Come what may tomorrow, that's a wonderful feeling to end the day with.