Dec. 14, 2022

In a black-and-white photograph from 1967, Allen Ginsberg, the bearded, bespectacled Beat poet, has his arm raised and shouts.
Credit…Andrew Maclear/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images

By Gail Collins

Opinion Columnist

Let’s take a moment to contemplate President Biden signing that new law requiring federal recognition of same-sex marriage. After all, we don’t get to reflect on good news all that often.

Bipartisan approval! Supreme Court can’t mess it up! Culmination of a public battle that began, arguably, in 1969 with the Stonewall riots at a Greenwich Village bar, led by L.G.B.T.Q. New Yorkers who were tired of being harassed by the police when they were out socializing. (“Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad,” The Daily News famously announced.)

A battle that was still very far from being won in 1996, when Bill Clinton signed an anti-gay law specifically defining marriage as a union between male and female. At the time, only about a quarter of the public approved of same-sex marriages.

Now, 70 percent of Americans say they’re OK with the idea of men and women marrying someone of either sex. According to Gallup, the nation has almost completely changed its mind over the last three decades. What happened?

The public wars were brave and critical, but I think the most important change, as far as opinion goes, was the discovery by average Americans that folks they knew — often including loved ones — were L.G.B.T.Q. I remember my own suburban Catholic mom, the product of a totally conservative upbringing, getting to know Jerry, a gay man who came in to take care of her after my dad died. Not sure what, if anything, she knew about homosexuality before, but he became her best friend and in a couple of years she was sitting on a float in the Cincinnati Gay Pride Parade.

As the product of a Catholic girls’ school in the 1960s, I truly grew up with no idea. I was in college and found myself organizing a gay rights protest before I fully understood what gay rights meant.

Let me tell you that story, which started at one of those student-leaders-gather events, this one at the University of Illinois. A couple of us were there from Marquette, a Jesuit university in Milwaukee, and we happened to meet the poet Allen Ginsberg.

At the time, Ginsberg was famous as one of the founders of the Beat movement and the author of “Howl” (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked. …”). Being near-illiterate when it came to poetry, I didn’t totally appreciate the opportunity.

Nevertheless, it was easy to see he was a friendly guy — ready to chat with utterly insignificant college students like me. By the end of our get-together, we’d invited him to come and read at Marquette, and he’d agreed.


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