I was born in a very different time and had to go on my own journey for recognizing LGBTQ rights. Just like the country itself. Today is a great day for the universal truth that all people are created equal.
I wrote about my journey in my book WHAT UNITES US, and I share an excerpt here:
“If you had told us back in the 1960s and 1970s that there would be legal gay marriage in all fifty states, we would have been stunned. This was a notion that probably didn’t enter even the deepest reaches of our subconscious, let alone bubble to the level of an actual concrete thought we could put into words. You couldn’t ignore that there were women or African Americans in society, but you certainly could ignore the presence of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, who most often were closeted. That such people would one day be open members of society, living with pride and having children and legal marriages? It is impossible for me to adequately convey how utterly alien those notions would have seemed.
It may be difficult for some younger readers to imagine, but for most of my life the LGBTQ community was never discussed in “polite” company. Horrible epithets for gay people were bandied about without a second thought. The very theoretical idea of someone “like that” living in your neighborhood, let alone teaching your children, was seen as a perverted threat to society. It is hard now to think back to how much this malignant ideology crossed almost all political, religious, racial, and gender boundaries. If you had asked my younger self what I thought about gay rights, I am not sure exactly what I might have said, but I am sure I would not be proud of it today. The fact that most of my peers — and even many leading progressive voices at the time — felt the same way might explain, but does not excuse, my former perspective.
In 1967, two years before the Stonewall riots in New York City would bring gay rights to national prominence, CBS News aired a documentary hosted by Mike Wallace called The Homosexuals. It had been years in the making and was considered one of the most controversial issues a news division could touch. The report was filled with the tropes of the times: psychiatrists claiming homosexuality was a mental condition, provocative images of hustlers, and interviews with gay Americans in anonymity, including one man with his face behind a potted plant. Wallace could state without controversy that “most Americans are repelled by the mere notion of homosexuality.” He added, with a tone of journalistic certainty, “The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested in, nor capable of, a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage. His sex life, his love life, consists of a series of chance encounters at the clubs and bars he inhabits.”
I raise this not to take particular exception with Mr. Wallace. It was brave to even tackle the subject then, and the program also included sympathetic interviews with gay men talking publicly to a national audience for the first time. But the final product did not escape the deep prejudices of the times, and sadly, this ethos continued for years. When members of the gay community started getting sick with a mysterious cancer in 1981, it didn’t gain much notice. At CBS, we were one of the first news organizations to cover it, but we were still too late. At the national level, President Ronald Reagan wouldn’t even utter the word “AIDS” for years. Our job as reporters, and the job of political leaders, is to confront hard truths without bias or prejudice.
Unfortunately, the stigmas surrounding gay people and intravenous drug users, the two groups that initially suffered most, shaped the response from all of us. We knew how big a story AIDS was, but there was an effort among journalists from all walks to “broaden” the reporting. When Ryan White, a young hemophiliac from Kokomo, Indiana, was diagnosed with AIDS after a blood transfusion, the disease took on a more sympathetic face for the press. It hurts my heart to write these words and think of all the thousands of gay men who suffered and died before and since. Many lived under a cloud of shame, shunned by former friends and family.
In 1986, a team of reporters, including myself, did a one-hour special called AIDS Hits Home. It was certainly far from perfect, but it was an improvement over The Homosexuals from twenty years earlier. I remember interviewing a mother alongside the gay lover of her now dead son. You couldn’t hear the story without being moved. But as I look back now, the subtext was that America should care more broadly about AIDS because it was no longer just a gay disease. It could infect you as well. Those were the times in which we were living, and we were not sensitive. It does bring some comfort to know that no one would cover the story in the same way today.
This societal change regarding LGBTQ rights continues to our present time. It’s important to remember that as late as the Democratic primaries in the 2008 election, neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton would publicly support same-sex marriage. Either they still had to “evolve” on the issue or it was considered too politically toxic. Both are now solidly pro – gay marriage, as is almost the entirety of the Democratic Party, and even many Republicans. The key, I think — and it is not a novel or original idea — is that our progress with LGBTQ rights is due to greater inclusion with the rest of society. We know that homosexuality is not limited to any race, religion, or socioeconomic class — it is part of human diversity. Once people had the courage and support to come out of the closet, families across the country, rich and poor, black and white, rural and urban, were forced to confront what had long remained hidden: sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, best friends, coworkers, even fathers and mothers, turned out to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and transgender. Now how will you respond? Will you shun them? Many did, and do, and the trails of pain, loneliness, depression, and even suicide are long and shameful. The tally of those rejected and disowned is large, and continues to grow. But thankfully many people decided to continue to love those whom they had already loved. They made room in their moral universe not only to tolerate LGBTQ people, but also to include them.
Like so many others in our country, I journeyed from ignorance to tolerance to inclusion. By the late 1990s, I had come to realize the undue challenges facing gay and lesbian people in American society, but the true burden many of them faced hadn’t fully struck me. And then one day I was sitting in my office at CBS News when a longtime close colleague came in and shut the door, saying that he needed to talk to me. As soon as he sat down, he blurted out, “I’m gay.” I saw in his eyes an anxiety I hadn’t ever seen during our years of working together, even on the most dangerous or difficult assignments. In that moment I understood the courage it must have taken him to tell me this, and the energy he must have had to expend over the many years we had known each other to keep this central part of his life hidden.
I assured him that what he’d told me it wouldn’t change our relationship as coworkers and friends. As we spoke, I could see his whole demeanor shift, as if a tightly wound spring was finally allowed to relax. How can people be so blinded by prejudice as to not see the common humanity?
Thankfully, we have, as a nation and as individuals, made meaningful steps in the right directions. We must be vigilant and keep up the momentum, and there are new threats in the moment and on the horizon. Sadly, we have seen a growing movement of religious objections to same-sex marriage, with business owners denying service to gay customers. Transgender people, in particular, have not benefited from the same level of inclusion as gays and lesbians. And racial minority members of the LGBTQ community face extra levels of discrimination. But so many organizations and businesses — from the military, to government, to our major corporations — have been integrated with gays and lesbians living openly. Our society has been changed forever, and we are a stronger and more just nation because of it.”