As someone raised in an insular Italian neighborhood and educated for 18 years in Catholic school, I did not have a clue growing up about what gay meant, unless you were talking about the state some of my parents' friends found themselves in after a few drinks. Eventually I figured it out when a dear friend's father came out after the death of her mother and one of my cousin's admitted that his roommate was much, much more and that they were, in fact, adopting two little boys.
When I nursed in Brooklyn in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the gay rights movement had barely begun. I would never have known about it were it not for the fact that I lived and worked right next to Brooklyn Heights. I don't know what it's like now, but back then it was very, very gay.
As I watched the jubilation on TV the other day when New York State legalized same-sex marriage, I thought back to those days and to some of my gay friends. In particular, I thought of Joe Kenny, who was an inseparable part of our four Musketeers -- me, Annie, Barbara and Joe. We were young, employed, making more money than we'd ever had before and living in the greatest city on earth. It was a magical time.
We did everything together. And eventually, even a childhood of Catholic schooling could not disguise the fact that homosexuals were not really any different from heterosexuals except perhaps for better taste in interior decor. They worked and laughed and played and loved. If the guys held hands with guys and the girls held hands with girls, what did it matter. What did matter then and matters now is being loved and having someone to love.
Eventually, same-sex pairs became a rather mundane part of my life, mixed together with the many heterosexual couples with whom I socialized. And there seemed to be no justification that I could comprehend for why civil law should discriminate against gay people as long as the object of their affections was of legal age and mental ability to fully consent to the relationship.
One of the great things about America is that it separates religious beliefs from civil laws so that no one religion dominates our lives and forces citizens into a belief system that may hold no meaning for them. So if Catholics believe that adherents to their faith should never divorce and should only marry other Catholics, fine. Their right to that belief is part of America's religious freedom. But they can't write those beliefs into our laws. In our civil society, we can choose to divorce or marry within or outside of our faith without government interference.
I think the same is true about gay marriage. Religious ceremonies should stay true to whatever their beliefs are when it comes to this subject. But civil society should not be following those beliefs in creating laws that affect all citizens. Civil weddings are an affirmation of a specific dedication of two individuals to each other and their future. It provides legal protections and advantages that should be available to everyone. The marriage of two men or two women does not in anyway affect the marriage of any given man and woman. They all get to face the same challenges of daily life with a partner, and many will get to embrace the joys of a divorce lawyer and child custody arrangements.
My friend Joe died a few years ago from AIDS. I've lost touch with the other gay couples I knew in New York. So I have no idea if they are together or apart, alive or dead. Statistics would suggest that most of those partnerships didn't last, any more than most heterosexual marriages last nowadays. But wherever those friends are and whomever they are now with, I know they celebrated with great joy last week at finally having their rights validated yet again in yet another state of this great union. And while I might find sadness in the fact that this battle must be waged so painfully on a state-by-state basis, I find joy in each victory that reaffirms the common rights all people should share in our wonderful republic.
This one's for you, Joe.
Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow. Website, www.elisepatkotak.com.