I grew up in a world of "confirmed bachelors" and "spinsters." While some of those people might truly have been no more nor less than that, for many those titles were the closet in which they hid their true identity from the world. They had to hide. They were gay. They were gay at a time when openly expressing their love to their partner could land them a jail sentence or cause them to lose their job or housing.
That all started to change in the 1960s when those in the gay community and their transgendered brethren decided to stand up for their rights in a world trying to deny they even existed. And lo and behold, many of us found that they not only existed, but that they inhabited our lives as aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, friends, neighbors, cousins and caregivers. Once the shock finished reverberating, this revelation caused many of us to re-examine old prejudices toward this population and wonder if perhaps they really were no more nor less human than we were.
That's how change really took place. All the politics, riots, parades and rallies were not half as effective as the simple act of realizing gay people were our relatives and neighbors and had been for as long as humanity has lived in settled communities. Not only were they people we already knew and loved, many of them were people we respected and admired. We started to understand that if the best cardiac surgeon in town was gay, that really didn't make a difference when he was operating on our loved one. And if our favorite auntie's roommate was more than just a roommate, that really didn't change the fact that she had been our trusted confidante during that difficult period we call adolescence.
In fact, what we found out -- at least, those of us who could see past the prejudice and hate that some brought in unreasonable levels to the issue -- was that being gay did not in any way change the people we knew and loved. Once that sunk in, it became a lot harder to make blanket statements of disapproval toward them and their lives because they were caring, loving people who were often in longer and more committed relationships than many heterosexuals we knew.
So it seems strange that all these many years later there should be a need to add gay and transgender people to an equal rights ordinance. It seems as though we should be beyond all this controversy. In the fifty years since gay people started coming out of the closet, their now visible presence in our society has not undermined our morals or caused heterosexual marriage to fall apart. They continue to be our friends, neighbors and relatives. Most continue to work hard, pay taxes, raise families and try to leave the world a little better than they found it.
But because of a hard-core group of people who would deny our gay and transgender neighbors the rights we all enjoy, we need to go to the polls in April and vote yes on Proposition 5. We do this not to give this segment of our community special rights. We do it to guarantee that they will have the same rights we all share, rights they can now be denied with impunity.
Some people call this government interference in what is a matter of conscience for religions that condemn homosexuality. That claim is simply false. The government has every right to ensure that all its citizens have equal access to public accommodations and services. That's what the civil rights movement fought to achieve.
Like me, my mother was raised in a time when gays simply did not exist in polite society. The day her favorite nephew came out of the closet, she found herself with a lot of re-examining to do. She looked at her beloved godchild and his partner and saw the love they clearly shared. She looked at the two boys they adopted from poverty and violence and raised in a home full of love and joy. And she came to the inevitable conclusion that no god could possibly condemn what she saw.
Vote yes on Proposition 5. It's not a matter of special rights. It's a simple matter of equal rights.
Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow. Web site, www.elisepatkotak.com.