Updated : 08/07/2012 10:04 GMT + 7
Two sets of headlines caught my eye the other day. One batch was from Hanoi, and the other was from, well, Mars.
“Obama: U.S. Makes History on Mars,” read one in USA Today, extolling the successful landing of the Curiosity rover.
“First gay pride parade kicks off in Hanoi,” declared another in Tuoi Tre News.
Human progress comes in different forms. To scientists, this epic mission to Mars demonstrates the durability of humanity’s quest for discovery. But for many people, the news from Vietnam is much more heartening – a step forward for human tolerance, acceptance and social justice.
Hanoi’s gay pride parade was significant on two levels. First, it offers hope to the many homosexual Vietnamese that they are hardly alone and don’t have to settle for closeted lives as second-class citizens.
Second, news accounts which emphasized that Vietnamese authorities’ hands-off approach to the demonstration showed a tolerant and even progressive attitude.
Oppression of homosexuality, after all, remains the rule in most of the world. But no civil rights movement in modern times has advanced more swiftly than the quest of gays to be accepted by civil society, not scorned and ostracized. What a difference a generation makes.
Two decades ago, I was finishing up a two-year stint covering the gay rights movement in the United States as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. By then, colorful gay pride marches like the recent demonstration in Hanoi had become a familiar part of America’s socio-political pageantry, but were largely confined to gay communities in big cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. A festive attitude had been replaced by a sense of urgency as the HIV epidemic ravaged those communities. The gay political crusade became focused on mainstream acceptance and dramatic social change.
I remember one meeting with two gay activists who explained how, within two decades, America would be legalizing same-sex marriage.
Frankly, I didn’t get it. I reminded them that many thousands of gays were already living together as couples, and the threat of HIV was a strong argument for monogamy. There were already ceremonial, if not legal, weddings. What, I wondered, was the big deal? The activists sighed and moved on.
But my reporting led me to a fascinating phenomenon: the “gayby boom.” Many couples in America’s gay community, which used to jokingly call heterosexuals “breeders,” were starting to raise families themselves. Lesbians were conceiving with the help of sperm banks, or by partnering with gays willing to donate sperm. More gays were adopting children, or retaining custody of offspring at the dissolution of heterosexual marriages.
Today, those children are young adults, and these unconventional families are a staple of TV sitcoms in the U.S. But back then, my story shocked some of my editors before it shocked the readers. And meeting those unconventional families made me understand that, yes, marriage matters.
In the U.S., after a few states have now adopted sanctioning same-sex marriage, President Barack Obama recently endorsed the movement as well – an evolution from his previous opposition. My guess is that he has now moved to the right side of history – and Hanoi’s gay pride demonstration, and the comments of some authorities, suggests that Vietnam may be heading that way, too, while many countries try to resist progress.
The political is also personal. Consider: Twice in the past year, two of my oldest friends – fathers like me – separately revealed that their adult sons are gay.
A generation ago, these conversations either would not have taken place at all, or they would have been painful exercises. These young men would have had a much harder time acknowledging this reality – not only to their families, but to themselves. The power of this taboo has tortured so many souls – and many to the point of suicide.
It’s terrible to think what might have been. All considered, I prefer to think that someday I’ll be invited to a wedding with two grooms and no bride.