To begin with gratitude, two months ago today I turned 70, and I'm glad to be alive and well, and glad to be living in Madison. About three weeks ago I learned that I'd been selected for this honor, and for that and for the existence of the GLBT Alumni Council I am very grateful -- and a little overwhelmed. And just now I've had the great pleasure of being introduced by a truly extraordinary person, Chet Biscardi, my friend since the summer of 1971, nearly half my life. How could one not be thankful for that?
I'm grateful, too, for the friendship of others who are here this morning, for dear friends who can't be here, and for this opportunity to meet new friends.
Faced with giving a speech, I considered a rip-roaring rant about present political conditions, which are arguably more threatening than at any earlier point in my lifetime. But I've cut the ranting down to just two words: Those Bastards!
Barring threat of emotional or physical harm, as individuals our best answer to all political challenges is to come out, to be known as widely as possible as the people we actually are: reasonable and caring contributors to a diverse society.
As I see it, the virtues of being out are chiefly (a) to affirm our own existence, and (b) for others, to make that existence visible - rather than "Don't ask, don't tell," what we need is: "Yo! listen up!"
My own first public coming-out took place when a roommate wanted to present a series of gay and lesbian films on campus. Recognized student groups were required to have a faculty or staff sponsor. I had an academic staff position, so I signed. The film series was a big success, by the way.
Soon after Stonewall, a small group of us -- I think Ron McCrea is the only other founder still in town -- formed the Madison Alliance for Homosexual Equality, and started meeting weekly in a local church. This group was at first primarily social, but we soon became more active politically and restyled ourselves as the Gay Liberation Front. We handed out leaflets, staged public demos, presented teach-ins in high-school and university classes and formed coalitions with other progressive campus groups.
Over the Thanksgiving break in 1971, GLF hosted a three-day national convocation of lesbian and gay activists, held in the Memorial Union. Attended by more than 100 delegates from all over the country, the conference was a huge success, complete with discussion sessions, a variety of workshops and a rambunctious plenary session. It was an exciting time, and it had positive results.
During the 1970s, Madison was probably as safe and easy a place to be out as any large urban center. No one gave a second thought to walking along State Street holding hands with a same-sex friend or partner. It was totally normal to kiss our friends hello or goodbye in broad daylight, on the street, in the Union, or wherever.
Today such openness is rare, but we still enjoy legal protections at three levels of government: city, county and state. And it's a huge plus that in the Congress of the United States we have one of our own, the incomparable Tammy Baldwin.
America has a long, tragic history of exploiting minority status to target people for social and legal discrimination. The social aspect we perhaps can't change; people must remain free to think whatever they like and be allowed to say so, crazy or hateful as may be. The answer to such speech, of course, is more speech.
But there can be no possible justification for democratic governments at any level to enact laws that restrict the rights of a minority class of citizens. To forestall that marginalization, we must by every available means be visibly and vocally committed to creating positive changes in majority thinking.
I see this as a powerful inducement to declare ourselves publicly, especially on behalf of countless others who are not so well situated: middle-school and high-school kids in rural Georgia and Alabama; college students in Bozeman, MT or Vermillion, SD; committed partners everywhere who want to raise families in peace; those who are ill or dying and want to have their loved ones close by for comfort and support; and yes indeed, same-sex couples who want to get married. They need our support.
We too cannot be secure unless and until every transgendered person, every bisexual, every lesbian and every gay man can count on full equality, guaranteed under the law, finally making real that historically self-evident truth, "created equal," proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence 229 years ago.
To reach that goal, we must stand up, come out all the way, and, not forgetting why we're here today, we must be proud.