Can’t Band-Aid the Gay Away: Looking at DOMA, From the School Nurse to the Supreme Court

DOMA; Prop 8

When I was in fifth grade, I read an article in YM magazine about gay girls and became overwhelmingly concerned I might be afflicted. The knowledge I had on the subject was limited to the notion that a gay person had to wear a single earring in her right ear and the idea that being gay just generally made one different. And not in a good way.

Naturally, I dragged my gay ass to the school nurse the next day, and here is where I arrive at my point: In the nurse’s office, I was met neither with reassurance that being gay, straight, bisexual or otherwise made no difference, nor with a “maybe you are, that’s terrific!” Instead, I received reassurance of a different kind, reassurance that came in the form of a scoff, a hall pass and three words: “You’re not gay.” They were said the same way people roll their eyes in response to me now, while saying, “You don’t have cancer.”

I returned to class, heterosexual, and that was that.

Incidentally, I am straight—a fact I would have comfortably arrived at on my own. But that’s not the point. From an authority figure, I received the message loud and clear: being gay = big problem.

Two days ago, the Supreme Court overturned DOMA, making it illegal for any LGBTQ person to be treated as less than equal—and good on them! How, after all, is any kid supposed to feel okay with who he or she is when the country’s ultimate authority (one much higher than a school nurse) is telling that child that he or she doesn’t deserve the same basic rights as a straight person?

For me, almost as thrilling as the DOMA news itself has been the reaction to the news. It’s felt like the first major stride in gay rights in which the overwhelming reaction has been celebration (and not debate).

Of course I’m aware that I am enmeshed in an exceedingly liberal environment. I live in NYC and literally all of my friends are liberal, open-minded people. I am not so naive as to think that my fifth grade anecdote is a dusty relic of the past or even to think it isn’t tame compared to the atrocities and prejudices many kids are still dealing with to this day, every day.

But there is a palpable change of temperature in this country.

What I find most disturbing, thinking back to my school nurse experience, is the level of acceptability of this vague, benign intolerance that existed. And yet, this is also the area wherein I see the most rapid change. This isn’t about bigots and religious extremists, and it’s not about advocates, either. There is an attitude shift, and as awareness among the run-of-the-mill public grows, there is a corresponding shrinking of tolerance for the casual bigotry of offhanded homophobia, along with a more refined understanding of what sort of language is simply not okay.

This shift is reflected in the pop culture we consume. We have countless gay characters on prime-time television now and they are no longer just variations of a singular, reductive gay stereotype, so loved in The Birdcage and Will & Grace; they run the gamut of humanity. In my opinion, a character like Emily from Pretty Little Liars is revolutionary. Yes, she is gay. Yes, she has a girlfriend. But she is never portrayed in the “porny” way lesbians have so often been depicted in entertainment. Emily’s sexuality is secondary to her main focus—namely, solving a murder while living in a town with the crime rate of Gotham City. (On a side note, Morgan Glennon wrote a fascinating article on the feminism of Pretty Little Liars.)

For the first time in history, we have a president who publicly and proudly supports LGBTQ equality, and equal rights for LGBTQ citizens are now being enforced at the federal level. These are monumental changes and we are alive to see them. This is, in the literal sense of the word, awesome.

Two days ago, after the DOMA news broke, I bounced down Columbus Avenue smiling at everyone. I passed a cluster of construction workers outside Jackson Hole. They were laughing uproariously, loudly and sarcastically proposing marriage to one another. It wasn’t in a cute, celebratory way and it was actually kind of a buzz kill. Was this response—their mockery of gay marriage—tame compared to whatever number of appalling acts of bigotry is sure to be spawned across the country as a result of the DOMA decision? Of course. But still, I wondered: Would it be easy for one of those guys’ kids to come out, if they happen to be gay? Almost assuredly not.

Then again, it’s been a long time since I was in the fifth grade. Maybe when these construction workers’ kids drag their gay asses to the school nurse someday, they will be met with an all together different response than I was—and they will go back to class feeling nothing but pride.

Rachel Antonoff is a NYC-based fashion designer and is the co-founder of The Ally Coalition along with the band Fun.