At long last, dignity
CAPE NEDDICK, Maine — If you live for 80 years, Chuck Bennett told me, you see things you never imagined. Crazy, fantastical stuff.
A man on the moon. “Amazing,” he said.
The Soviet Union’s disintegration. “Also amazing.”
And on Nov. 6, if the polls are right and his hope is fulfilled, the people of Maine may pass a referendum for same-sex marriage, which no state has adopted by popular vote before.
“That’s equally amazing to me,” he said. Ten minutes later, he circled back to say it again. “I would like to reiterate how amazing it is.”
Bennett was born in 1932 and grew up in Brooklyn without anything but slurs and clinical terms to describe his attraction to other men. In the late 1950s, he was forced out of the Navy for being gay.
He never found a long-term romantic partner, thwarted in part by a disapproving society with no obvious role models for him, and he bought his dream house on the ocean here 15 years ago with two close friends, because he didn’t want to grow old alone and didn’t expect to meet anyone special, not so late in the game.
“You know that old saying, Born 50 years too soon?” he asked me. “I think I do feel something of that.”
Maine is one of four states with same-sex marriage on the ballot on Election Day, a crucial moment for advocates and opponents alike. The referendums are the first and best tests of popular sentiment since President Barack Obama’s history-making statement of support in May. (For more on this, visit my blog.)
In Minnesota, the vote is on an amendment to the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. But in Maine, Maryland and Washington, the vote is to permit it, and thus to join the six states where it’s already legal, thanks to legislatures or courts.
Advocates are most optimistic about Maine, and I traveled here last weekend for a sense of what victory would mean to someone who’d known and braved a much different world. I found my way to Bennett, a courteous man with a soulful gaze and a precise way of speaking that reflects his long career in academia, first as a college English professor, then as a dean.
He recalled that during his teenage years, his only assurances that there were other people like him were newspaper stories about men arrested on Fire Island for “obscene” or “depraved” behavior.
For a while he dated women, but couldn’t summon any real passion for them. He wasn’t sure where that left him. Clearly, he wouldn’t marry. But what about a relationship like that with a man?
In his late 30s, he had one, and wanted it to go on forever. It lasted five years. Nothing like it ever came along again.
He felt the need to be secretive about his sexuality and kept work colleagues at a distance. His parents died without knowing he was gay.
Starting in the mid-1980s, he marveled at the proliferation of gay characters in movies and on TV. He later joined efforts to end the ban on gays in the military, giving money to the cause.
But when gay advocates started talking about marriage, he thought it nuts, partly because they were buying into such a flawed institution. But also, he said, “The likelihood of winning was so, so far-fetched.”
One of his housemates, David Newman, 71, who is also gay, still has trouble understanding the way “I do” and gold bands became such an ardent, defining quest. He spent a lifetime trying, out of painful necessity, not to be tormented by the straight world’s norms, which excluded him.
“How can somebody like me, who has made a significant investment in inventing an alternative world, come around to accept gay marriage?” he asked, clarifying that he supports the referendum. It’s just unsettling to him, this challenge to what he thought he was supposed to believe about such conventions.
For Bennett, the marriage focus of the Maine referendum is almost beside the real point, which is validation.
“I see it as something of profound significance,” he said. “Whether anyone winds up getting married in Maine, I don’t care. I care that they can get married.” That right means that gay people are equal to straight people. It recognizes their dignity. His dignity.
I asked him if the absence of such recognition during most of his life made him bitter.
“I was fortunate,” he said, explaining that his family wasn’t especially religious and his nature isn’t self-punishing, so he never felt that being gay was some abomination. But it was certainly a limitation. A cause for hiding, or at least holding essential parts of himself in reserve.
“I’m inclined to look back not in anger, as John Osborne once said, but with some degree of sadness,” he said. “Everyone could have been happier. Everyone could have been more fulfilled if they hadn’t been burdened with this prejudice.”
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.