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To a late, gay uncle - we have come a long way

By Barbara Shelly
The Kansas City Star

This column is dedicated to my Uncle Curtis, a gay man.

In the family, his sexual orientation was understood but never articulated. We practiced “don’t ask, don’t tell” long before President Bill Clinton and the U.S. military made it official. Curtis visited my grandparents - his mom and dad - usually accompanied by his “roommate,” a man named Charlie. At holiday events and family gatherings they hovered on the fringes, arriving late and leaving early, all smiles, jokes and superficiality.

I was fond of these men and saw them often, but I never really knew them. As a closeted gay man, Curtis could not talk honestly to his extended family about the defining aspect of his identity and the most important relationship in his life. How do you tell your story without its central plot and leading character?

My uncle, a kind and sweet man who made people laugh, died in the 1980s of causes that spoke of a great unhappiness. And Charlie, he just drifted away. I do not know what became of him.

Times have changed for the better. Roommates became partners. Today, in 12 states and the District of Columbia, they can legally become spouses. Men marry men and women marry women in front of beaming families and friends.

The military kicked “don’t ask, don’t tell” to the curb in 2011. And last Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the federal Defense of Marriage Act, a backward piece of legislation that, among other things, prohibited legally married same-sex couples from receiving the same benefits that the U.S. government grants to couples in heterosexual marriages.

In the eyes of the court, and in the eyes of an ever-growing number of Americans, a same-sex marriage is just as sacred, just as valued, as the marriage of a man and woman.

A second Supreme Court decision announced Wednesday meant same-sex marriages would resume in California. Restaurants in the Golden State served up champagne and wedding cake all day long.

Acceptance will take longer in Missouri and Kansas, both of which have passed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. Missouri did so in 2004 and Kansas in 2005.

I recall the debates on those measures vividly, particularly the one proceeding the statewide vote in Missouri. Massachusetts had recently become the first state to legalize gay marriage. From politicians and preachers, we heard that the institution of marriage itself would crumble if same-sex couples tied the knot.

That ominous forecast never made any sense, and it hasn’t panned out. Research shows that states that legalized gay marriages saw a quick spike in unions, and then settled back to levels at or near what they were before. States where gay marriage is legal, like Iowa, Maryland and New York, have some of the nation’s lowest divorce rates. There are explanations for that, such as education levels and economic trends, but it’s clear that traditional marriage isn’t cratering in the aftermath of same-sex unions.

Conservative politicians in states with gay marriage bans are pledging to stand their ground. But the die is cast and they know it. States that want to be seen as vibrant and welcoming cannot afford to cling to old bigotries.

The joy and relief that followed the announcement of the Supreme Court decision makes it clear how deeply same-sex couples value marriage, or at least the opportunity to love someone openly and to share their affections with others in their lives.

My Uncle Curtis, had he lived, would be in his 80s. I wish he was around to see all of this.

Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.
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