by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
SEATTLE -- A few years ago, sitting on a bench in Palmer Square with a colleague whom I knew only slightly, I had an experience totally without precedent for me at the time. He came out to me.
He revealed to me, that is, that he was gay and had been gay all of his life.
At the time I did not even know the expression "to come out to" in this sense. And I cannot recall my exact response, but I do recall my utter confusion and sense of helplessness.
Could I have said, "So what else is new?" I could have, though I pray that I did not, for the fact of his being homosexual was well known to me, and accepted as simply a part of his generally admirable nature. I knew all but nothing of his life and contacts outside of our professional link.
The expression, once it was explained to me later, seemed perfectly natural. What one came out of was the closet where clandestine and undeclared gays were said metaphorically to live.
There is now, as there most certainly was not then, a score or more of sites on the Web that will offer advice to straight people on what is called "gay etiquette," i.e., how to deal with being come out to. (And the awkwardness of that syntax is a mirror of the awkwardness that many non-gays feel in the situation.)
If you say, "I understand. But everyone knows of your sexual orientation," you run the risk of suggesting that the flower between his teeth and the limpness of his wrists and his mincing gait were all familiar parts of the caricature of him that we all carried in our heads.
If on the other hand you feign astonishment and even disbelief, you fall into the worse extreme of insulting him as a deviation from all possible ways of being human.
That was then. This is now, when I have improved my knowledge of gay etiquette by the simple means of knowing and admiring many gay people and even loving one or two gay relatives.
Three of the four ministers who serve my church are gay. Two gay men, who were married years ago before that really became an issue, and one gay woman, whose partner died some little while ago.
All of them are admired and even loved by those in the flock they serve.
In the current debate over the ill-named issue of gay marriage, I am in favor of such unions.
It strikes me that the word marriage itself is one of the worst obstacles to general acceptance of the thing in question. Such emotionally burdened words carry with them unexpressed others, such as "man and wife," and so on. Parodists have no trouble inventing scenes of the minister or JP intoning "I now pronounce you man and, uh, man."
One unsuccessful comedian got a lot of mileage out of a skit about a polygamous marriage of some nine or ten gay Morman men whose house in a respectable family neighborhood in some town in Utah was like a riotous fraternity party from morning to night.
But, joking aside, it seems to me that if the courts allow, as they do, the adoption of children by gay couples, then the least they can do, if only for the sake of those children, is to allow some form of stable civil union for their foster parents.
AR Correspondent Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.