Sexes: How Gay Is Gay?

Homosexual men and women are making progress toward equality

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Wandering into the New Town section of Chicago's North Side, a visitor quickly notices the changed city scene: male couples in tight jeans and with close-cropped hair walk together; the crowd watching a volleyball game in Lincoln Park is all male, so are most of the people taking the spring air on a strip of beach along Lake Michigan. In the past few years New Town has become Chicago's first center of open homosexual activity, with an initial result that could have been predicted a decade ago: last summer roving gangs of young toughs shouting anti-homosexual epithets beat up a number of men strolling the streets of the area late at night.

What followed, however, would have been remarkable if not unthinkable in Chicago or in many other major American cities just a few years ago. Gay Life, a local homosexual weekly, organized street patrols to stop the assaults. They were also aided by "straight" volunteers from neighborhood community associations. Moreover, they were helped by the Chicago police. Says a rather astonished Grant Ford, publisher of Gay Life: "The community groups came to our help right away. They saw us as neighbors rather than gays. The police were even more amazing. They were totally cooperative."

In its way, what happened in New Town symbolizes a national trend that is changing the lives of the American minority that forms the gay society. Homosexual men and women are coming out of the closet as never before to live openly. They are colonizing areas of big cities as their own turf, operating bars and even founding churches in conservative small towns, and setting up a nationwide network of organizations to offer counseling and companionship to those gays-still the vast majority-who continue to conceal their sexual orientation. As in New Town, gay people still encounter suspicion and hostility, and occasionally violence, and their campaign to live openly and freely is still far from won. But they are gaining a degree of acceptance and even sympathy from heterosexuals, many of whom are still unsure how to deal with them, that neither straights nor gays would have thought possible just the day before yesterday.

The evolving status of gays, and the way they are perceived by heterosexuals, is all the more surprising because of the nature of the gay society. Homosexuals form the most amorphous and isolated -though also the most pervasive-of all American minorities. Blacks and Hispanics, for example, are unified to a large degree by physical characteristics, history, customs and often socioeconomic position. "We cut across every socioeconomic line, every racial line," says Jean O'Leary, co-leader of the National Gay Task Force. "We're in every profession you can imagine." Says Robert L. Livingston, a gay member of the New York City commission on human rights: "Homosexuals are disco babies and Goldwater Republicans." He is not exaggerating: Donald Embinder, 44, gay publisher of Blueboy, something like a homosexual Playboy (circ. 135,000), once campaigned for Arizona's senior Senator.

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