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Kevin Riordan: For presidents and all of us, evolving takes time

Growing up gay in the 1960s was scary. I knew enough to keep quiet — no small feat for an Irish-Catholic kid with the gift of gab — and I also learned to lie.

Growing up gay in the 1960s was scary.

I knew enough to keep quiet — no small feat for an Irish-Catholic kid with the gift of gab — and I also learned to lie.

I was terrified that the truth would cut me off from my family and my future.

Homosexuality was, at best, a tragedy.

Ah, the good old days.

Things are different now, and not just on TV. President Obama, bless him, has affirmed that people like me have as much right to civil marriage as other Americans.

It was a politically calibrated move, to be sure.

Likewise, 30 years ago, President Ronald Reagan made a judgment about the politics of homosexuality. Despite his justly celebrated status as a great communicator, he kept quiet as the AIDS epidemic erupted on his watch.

To be fair, the Reagan administration increased spending on research. And the estimable Surgeon General C. Everett Koop treated AIDS as a public health crisis instead of a political conundrum involving, you know, those people we're afraid to mention.

But it was not until 1987, with thousands of men, women, and children already dead or dying, that Reagan finally devoted a speech to AIDS. He even offered the sort of eloquent comfort he famously provided when the shuttle Challenger exploded the year before, declaring that the AIDS fight was against a virus and "not ... our fellow citizens."

You might say Reagan evolved, as Obama has so famously and more recently done. Evolution — perhaps intelligent redesign is a better term — takes time. It also takes work, as I know from experience.

Here comes the part of the column you've been awaiting /dreading: Kevin's coming-out story.

Surprise! The star of one of the key events isn't the pre-columnist and his allegedly groovy disco 'do, but '70s icon Anita Bryant and her bouffant.

You may remember her: A former beauty queen-turned-citrus pitchwoman/anti-gay crusader. Decades before failed presidential candidate Rick Santorum's "man on dog" musings, Bryant mused that "people who sleep with St. Bernards" would be next to seek "special" rights.

I vividly remember reading excerpts from another of her rather, shall we say, overheated speeches and realizing, "This has nothing to do with reality." I realized that Bryant was more scared than scary.

This milestone moment in my own evolution (thanks, Anita!) was followed by others well-known to anyone, gay or straight, who's been set free by truth.

But the obstacles are many. Let's put aside hapless, if amusing, opponents like Bristol Palin (please). A famously unwed teenage mom/dance-show contestant, she used her blog to lecture Obama about the value of having a dad around the house.

Let's also not waste time with the professional Obama-haters and those who, for whatever reason, really do seem furious that gay people exist, period. Many of these folks are serious and, dare I say, sincere, but they're also seriously wrong.

Instead, we should listen to the folks who worry that same-sex marriage will further weaken a struggling institution. Their marriages are a defining element of their life's work, as well as essential to raising their children; they wouldn't want to be a cumbersome, separate-but-unequal concoction like a civil union, and gay people don't either.

If same-sex marriage had existed when I was young, I would have wanted to be legally wed. I also would have wanted kids (I'm Irish-Catholic, after all).

Lots of gay couples have families of their own now, as Obama pointed out the other day. Their lives are like nothing I could have imagined for myself as a scared gay kid in the '60s.

They're not afraid.

No one else needs to be afraid of them, either.

Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at