The decision by the town of Oak Bluffs to fly the Progress Pride flag this year during the month of June, joining the other towns that have already done this, has special significance to a lot of people, including myself. I was born in Oak Bluffs back in 1954. I was also born gay. Let me repeat that last sentence to make it crystal clear … I was born gay. I attended the Oak Bluffs Elementary School, and around seventh grade, when everyone’s sexual hormones start to kick in, I found that I was attracted to guys and not to girls. I may be unique in this, but that realization did not faze me in the least, and seemed perfectly natural. However, I also realized I had to keep this part of me a secret.
Soon I was in high school, hormones and all, with little I could do to act on any romantic desires I may have had. I attended our prom, the senior ball, and other social events with a girl on my arm because I loved to dance and socialize. Looking back, I feel particularly bad about one girl who had a serious crush on me, and whom I had to eventually “fend off” before it went too far. I am sure I hurt her feelings without ever being able to tell her why. I graduated from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in 1973, never having or wanting a girlfriend. What I really wanted was impossible: a boyfriend. By the way, 1973 was same year that the American Psychiatric Association finally deduced that being gay was not a mental illness … something I could have told them if they had only bothered to ask.
Onward to college in Connecticut. In addition to a well-rounded liberal arts education, I came away from my four years at Wesleyan University with the nickname “Hal,” and with Dan Waters. Freshman year we were both rooming in the same dorm on separate floors. We met, became close friends, grew inseparable, fell deeply in love, and have been together ever since. Finding that perfect person with whom you know you want to spend the rest of your life is challenging under the best of circumstances. Being gay during that period in history, this became exponentially more difficult. Anyone growing up gay and reaching adolescence in the 1970s knew that, because of the not-so-subtle hatred and bigotry toward them, it was prudent to keep their sexuality hidden as best they could.
This created a distinct problem for young gays like me looking to find romance. Even with the best “gaydar,” it was nearly impossible to tell who else in college was batting for the same team. Back then, if you were totally crushing on some guy, your only option was to try a lot of very subtle flirting and horsing around at first, then very slowly you began taking some risks and getting a little less subtle. Luckily it turned out that both Dan and I had serious crushes on each other early on, and were brave enough to quickly risk a lot less subtle flirting. That year we became a committed couple, and were roommates from sophomore year on. Even though we did our best to hide our relationship while in college, we did receive our fair share of gay slurs flung at us from a few less tolerant students who suspected we were more than just pals.
By 2004, Dan and I had been in a loving relationship for 30 years. Even with the ups and downs experienced by all couples, we never needed a piece of paper from town hall to keep us together. But now the commonwealth of Massachusetts was offering us the unprecedented opportunity to get married. It was saying that with this license and as simple a ceremony as we desired, our family could have the same legal rights and benefits as any other family. With one caveat — only as long as we stayed in Massachusetts. It wasn’t until 11 years later that same-sex marriage became legal across the country.
Fast-forward to today. Raising this newly reimagined Pride flag at Ocean Park has renewed my respect for the town in which I grew up. I cannot help but be nostalgic for the original rainbow flag that was a source of pride, hope, and inspiration to me as I journeyed through life. However, this new Progress Pride flag now recognizes and celebrates the strong bond between the alphabet soup of the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color, all of whose struggles and activism have played a crucial part in getting every one of us to where we are today. Though we have indeed come a long way, it is amazing how much is still at stake. We are at a crucial moment in our country’s history where some personal liberties are being ruthlessly taken away, and others are hanging in the balance.
I do not pretend to speak for everyone represented in this flag, and can only share my experiences as a gay man. In our younger days during the AIDS crisis, the slogan for gays to live by was “Silence = Death,” meaning, among other things, that all gay people should stop hiding and become a visible part of society, or nothing would change. That was a very tall order for that time, and sad to say, is still a bit of a tall order for some people even now. Dan and I have never hidden the fact that we were a gay couple, and many of you have known us as friends, neighbors, colleagues, and contributing members to the community. We are mostly private people, but my hope in writing this Op-Ed piece was that our story might help bring a new and positive understanding to this confusing and often divisive issue by putting a human face on it. Because silence still does equal death.
A lifelong Islander, Hal Garneau Jr. has worked at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, Goodale Construction Co., the Indian Hill Press, and the Vineyard Haven Public Library. Currently retired, he frequently lectures on the history of Oak Bluffs.