A few days before New York’s State Senate passed gay marriage in an anxiously watched Friday-night vote, a gay Filipino writer, Jose Antonio Vargas, came out of the closet. He came out not as gay—he’d done that in high school after the murder of Matthew Shepard—but out of the closet of alienation; Vargas is an undocumented immigrant. In a spare but searing essay for the New York Times, he recounts the desperate years of subterfuge that enabled him to stay in this country, attend college and get a job at the Washington Post, where he won a Pulitzer Prize as part of the paper’s team coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre.
Part of what gives Vargas’s story its power are the accounts of the teachers, friends and co-workers who helped him: Jill Denny, his high school choir director, who quietly relocated a school trip to Hawaii instead of Japan so Vargas could sing with the group; Pat Hyland, his high school principal, and Rich Fischer, the superintendent of schools, who became surrogate family to Vargas and helped him fabricate a residency in Oregon so he could get a driver’s license; and Peter Perl, his editor at the Washington Post, who counseled Vargas to keep his status secret and protected him at work. Each of those people looked at Vargas when he confessed and saw not a criminal, a nuisance or a liability but a person in need. Each was moved to meet that need without any expectation of being rewarded or publicly acknowledged.
Vargas’s story could have ended there. He could have continued to survive—even thrive—in this country by keeping quiet and relying on the aid of a few secret-sharers. But he decided that survival on those terms wasn’t enough anymore. “I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore.” And so Vargas went public, risking everything to join the thousands of young immigrants coming out as undocumented and pressing for a pathway to citizenship for themselves and others like them.
It’s no accident that so many of the leaders of this movement are queer, like Felipe Matos and Juan Rodriguez, a gay couple from Miami who last year walked 1,500 miles to Washington to lobby for the Dream Act, and Tania Unzueta and Reyna Wences from Chicago, who organized the first National Coming Out of the Shadows Day. The telling of personal stories to convey a larger moral argument has long been a staple of the gay movement, and gay people are some of the most gifted practitioners of this narrative/political art. Journalists have already written the first draft of the history of gay marriage’s success in New York as a tale of Albany politicking, of Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s aggressive push, of the late conversions of State Senators Grisanti and Saland. But the victory really belongs to all those gay couples who were willing to weaponize their personal lives. They looked at their friends, neighbors and elected officials and told their stories with an urgency that precipitated a crisis, that forced a choice: you’re either with me, or you’re with the haters—but you can’t have it both ways.
Call it the politics of personal crisis: it evaporates the middle and dissolves the equivocations that politicians use to disguise moral decisions as arcane policy. It calls out accommodation as farce, and it converts sympathy into radical energy. The moment forces allies to realize that individual acts of compassion are incommensurate with the crisis, and it makes starkly clear that it is not just more secret-sharers and charitable acts that are needed; it is systemic change.
Perhaps the most intense example of this kind of social politics was ACT UP. For the people with AIDS at the center of that group, quiet survival and suffering were no longer an option. For their friends and family, mere caregiving was no longer adequate. Peopled by an unlikely mix of gay radicals, artists, twentysomething stockbrokers and the kindred spirits drawn for one reason or another to the cause, ACT UP occupied drug company offices, Wall Street, Congressional suites and previously untargeted bureaucracies like the NIH, CDC and FDA. They screamed, “Your policies are killing me. I am dying because of you.” Dismissed as hysterics at the time, ACT UP helped accomplish one of the most progressive pieces of social insurance in the past thirty years, the Ryan White Care Act, which in principle guarantees that nobody dies of AIDS in America because they can’t afford drugs. What began as a movement based on friendship and interpersonal relations became something more egalitarian and far-reaching; it became a part of government. And today, you don’t have to be in a church, or well-liked by your community, or part of a tight family, or socially connected to doctors to get AIDS meds—you just need to be a citizen.
It’s that promise of full citizenship that motivated undocumented immigrants like Vargas and New York’s gay couples to come out and tell their stories. But it was the crisis of now that made it necessary, unavoidable. And come to think of it, maybe a whole lot more of us are at that zero hour, too. Maybe the crisis is that there’s not enough in your pantry to feed four, or there’s a foreclosure sign on your front lawn, or you can’t find a job, or pay for your prescription drugs. If Americans got past the shame and isolation of economic free fall, they might tell their stories with the same moral clarity as the gay movement, and for any number of pressing life-or-death reasons, they might ask the people around them, President Obama, the Democrats, the Republicans, the entire damn system the same question: Are you with us, or against us?