When Charlotte Haas was a young woman in the 1950s, there were no activists in the streets to encourage her or support her if she decided to disclose that she was a lesbian. So, Haas did what a lot of gay people did a generation ago.
She kept it quiet, fought it, and found herself living a heterosexual life that never felt quite right.
If Haas were a young lesbian today, she would find a world that's far more open and tolerant of homosexuality. But she might still encounter hostility — from classmates who are encountering gay people for the first time, from parents unable to adjust to a child's sexual difference, and from clergy who interpret God's word as opposing homosexuality.
Looking at people, young and old, who identify themselves as homosexual raises familiar questions. Is being gay a lifestyle choice, a genetic predisposition, a sin? Is it a matter of choice?
There's very little agreement about homosexuality in straight America. Men, women and teens who are living openly gay lives have wrestled with these questions themselves. And they've had just as much difficulty arriving at a satisfying answer.
The only agreement is that the presence of openly gay people has grown in the United States. In 1983, 24 percent of Americans said they had a gay friend or acquaintance, according to a Gallup poll. That percentage soared to 62 percent in 2000, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Once Upon a Time
Haas describes her past life as the epitome of what many Americans want.
"I had everything that was the American Dream," she says. "I had a lovely home, a cottage in the woods, two children, a good husband who provided well. But I wasn't really happy and I thought, 'Well, I can make the choice. I'll just forget about this feeling I have, and it'll go away.' But it didn't."
Haas' story reflects just how much people struggle to accept their sexuality when their society tells them it's unacceptable. Like many lesbians and gays of her generation, Haas gradually came to believe that she had no choice about her sexuality. Her choice was whether she could live with it or not.
About 88 percent of the lesbian, gay and bisexual community believes that sexual orientation cannot be changed. But only about 38 percent of the general public believes that to be true, according to the Kaiser survey.
But life is different now for Haas. A retired high school teacher, Haas is living with her lesbian partner of nine years, Pam Wilson, in the nation's first all-gay retirement community, the Palms of Manasota, near Bradenton, Fla.
Haas and Wilson moved to the Palms from a "straight" retirement community, where they still felt pressure to keep their relationship hidden. Haas says she and Wilson were always asked, "'Where's your husband?' or 'Why aren't you married?' "
Like Haas, Wilson also had been married and raised children. Admitting her homosexuality was no easy task.
"I felt very guilty for hurting my family, my husband. I felt like I should have never married, and I felt like I hurt my children," Wilson says.
Now, Haas and Wilson are grateful to be able to display simple affection for each other without meeting awkward stares or unkind comments.
"We walk around holding hands, and no one is going to look cross-eyed at us," Haas says.
Wilson adds, "We can hug each other in public."
The Consequences of Coming Out