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
The retirees at the Palms are among the estimated 1 million to 3 million elderly Americans who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Studies project this population will rise to between 4 million and 6 million in 2030. And Randy Rudder, a teenager in Roanoke, Va., may be among that population.
It took the residents of the Palms literally a lifetime to "come out," but Rudder and many of his peers are confronting their homosexuality in their adolescence. And the decision to do so comes at a price.
Rudder dropped out of high school in his senior year. "I was faced with harassment by different students at school and I just got tired of it basically and I had to stop going," he says.
Rhonda Chattin, now 28, also dropped out of school. When she came out, her mother offered to give her all the help she needed. But by help her mother meant help to get rid of her interest in homosexuality.
Chattin's mother saw homosexuality as a matter of choice. Chattin didn't, and her mother eventually rejected her.
When Chattin came home from a date when she was 19, her mother told her to pack her bags. Two police officers escorted her out of the house.
Chattin says she and her mother have since patched up their relationship.
"Parents go through the same coming-out process as their child does. And sometimes they get the same result of acceptance as a homosexual does. They go through the denial and anger," says Chattin.
Parents and Religion
Chattin now works with kids dealing with their own homosexuality, and says the toughest issues kids face stem from their parents and religion.
Christianity calls it an "abomination." Abdulmubdee Shakir, a Muslim cleric in Roanoke, says homosexuality "is an evil and we cannot tolerate it."
The most tolerant response among Christian leaders appears to be the "love the sinner, hate the sin" approach. This would grant acceptance to homosexuals in their community — as long as they remain celibate.
Stephen Brown, another Roanoke teen who came out, says his parents' strong Christian beliefs made it impossible for them to accept him.
"My parents now are like, 'Maybe you're just mentally ill. You're going to get over it.' … 'Well, maybe you have a demon. We'll cast it out of you.' I don't think that's going to happen," Brown says.
A Public Face of Gay America
When Americans describe homosexuals as "outrageous," "deviant," or "confrontational," they may get their impression from gay pride parades, where flamboyant costumes and groups with names like "Dykes on Bikes" are cheered. Events like this may give Middle America the impression that homosexuality is a lifestyle of excess.
But the retirees at the Palms and the teens in Roanoke don't bear that out. Charles Showard, 80, bristles when speaking of these in-your-face activists.
"It gives the gay community a bad name," he says. "And for gays to go out in public and make a public display of that sort, to me, is rather vulgar and demeaning against the gay community."
Billy Bruce Wagener, a retired college professor who lives at the Palms, had a different reaction when he went to a gay pride event.
"Here are people who are saying, 'I am.' I was, I was in tears," Wagener says. "I stood on the sidewalk and cried, because I kept saying I couldn't have done that when I was growing up, and I wanted so much to get out there and walk, yeah, with the first three rows. Even though I wasn't dressed for it."