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  • "Even in purely non-religious terms,

  • homosexuality represents a misuse of the sexual faculty.

  • It is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality --

  • a pitiable flight from life.

  • As such, it deserves no compassion,

  • it deserves no treatment

  • as minority martyrdom,

  • and it deserves not to be deemed anything but a pernicious sickness."

  • That's from Time magazine in 1966, when I was three years old.

  • And last year, the president of the United States

  • came out in favor of gay marriage.

  • (Applause)

  • And my question is, how did we get from there to here?

  • How did an illness become an identity?

  • When I was perhaps six years old,

  • I went to a shoe store with my mother and my brother.

  • And at the end of buying our shoes,

  • the salesman said to us that we could each have a balloon to take home.

  • My brother wanted a red balloon, and I wanted a pink balloon.

  • My mother said that she thought I'd really rather have a blue balloon.

  • But I said that I definitely wanted the pink one.

  • And she reminded me that my favorite color was blue.

  • The fact that my favorite color now is blue, but I'm still gay --

  • (Laughter) --

  • is evidence of both my mother's influence and its limits.

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • When I was little, my mother used to say,

  • "The love you have for your children is like no other feeling in the world.

  • And until you have children, you don't know what it's like."

  • And when I was little, I took it as the greatest compliment in the world

  • that she would say that about parenting my brother and me.

  • And when I was an adolescent, I thought

  • that I'm gay, and so I probably can't have a family.

  • And when she said it, it made me anxious.

  • And after I came out of the closet,

  • when she continued to say it, it made me furious.

  • I said, "I'm gay. That's not the direction that I'm headed in.

  • And I want you to stop saying that."

  • About 20 years ago, I was asked by my editors at The New York Times Magazine

  • to write a piece about deaf culture.

  • And I was rather taken aback.

  • I had thought of deafness entirely as an illness.

  • Those poor people, they couldn't hear.

  • They lacked hearing, and what could we do for them?

  • And then I went out into the deaf world.

  • I went to deaf clubs.

  • I saw performances of deaf theater and of deaf poetry.

  • I even went to the Miss Deaf America contest in Nashville, Tennessee

  • where people complained about that slurry Southern signing.

  • (Laughter)

  • And as I plunged deeper and deeper into the deaf world,

  • I become convinced that deafness was a culture

  • and that the people in the deaf world who said,

  • "We don't lack hearing, we have membership in a culture,"

  • were saying something that was viable.

  • It wasn't my culture,

  • and I didn't particularly want to rush off and join it,

  • but I appreciated that it was a culture

  • and that for the people who were members of it,

  • it felt as valuable as Latino culture or gay culture or Jewish culture.

  • It felt as valid perhaps even as American culture.

  • Then a friend of a friend of mine had a daughter who was a dwarf.

  • And when her daughter was born,

  • she suddenly found herself confronting questions

  • that now began to seem quite resonant to me.

  • She was facing the question of what to do with this child.

  • Should she say, "You're just like everyone else but a little bit shorter?"

  • Or should she try to construct some kind of dwarf identity,

  • get involved in the Little People of America,

  • become aware of what was happening for dwarfs?

  • And I suddenly thought,

  • most deaf children are born to hearing parents.

  • Those hearing parents tend to try to cure them.

  • Those deaf people discover community somehow in adolescence.

  • Most gay people are born to straight parents.

  • Those straight parents often want them to function

  • in what they think of as the mainstream world,

  • and those gay people have to discover identity later on.

  • And here was this friend of mine

  • looking at these questions of identity with her dwarf daughter.

  • And I thought, there it is again:

  • A family that perceives itself to be normal

  • with a child who seems to be extraordinary.

  • And I hatched the idea that there are really two kinds of identity.

  • There are vertical identities,

  • which are passed down generationally from parent to child.

  • Those are things like ethnicity, frequently nationality, language, often religion.

  • Those are things you have in common with your parents and with your children.

  • And while some of them can be difficult,

  • there's no attempt to cure them.

  • You can argue that it's harder in the United States --

  • our current presidency notwithstanding --

  • to be a person of color.

  • And yet, we have nobody who is trying to ensure

  • that the next generation of children born to African-Americans and Asians

  • come out with creamy skin and yellow hair.

  • There are these other identities which you have to learn from a peer group.

  • And I call them horizontal identities,

  • because the peer group is the horizontal experience.

  • These are identities that are alien to your parents

  • and that you have to discover when you get to see them in peers.

  • And those identities, those horizontal identities,

  • people have almost always tried to cure.

  • And I wanted to look at what the process is

  • through which people who have those identities

  • come to a good relationship with them.

  • And it seemed to me that there were three levels of acceptance

  • that needed to take place.

  • There's self-acceptance, there's family acceptance, and there's social acceptance.

  • And they don't always coincide.

  • And a lot of the time, people who have these conditions are very angry

  • because they feel as though their parents don't love them,

  • when what actually has happened is that their parents don't accept them.

  • Love is something that ideally is there unconditionally

  • throughout the relationship between a parent and a child.

  • But acceptance is something that takes time.

  • It always takes time.

  • One of the dwarfs I got to know was a guy named Clinton Brown.

  • When he was born, he was diagnosed with diastrophic dwarfism,

  • a very disabling condition,

  • and his parents were told that he would never walk, he would never talk,

  • he would have no intellectual capacity,

  • and he would probably not even recognize them.

  • And it was suggested to them that they leave him at the hospital

  • so that he could die there quietly.

  • And his mother said she wasn't going to do it.

  • And she took her son home.

  • And even though she didn't have a lot of educational or financial advantages,

  • she found the best doctor in the country

  • for dealing with diastrophic dwarfism,

  • and she got Clinton enrolled with him.

  • And in the course of his childhood,

  • he had 30 major surgical procedures.

  • And he spent all this time stuck in the hospital

  • while he was having those procedures,

  • as a result of which he now can walk.

  • And while he was there, they sent tutors around to help him with his school work.

  • And he worked very hard because there was nothing else to do.

  • And he ended up achieving at a level

  • that had never before been contemplated by any member of his family.

  • He was the first one in his family, in fact, to go to college,

  • where he lived on campus and drove a specially-fitted car

  • that accommodated his unusual body.

  • And his mother told me this story of coming home one day --

  • and he went to college nearby --

  • and she said, "I saw that car, which you can always recognize,

  • in the parking lot of a bar," she said. (Laughter)

  • "And I thought to myself, they're six feet tall, he's three feet tall.

  • Two beers for them is four beers for him."

  • She said, "I knew I couldn't go in there and interrupt him,

  • but I went home, and I left him eight messages on his cell phone."

  • She said, "And then I thought,

  • if someone had said to me when he was born

  • that my future worry would be that he'd go drinking and driving with his college buddies -- "

  • (Applause)

  • And I said to her, "What do you think you did

  • that helped him to emerge as this charming, accomplished, wonderful person?"

  • And she said, "What did I do? I loved him, that's all.

  • Clinton just always had that light in him.

  • And his father and I were lucky enough to be the first to see it there."

  • I'm going to quote from another magazine of the '60s.

  • This one is from 1968 -- The Atlantic Monthly, voice of liberal America --

  • written by an important bioethicist.

  • He said, "There is no reason to feel guilty

  • about putting a Down syndrome child away,

  • whether it is put away in the sense of hidden in a sanitarium

  • or in a more responsible, lethal sense.

  • It is sad, yes -- dreadful. But it carries no guilt.

  • True guilt arises only from an offense against a person,

  • and a Down's is not a person."

  • There's been a lot of ink given to the enormous progress that we've made

  • in the treatment of gay people.

  • The fact that our attitude has changed is in the headlines every day.

  • But we forget how we used to see people who had other differences,

  • how we used to see people who were disabled,

  • how inhuman we held people to be.

  • And the change that's been accomplished there,

  • which is almost equally radical,

  • is one that we pay not very much attention to.

  • One of the families I interviewed, Tom and Karen Robards,

  • were taken aback when, as young and successful New Yorkers,

  • their first child was diagnosed with Down syndrome.

  • They thought the educational opportunities for him were not what they should be,

  • and so they decided they would build a little center --

  • two classrooms that they started with a few other parents --

  • to educate kids with D.S.

  • And over the years, that center grew into something called the Cooke Center,

  • where there are now thousands upon thousands

  • of children with intellectual disabilities who are being taught.

  • In the time since that Atlantic Monthly story ran,

  • the life expectancy for people with Down syndrome has tripled.

  • The experience of Down syndrome people includes those who are actors,

  • those who are writers, some who are able to live fully independently in adulthood.

  • The Robards had a lot to do with that.

  • And I said, "Do you regret it?

  • Do you wish your child didn't have Down syndrome?

  • Do you wish you'd never heard of it?"

  • And interestingly his father said,

  • "Well, for David, our son, I regret it,

  • because for David, it's a difficult way to be in the world,

  • and I'd like to give David an easier life.

  • But I think if we lost everyone with Down syndrome, it would be a catastrophic loss."

  • And Karen Robards said to me, "I'm with Tom.

  • For David, I would cure it in an instant to give him an easier life.

  • But speaking for myself -- well, I would never have believed 23 years ago when he was born

  • that I could come to such a point --

  • speaking for myself, it's made me so much better and so much kinder

  • and so much more purposeful in my whole life,

  • that speaking for myself, I wouldn't give it up for anything in the world."

  • We live at a point when social acceptance for these and many other conditions

  • is on the up and up.

  • And yet we also live at the moment

  • when our ability to eliminate those conditions

  • has reached a height we never imagined before.

  • Most deaf infants born in the United States now

  • will receive Cochlear implants,

  • which are put into the brain and connected to a receiver,

  • and which allow them to acquire a facsimile of hearing and to use oral speech.

  • A compound that has been tested in mice, BMN-111,

  • is useful in preventing the action of the achondroplasia gene.

  • Achondroplasia is the most common form of dwarfism,

  • and mice who have been given that substance and who have the achondroplasia gene,

  • grow to full size.

  • Testing in humans is around the corner.

  • There are blood tests which are making progress

  • that would pick up Down syndrome more clearly and earlier in pregnancies than ever before,

  • making it easier and easier for people to eliminate those pregnancies,

  • or to terminate them.

  • And so we have both social progress and medical progress.

  • And I believe in both of them.

  • I believe the social progress is fantastic and meaningful and wonderful,

  • and I think the same thing about the medical progress.

  • But I think it's a tragedy when one of them doesn't see the other.

  • And when I see the way they're intersecting

  • in conditions like the three I've just described,

  • I sometimes think it's like those moments in grand opera

  • when the hero realizes he loves the heroine