IT WAS in the spring, sometime after the New Hampshire primaries, when I felt the first warm tingle. Paul Tsongas was on the Sunday morning Brinkley show, and he said, straight out, into all the family rooms of the nation where people sat curled up with their traditional values, that he believed in civil rights for homosexuals. Something like that.
Wow, I thought, he's brave. He's not going to win that way. He must believe it. Then in May, I saw a clip on television of a speech Bill Clinton had made at a gay and lesbian fund-raiser in Hollywood. He said that he would lift the ban on military service and work to end discrimination.
I began to have that feeling again. Is he serious, I wondered. Does he mean those things? Yes. The newspapers reported shortly afterward that Bill Clinton was publicly campaigning to win the gay vote.
Gay vote? There has never been a gay vote. No nominee has ever said outloud he wanted it. And then I realized what the feeling was it gave me. I was feeling wanted.
Does that seem strange? It is strange -- to be wanted not just because I'm a Southern male, a white male, a middle-class male, a family man, a college man, a traditional male or a baby boomer. And not despite the fact that I am gay. But because I am.
This is a new dimension. Gay activists were invited to meet with Jimmy Carter's White House staff. There has been support for civil rights for homosexuals in Democratic platforms since 1980. And Walter Mondale addressed a gay and lesbian group in New York in 1982. But he couldn't bring himself to say the words gay or lesbian.
And although George Bush twice invited gay groups to official ceremonies in the White House, he was so criticized by the Republican right that he never did it again.
When I was a child, on Wednesday nights I sat in the family room with my dog Bang and watched Walt Disney. On Saturday mornings, we boys rode bikes to the movies, where Tarzan and Bomba kept the jungle safe from evil and good cowboys kissed their girls. Never did cowboys kiss each other.
I knew that. In the South in the 1950s, men shook hands. They smiled. Unless they were in sales, politics or organized religion; then they gripped elbows, grinned with all their teeth and banged each other on the back. They always kissed the ladies, but only socially. Real passion was invisible. No one talked about it in front of children -- much less to them.
Childhood was the Magic Kingdom and when Tinkerbell waved her wand, any grown-up threats to happiness dissolved in a rain of sparkles and the Disney theme:
"When you wish upon a star,
Makes no difference who you are . . ."
But it did. More than the other boys in the neighborhood, I wished to be close to Tarzan, Bomba and the older kid who ran the bowling alley. He looked like a lean version of Marlon Brando in "Streetcar" -- that kind of undershirt, and a cigarette.
He stirred something I didn't choose, didn't understand, didn't have anyone to ask about. Parents didn't talk about desire to children. Not about the kind they shared. And not about the Other Kind. I had to learn about homosexuality on my own, but it was a long time before I got the information I was looking for.
I had to finish college, go to work, get married, move north, become a father and plow deep into middle age before all my circuits got so jammed that I tried a northern solution: therapy. And then, for the first time, I had a positive conversation on the subject. Then I realized it was not just about sex, but identity. Then I began to realize it could be an option.
It's OK, my analyst said. It's not wrong. It's natural. I understood that intellectually, but I was an emotional hostage to a bias, to a childhood with no visible models.
Thirty years to hear that. Five more for change, divorce, processing. Yes, I'm slow. Some of us are. And gay. It happens. I know that now. It's fine. It's -- I suppose a kind of character test. Some pass. Some fail.
There was Ross Perot, a man who said he didn't think he knew any homosexuals. I was a child in his kind of culture.
And there was George bush, who said he did not find it acceptable for gays to serve in the military, or normal for them to be parents. I served in the military. I am a parent.
And there was Bill Clinton, reaching out. It is not a gift. I know that. It is a measure of the political maturing of gay identity, and I have friends, tougher than I, who say it's about time. But no matter how brave you've been forced to become, there is still something wonderful about being wanted. About being visible partners in the process. We have been invisible too long.
Dudley Clendinen, formerly The Sun's assistant managing editor for writing, will begin a syndicated column this fall. He wrote this from Baltimore for the New York Times.