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One is the number


NOW we have the numbers game. How many gay people are there in the nation? Ten percent? One percent? Four percent? It depends upon whom you ask, what survey you read, how statisticians and sex experts crunch the numbers, which respondents tell the truth and which don't. How many marched in Washington a week ago for the civil rights of gay men and lesbians? Three hundred thousand? Half a million? A million or more? It depends on whether you ask the Park Police or the march organizers.

But at some level none of it matters at all.

I know that gay men and lesbians have ample reason to believe their political clout in America, the most quantifying of countries, will be measured by their numbers. I know, too, that those who want to prove that homosexuality is a "deviant life style" are anxious to show that the demands are disproportionate to the number of demanders, as though the right to be treated fairly depended on a head count.

But it's the power of one that really brings change. No one's head is truly turned around by a faceless sea of folks seen from a distance marching on the capital, or by numbers on sexual behavior from a research center.

It's the power of one that does it.

It's the power of one man like Sgt. Jose Zuniga, who was the Sixth Army's 1992 soldier of the year and a medic in the gulf war. Before the march he stood before the television cameras and so before the world and said, with a chestful of medals, that he was proud to be a soldier, and he was proud to be gay.

Right that minute, maybe, some fellow vets and fellow Americans wrote him off. But there have to be people who have worked with him, trained with him, fought with him, who are now forced to re-examine their attitudes toward gay men, to compare their prejudices with what they know of this one individual.

Maybe in the beginning those people will decide that Sergeant Zuniga is the exception, and that the rule is that gay men are predatory, effeminate, unfit for service. They may embrace the old "OK, but . . ." analysis, which we have seen with blacks, with Latinos, with women and now with gay people. It goes like this: "Jose is OK, but the rest of them ..."

Stereotypes fall in the face of humanity. You toodle along, thinking that all gay men wear leather after dark and should never, ever be permitted around a Little League field. And then one day your best friend from college, the one your kids adore, comes out to you. Or that wonderful woman who teaches third grade is spotted leaving a lesbian bar in the next town.

And the ice of your closed mind begins to crack.

Day by day, this is how the world will change for gay men and lesbians, with the power of one -- one person who doesn't fit into the straight world's fact pattern and so alters it a tiny bit, irrevocably. A revered actor who was typecast in tough-guy roles. A beloved female friend who cannot be transformed into a hate object. Coming out is a powerful thing.

It is why the march, one of the biggest civil rights demonstrations in the history of this country, was most powerful when it reflected not quantity, but quality. A sunburned man in chinos. Two silver-haired women hand-in-hand, smiling. A woman pushing a stroller. Sure, there were men in lipstick and women in buzz cuts. And women in lipstick and men in buzz cuts. Like straight people, gay people are a diverse group. To paraphrase Gloria Steinem on turning 50, this is what gay looks like.

In recent years gay men and lesbians have moved purposefully ahead in the civic arena, putting money behind candidates, crafting anti-discrimination legislation, demanding that their relationships be formally recognized. No matter what their numbers, they've become a formidable political force.

But a veneer of tolerance atop a deep pool of hatred, distrust and estrangement is no more than a shiny surface, as civil rights leaders can testify from decades of experience. The numbers in Washington were not as important as the faces, the sheer humanity of one person after another stepping forward, saying: Look at me. I am a cop, a mother, a Catholic, a Republican, a soldier, an American. So the ice melts. The hate abates. The numbers, finally, all come down to one.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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