They say a photo is worth a thousand words. This one spawned thousands more. The Kiss.
On Aug. 1, the first day in the history of Minnesota that gay couples could marry, we covered it the way we would any big news story. We published a large front-page photo of a widely known Winona State University professor and respected gay rights activist kissing her longtime partner shortly after they were married — one of the first couples in the region to do so.
Readers’ reaction to the photo, which also ran on the cover of the La Crosse Tribune, surprised me.
Not the regular interruptions to any meaningful discourse on the topic. One commenter on the online version of the story said it made them want to puke. Another said they hoped a virus would rid the world of gay people. And I’ve received more than a few hand-written letters in the past year matter-of-factly notifying me I’ll be spending eternity in hell for the stories the paper has published on gay marriage.
Fine. Nothing new.
What surprised me were the number of responses from thoughtful people who downright didn’t like looking at the photo. Couldn’t believe we printed the thing, let alone so large.
It bothered them. Quite a bit. Enough to talk about it, which is saying quite a bit for a collection of Midwesterners with stiff upper lips.
They couldn’t quite figure their reaction. They didn’t know how to talk about it. So they stumbled over their words, one by one, until each eventually stuttered a hastily-considered explanation that the photo appeared to violate the couple’s privacy.
Ignoring, of course, the historic nature of the event. Ignoring, also, the clarity and intimacy of the photos and story, produced by Daily News reporters personally invited to attend.
Pun intended, let’s be straight: They just didn’t like looking at a photo of two women kissing.
Turns out we still have work to do.
That’s no surprise.
Gay people can marry in Minnesota.
Women can hold the same jobs as men.
Blacks can sip from the same drinking fountains as whites.
But only a fool would climb a mountain to proclaim the age of universal equality has begun.
We have work to do.
General Mills, a homegrown Minnesota company, released an ad last month featuring a girl worried about her father’s heart enough to dump Cheerios on his lap while he napped. Good for a laugh and a reminder to hit the gym — except that her mother was white and father black, her skin some undefined in-between. The controversy crossed oceans.
Black man, white woman? Black woman, white man? Asian man, white woman? Vice and vice and vice versa? Sure, it’s all legal now.
One of the most celebrated photos of American history is the shot of a sailor passionately kissing a woman in August 1945.
It’s loosely titled Victory Over Japan Day in Times Square, but everybody calls it something else: The Kiss.
The photo celebrates victory despite impossible odds. The war’s over. We won. The photo celebrates love made possible by a long and bitter fight for freedom. It is the very symbol of love, a proven historical record of the ability of love to conquer all knowable odds and yet somehow always surprise.
Everyone knows that photo. It has hung in dorm rooms and living rooms from San Francisco to New York for nearly 70 years. It has been replicated across history, across culture, in novels and movies and soap operas, in Christmas ads for jewelry and luxury cars. In family engagement and wedding photos, the tattered and yellow keepsakes we pass along for generations as the only definitive keepsakes we can carry with us as proof that we have known, or at least seen, the possibility of the kind of love that leads to lifetime commitment.
Replicated without conflict. Without discussion. Without ick.
We sense, intuitively, the love between a white man and a white woman kissing. We always have. It’s as cliche as the photo.
We understand, intellectually, the love between a black woman and a white man kissing. We’re headed toward cliche, slow as hell, but headed there.
But the love between a woman and a woman kissing, a man and a man?
We have work to do.
There’s something about familiarity that breeds hate.
There’s something about familiarity that breeds discomfort.
There’s something about familiarity that brings comfort.
Thankfully, it usually always comes in that order.
Last week’s photo showed that the familiarity is here to stay. Here to prove itself.
It bred some hate and quite a bit of discomfort.
Not a lot of comfort. Not yet.
We all know gay and lesbian couples. The problem is most of us don’t know it, not yet.
That’s going to change, one at a time.
One printed marriage license, one conversation.
One candid captured display of affection.
Most of us are not ready to frame The Kiss and hang it on our living-room walls as a declaration of enduring love.
But we’re ready for discussion. Ready for conflict.
With the hope, the patience, the understanding that one day comfort will come.