They used to call the neighborhood where I live "Homo Heights."

The adjacent neighborhood was sometimes referred to as the "Homolayas." Since the days after World War II, the area around Loring Park was the place where homosexuality was pushed into the shadows.

Men cruised for surreptitious sex, and often were mugged and beaten.

On Thursday, a dozen or so same-sex couples proclaimed their love openly in Loring Park, turning history with a kiss and a pledge.

I couldn't help but be dumbstruck both by how long it had taken and how quickly it had transpired. The long, torturous slog, then the tipping point in November when Minnesotans first rejected a ban on gay marriage, then the vote to allow gay partners the same rights my wife and I have enjoyed the past 25 years.

And I couldn't help but reflect on my own feelings about homosexuality and gay rights, and how they evolved in an intolerant society over the past decades.

My first recollection of the issue was as a child attending St. Stephen's Catholic Church in south Minneapolis. The church caused an uproar when it allowed some of the first public meetings of gays and lesbians in the city. Parishioners boycotted and protested outside.

Eventually, a meeting place opened across the street from my apartment. The space was known in the neighborhood as "The Gay House." My parents were good, compassionate people, but like most were ignorant of gay people, and thus suspicious. I was warned not to get too close to The Gay House.

Nobody in their teens dared "come out" back then, so I didn't know any gay guys or lesbians until college. At least I didn't think I did. I vividly recall, however, how one high school instructor treated a kid we believed was gay when he raised his hand in class: "Do you have a question, or are you just waving your pretty pink pencil?" the teacher snapped.

When I started dating my wife, she was living with a gay man and his partner. It was awkward. No, it was uncomfortable, weird and a little unsettling. I think it would be fair to say I was a classic homophobe.

After overhearing an awkward conversation one night, I said to my girlfriend, "I don't think I can stay here."

But I did, and it changed my life.

I was invited into a group of some of the brightest, most interesting and passionate people I'd ever met. We formed a large gang of gay and straight friends we called "the city family."

When I hear people worry that gay marriage will somehow harm their heterosexual marriage, I cringe.

I learned from my gay friends the very traits that eventually made my wife want to commit: loyalty, tolerance, compassion.

I also got some rather stereotypical bonus perks. Jon, Tom and David taught me to cook, iron a shirt, set a decent table. Bobby taught me how to loosen up and live, and then how to die.

David and David taught me the real meaning of "in sickness and in health."

I learned not to be "too matchy-matchy" in my wardrobe, and you will not catch me wearing white after Labor Day. (OK, I'm still a little Minnesotan when it comes to the hugging).

You plant flowers in uneven numbers and waves, not rows, I was told repeatedly by Jon, who also taught me many of his grandmother's Iron Range Italian recipes. Had it not been for that instruction, I probably would never have come up with the "Proposal Artichoke Pasta" that prompted my wife to ask to marry me one night.

In other words, my gay friends helped me be a better man.

They gave my wife and me unquestioned love and support, and few marriages survive without a strong group of friends surrounding them.

The devotion they showed to their own same-sex partners, for richer or poorer, actually strengthened my marriage through example. After all, most of them stayed in their relationships (far more often than our heterosexual friends), despite being scorned by society for their love.

As each straight couple in our group married, our gay friends were there, making sure the flowers were right and the food was fabulous — all the while thinking they would never have the opportunity to celebrate their own love, or get the hundreds of rights and benefits that we did.

Until just after midnight on Thursday morning, when Minnesota made me proud to live in Homo Heights. 612-673-1702