I've heard the last presidential election was about Iraq, or terrorism, or flip-flops, or windsurfing, or George W. Bush looking like a tough guy. But like a lot of gay Americans, I experienced the election mainly as a national referendum on my rights.
That may sound self-absorbed, but it's hard not to think it's all about you, or at least largely about you, when one presidential candidate is dangling your hopes for equality in front of a bunch of anti-gay religious extremists, using your rights as bait to lure said religious extremists to the polls to vote for him. The apparent success of this strategy was, to put it mildly, not encouraging, and forgive me, America, but I took it all a bit personally.
I had thought things were going well. In 2003 this country decriminalized gay sex and, by extension, normalized tolerance of what used to be called "the homosexual lifestyle." In 2004 the state of Massachusetts legalized gay marriage and, by extension, legitimized gay love. That felt like considerable progress. But in 2005, the candidate who had appealed directly to bigoted reactionaries as part of his get-out-the-vote effort was sworn in as president. Meanwhile, the number of states around the country in which voters had rewritten their state constitutions to prohibit gay marriage rose sharply, to 17. That felt like, well, exactly what it is: a backlash.
If you're gay and you follow the news closely, like I do, life in the backlash can be rather disquieting—another month, another depressing development. June 5: The governor of Texas suggests that people who don't like his state's ban on gay marriage should live elsewhere. May 10: After complaints about a children's book that featured two princes marrying, the Oklahoma House of Representatives passes a resolution calling on libraries to sequester gay-themed books. April 20: In Alabama, the state legislature debates a proposal to cut public funds for textbooks that treat homosexuality as "acceptable." The bill's sponsor, asked what should be done with those type of books, replies: "I guess we dig a big hole and dump them in and bury them."
The gay rights groups do their best to console me. Two steps forward, one step back, they say. It's their mantra these days. They also tell me that all of this is inevitable, just blowback resulting from the great successes gays have had over the last few years. It's clear, however, that religious conservatives don't see this as just blowback, but rather as the first stage in a complete rollback of gay sexual freedom and legal recognition. And at the moment, it's hard not to see the momentum as being on their side.
All of which has left some gay activists thinking of compromising on gay marriage. It was the push for marriage rights, they argue, that caused the backlash. Maybe a retreat on this issue would take the steam out of it? I don't like the idea of retreating from a push for fairness and equality, but I understand their nervousness, and so to keep myself from joining the depressed and doubting crowd, here's what I tell myself whenever I get the latest news from Texas, or Oklahoma, or Alabama. It's my mantra for the backlash years:
We've already won the battle of ideas.
A lot of time and verbiage has been spent analyzing the battle for gay rights as a war of competing ideas locked in a death match. The truth is that gay people have already won the battle of ideas. The real death match concerns not ideas, but rather who has the earliest appointment with death itself. Will it be the bigoted, or the tolerant? (For the answer, see below.)
But first, a bit on that battle of ideas: Proof of a pro-gay victory is not hard to come by. Violence against gays is no longer an accepted norm in this country; nearly two-thirds of Americans favor legal recognition of gay relationships even if most don't yet favor gay marriage; and courts from Massachusetts to Washington to California, when considering the question of same-sex marriage rights, have ruled that there is "no rational basis" for state-sponsored discrimination against homosexuals. It is fast becoming the cultural norm to see homophobia as irrational, retrograde, something to be made fun of on Comedy Central, something you'd expect from out-there religious zealots like Jerry Falwell and James Dobson.
It's the demographics, stupid.
Speaking of Falwell and Dobson, what do they and most of the prominent anti-gay voices in this country have in common? They're old. Falwell and Dobson are 71 and 69, respectively—and try to come up with an active anti-gay voice on the national stage who is under 50. There aren't many. In poll after poll, it is older Americans who prove to be the most intolerant of gay rights, while young Americans emerge as the most accepting. As the Boston Globe concluded earlier this year: "Support for gay marriage will grow as older people, who are more likely to oppose gay marriage, pass away." The same is true for all other gay issues.
We gay people can lobby politicians and dialogue with homophobes all we want, and we should, but perhaps the most important thing gay Americans can do right now is hold our ground and wait for the considerable number of anti-gay older Americans to die off. When they do, public opinion on gay rights issues is likely to flip.
The aging activist-homophobes know this, which is why they're pushing so hard right now to codify anti-gay discrimination in local laws, state constitutions, and even the federal Constitution. They know their most receptive audience won't be around much longer.
Marriage is important.
Many Americans are telling polltakers that they oppose gay marriage but are fine with civil unions. So why not, one argument from nervous gay rights activists goes, aim for civil unions instead? Civil unions will give us most of the rights we want, and could quiet the backlash.
The problem with this kind of compromise is that it assumes religious conservatives actually will stop lashing back if gay people stop asking for marriage rights. It's a strange assumption to make at a time when religious conservatives are going after adoption rights, the right to check out gay-themed library books, and the domestic-partner benefits that private companies like Ford provide for their gay employees—none of which seems as big a deal as state recognition of gay relationships, whatever name you give them.
Marriage is important. Aiming for less is not going to stop the backlash, and it's certainly not going to achieve full civil equality for gays and lesbians. Plus, "civil unions" reeks of the discarded nomenclature of separate but equal. As others have said, in a civil rights struggle, you may get less than you ask for, but you're never going to get more than you ask for.
Three more years.
Although it may seem like it, this backlash is not just a response to the push for marriage rights. It's a sustained religious conservative tantrum about the fact that in the 36 years since Stonewall, the trajectory of gay civil rights gains has been steadily upward. Marriage is seen as a final peak by gay rights activists, and the final straw by religious conservatives, because it stands to definitively settle the larger matter. A country that allows gays and lesbians to marry can't really justify prohibiting them from adopting, enjoying shared health benefits, or checking out library books about themselves. Despite the insanity it exhibited during the last election, I believe this will be that kind of country, eventually.
In the meantime, Bush's poll numbers are going down; several big gay marriage decisions from state supreme courts, including Washington's, are coming up; and gay rights supporters, if they can continue to hold firm through this backlash, aren't going anywhere. ■