Prospects for 2002

The fight for equal rights for gays and lesbians has entered mid-life. No longer is the battle solely for personal safety and the absence of the most hurtful kinds of marginalization.

The fight for equal rights for gays and lesbians has entered mid-life. No longer is the battle solely for personal safety and the absence of the most hurtful kinds of marginalization. Although physical attacks on gays have certainly not been eradicated, and although the right wing continues to spew hateful rhetoric, the political environment today is decidedly mixed. There is good news as well as bad news; promise as well as disappointment.
In many ways, the gay community finds itself in the same environment as African-Americans: overt racism and homophobia are no longer socially acceptable, but institutional social arrangements and ingrained attitudes disadvantaging both blacks and gays persist, requiring different techniques, different approaches, and more patience than it sometimes seems possible to muster.
On the positive side of this year’s ledger are some recent electoral victories: On November 6th, gay rights measures won in four out of the five cities considering them—and lost narrowly in the fifth. In Michigan, where Kalamazoo and Traverse City both voted on proposals that would have prevented passage of nondiscrimination policies protecting gays (patterned, evidently, after the infamous Colorado Amendment Two), the measures were handily defeated. Since neither city is exactly a New York or San Francisco, the results are particularly heartening, as was the success of a measure in another small Michigan Community, Huntington Woods.  Voters there upheld an ordinance protecting gays against discrimination. Miami Beach passed two pro-gay ballot measures, one granting benefits to the domestic partners of city workers, and one offering survivor benefits to the partners of gay police and firefighters.
Only in Texas—home of George W. Bush—did a pro-gay measure lose. Houston voters refused to allow the city to offer same-sex partner benefits.  But the margin even there was slim: barely 3%.

Also on the “plus” side of our ledger we can list the national outrage in response to the post-September 11th remarks by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and the diminished membership and poor financial health of the Christian Coalition. Robertson’s resignation from that parody of Christianity was another welcome sign of the diminishing vitality of the wacko right.
Finally, the increasing visibility of sympathetic gay characters in film and on television, the willingness of gay Hollywood stars to “come out” and straight ones to play gay roles, all point to a growing cultural shift favoring equal rights and equal status for gays and lesbians.
But of course, there is the negative side of the ledger. Despite a few token gay appointments (appointments that are at least a signal that the Administration recognizes the cultural shift), the Bush Administration is—as Bill Berkovitz has recently written—firmly in the grip of a “cadre of conservative anti-gay ideologues.”  Their influence manifests itself in numerous program areas.  The Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has recently issued a report highlighting just one example: welfare reform. NGLTF says that Administration proposals could “devastate gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender families and individuals.”
Those proposals, usually justified as “strengthening the traditional family” or described as “fatherhood initiatives,” include

·        prioritizing the children of married heterosexuals over other low-income children—giving those children preferred access to Head Start and financial aid, and giving children of single parents and same-sex couples only the “leftovers”—if there are any.

·        Forcing lesbians on welfare to allow their children’s biological fathers to co-parent, or lose benefits.

·        Outlawing gay adoption.

·        Ending no-fault divorce and requiring mutual consent in order for divorces to be granted.
Also on the negative side we must include the disparate treatment of same-sex survivors of victims of 9-11.  At this writing, it is not clear that they will be included in the payment of survivor benefits, or in the distribution of charitable contributions.
While a recitation of these and many other “negatives” can be depressing, it is well to remember that social change comes slowly. Blacks attended segregated schools for many years after Brown v.Board of Education. It was not until 1968 that the Supreme Court struck down laws against interracial marriage.
Actually, it is not implausible to suggest that American culture, which has always had a strong “live and let live” element, is less the problem than is political leadership. When the culture warriors stole the Republican party, they found a mechanism that allowed them to enact measures most Americans consider extreme. Poll after poll suggests that the current GOP leadership is out of step with its rank-and-file on social issues. But those same polls suggest that “live and let live” folks are not single-issue voters; the Christian Right voters are.
If this analysis is accurate, the primary task for the gay community is political mobilization. Such mobilization is what produced the recent victories in Michigan and Florida. Only when voters understand how anti-gay policies hurt everyone, not just gays, will they vote against those cloaking homophobia with endorsements of “traditional” family values.
Only when the culture warriors lose at the ballot box will political leadership reflect America’s growing acceptance of the gay community.