Fits and Starts

In last month’s column, I wrote about an unexpected victory for equal rights—the defeat, or at least the temporary derailing, of a same-sex marriage ban in very red Indiana. Since then, at least two other states have enacted civil union statutes, and polls suggest that the saliency of the issue and its utility in energizing the GOP base have declined.


But then there is the other side of the coin, the episodes that remind us that progress does not occur in a straight line, but in what my mother used to call “fits and starts.”


In Richmond, Indiana, at virtually the same time our legislature was showing signs of an emerging sanity, a young man named Joe Augustine was beaten with a rock and left with a fractured skull as he was leaving a rehearsal of the Richmond Civic Theater’s production of “The Laramie Project.”  That play, as most readers of this column probably know, is based upon the horrific beating and death of Matthew Shepard.


As I write this, there has not been confirmation that this was a hate crime, although it seems unlikely that the choice of victim was merely coincidental. And even in Richmond, in the wake of this savage beating, the news is not all terrible. Townspeople have rallied to support the young man and his family. Businesses have put up signs; the community held a fundraiser to help with medical bills. And the rest of the cast—in the grand old tradition of “the show must go on”—continued with the play’s production.


Two steps forward, one step back. That’s the way humans progress. But we do progress. Over the nine years that I have taught university undergraduates, I have watched a sea change in their attitudes toward their gay classmaters. Most of today’s college students literally do not understand what the fuss is all about. In contrast to their parents’ generation, homosexuality—like sexuality in general—does not make them uncomfortable. Most have gay friends, watch “out” entertainers, and tend to attribute anti-gay bias to ignorance at best or emotional problems at worst.


Much of this attitude change can be directly traced to the “coming out” movement, and the familiarity with gay friends and neighbors that has ensued. One of the persistent mysteries of human behavior is our tendency to fear that which is different and unknown, despite ample evidence that such fears can be—and often are—pathological.  In a healthy society, we would divert the energy and resources being expended to deprive gay people of their civil rights to an effort to identify and help the angry and dangerous who walk among us.


Of course, in a healthy society, we would also divert the resources being flushed down the toilet in a failed drug war to public health measures aimed at helping drug abusers quit. In a healthy society, we would not spend trillions of dollars and waste thousands of young lives fighting a war of choice in Iraq. I could go on and on, but there is little point. I often wonder whether the people who are so angry at the prospect that two men or two women might create a loving and supportive family are equally upset when children go to bed hungry or abused, when we cannot find the public resources to improve our schools or to pay our police and fire personnel adequately. Is their “morality” equally offended when our brave young soldiers come home from a fool’s errand to face poor or indifferent medical care? And speaking of medical care, where are these guardians of public morality when we discuss the 47 million Americans who are uninsured? Isn’t that a sufficiently moral issue?


Fits and starts. It would be nice if we were beginning to recover from the fits and ready to start addressing the genuinely important conditions of our common culture.