I’m beginning to wonder whether GLBT folks are today’s canaries in the coal mine.
For those of you unfamiliar with the canaries’ function, the phrase refers to the fact that well into the 20th century, coal miners would bring canaries into the mines to serve as early-warning signals for toxic gases, primarily carbon monoxide. The birds were more sensitive to the presence of the gas, and would become sick before the miners had been exposed to dangerous levels.
I began to consider this (admittedly odd) analogy yesterday, when members of the Indiana General Assembly—as retrograde a group as one could find outside, perhaps, Mississippi or Alabama—announced that they would not hold a vote during this year’s session on a measure to amend the Indiana Constitution by inserting a ban on same-sex marriage.
Only those of us who have lived in Indiana the past few years can appreciate the magnitude of this announcement. Legislative homophobia has been a given, and the prospects for this particular piece of bigotry had been considered bright. Those of us who oppose the measure had pretty much settled for strategies meant to “kick the can down the road.” (Indiana is one of those states where amending the constitution is difficult; a proposed amendment must be passed in identical form by two separately elected legislatures, after which it goes to the public in the form of a referendum. Opponents focused on getting changes in some of the more ambiguous and mean-spirited language of the proposed amendment; changing the language would at least delay what seemed inevitable.) The working assumption has been that the ban was a slam-dunk to emerge from the General Assembly, and that an eventual public vote would likely lodge discrimination solidly in the state’s charter.
The legislature can still vote on the ban during next year’s session, of course. But the postponement is significant.
Consider the context: The 2012 election ushered in Republican super-majorities in the Indiana House and Senate. Worse, we’ve elected a dyed-in-the-wool culture warrior as Governor. In the wake of the election, prospects for defeating or even delaying the ban looked even more hopeless than before.
But that’s where it gets interesting. A couple of statewide polls show a solid majority of Hoosiers—whatever their position on same-sex marriage—oppose amending the constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court has accepted two significant cases, one involving a challenge to DOMA, and one an appeal of California’s Proposition Eight. The President was re-elected handily, even after his very public endorsement of marriage equality.
What seems to be a sea change on gay rights issues increasingly seems to be only part of the story, a leading indicator of a broader social/political shift that is just becoming visible.
Here’s my current analysis (and it’s worth every penny you are paying for it—in other words, nothing): The upheavals we now refer to as “the sixties” created an enormous backlash. All of a sudden, there were uppity black folks, bra-burning feminists, anti-war activists and other troublemakers undermining the natural order of things. Those various movements—womens’ movement, civil rights movement, antiwar movement—permanently changed American society, but they also engendered huge resentment and push-back. That backlash ushered in the so-called “Reagan revolution,” and energized the culture warriors and “family values” organizations.
Just as the 60s movements became excessive, and spawned reaction, the GOPs rightward march has now gone much too far. Women, minorities, young people and reasonable, moderate Republicans are abandoning the party in droves. Except for a remaining fringe of old white Southern heterosexual men, Americans have become comfortable with diversity and the other results of the disorienting sixties—at the same time they are getting increasingly uncomfortable with the extremism and “us versus them” worldview of today’s conservatives.
Gays are among the first to benefit from what I think is beginning: a swing back from the precipice, and a long-overdue reconsideration of what America should look like.
The canaries are breathing. It’s a good sign.