Cultural Whiplash

Who are we supposed to believe, our lying eyes or the polls?

On the one hand, efforts to marginalize gays—to label them as permanently “other,” as second or third-class citizens—have heated up since the advent of the Tea Party and the 2010 elections. Here in Indiana, we have seen the resurrection of efforts to constitutionalize a ban against same-sex marriage, an effort that has been dutifully endorsed by the majority party, and seems likely to pass during this legislative session.

Fortunately, the Indiana Constitution requires that proposed amendments be passed—in identical form—by two separately elected legislatures, so there’s hope it can still be defeated.  There is no similar roadblock to an equally hateful anti-immigration provision, modeled upon Arizona’s law, or to measures aimed at rolling back women’s right to control their own reproduction.

Other states seem fixated on efforts to exclude and demonize Muslims. The most ludicrous are measures passed by several states that outlaw the imposition of Sharia law—thus “solving” an absolutely non-existent problem.

In the U.S. Congress, a number of anti-woman measures are part of what appears to be a full-court press to repeal the 21st—and maybe the 20th—century. Newly elected ideologues are voting against science (the 31 Republican members of the House Energy Committee voted that global climate change doesn’t exist and besides, it isn’t caused by human activity) and economic reality (trying to reduce the deficit by refusing to raise taxes on even our richest citizens, and passing cuts likely to reduce revenues further by throwing the economy back into recession).

Looking at the news these days is a prescription for depression. Who are these people we’ve elected, and why are they actively trying to repeal the Enlightenment and destroy everything that makes America great? Are they insane, or just really, really ignorant?  What does it say about us that we elected these buffoons?

And yet.

Several recent surveys from respected pollsters have shown a slight majority of Americans in favor of same-sex marriage. An overwhelming majority favors legislation that would forbid employers from firing people simply because they are gay. The same Congress that seems to be trying to put women back in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, did repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The Department of Justice has confirmed what seemed pretty obvious to many of us—that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional—and consequently, announced that DOJ won’t defend it in court. Even Arizona appears to be backing off its hateful anti-immigration campaign—not because Arizona legislators have suddenly come to their senses, but because their bigotry has cost the state millions in lost business and tourism. Nice people decided to spend their money elsewhere—and it turned out there are a lot of nice people.

In short, the politics of equality is decidedly mixed. If we look for evidence of progress, there’s plenty to see. If we look for evidence that we are regressing, we’ll see that too. If we look at the whole picture, we get whiplash.

I cling to one amply documented bit of evidence: every poll, every survey, shows that the younger generation—those under 35 or so—are more tolerant, more accepting of difference, more at ease in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural world.

So when my generation is gone, things will improve. Unfortunately, a lot of people will be hurt while we’re waiting.


Another Year

How does that old song go? “Another year older and deeper in debt”? That could be our new national anthem, since it captures both our moral and fiscal deficits.

As I write this, Senate Republicans have refused to allow a vote on repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and prospects for bringing it back to the floor before the conclusion of the lame-duck session are iffy, at best. This intransigence has persisted despite the fact that the Secretary of Defense and most of the highest-ranking military officials have testified in favor of repeal, and despite the fact that polls show a sizeable majority of Americans in favor of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly.

Before you shake your head about the persistence of homophobia, however, let me remind you that the gay community hasn’t been singled out. Senate Republicans have also refused, once again, to fund medical care for the brave men and women who were first responders on 9/11. I don’t use the word “hero” very often, but that’s what these firefighters, police officers and medics were. They braved the inferno that was the Twin Towers in order to rescue those inside, and they are now suffering from injuries and illnesses caused by that rescue operation.

The refusal to repeal DADT is excused by mumbling “unit cohesion.” The refusal to provide desperately-needed medical care to first responders has been justified by several Senators on the basis that the expense would add to the deficit.  They have cited the same excuse for their refusal to extend unemployment benefits for the millions of Americans who still cannot find work.

The elephant in this room filled with elephants is tax breaks for American families earning over 250,000 a year. As Obama correctly noted in a press conference where he tried to explain his capitulation on the issue, the Senate GOP was holding these measures—and many others—hostage to their insistence that the richest 2% of Americans retain the favorable tax rates they received from George W. Bush.

It is true that helping first responders and unemployed people would cost money. But extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy will add billions more to the deficit than those measures would. Furthermore, unemployment benefits put dollars in the hands of people who immediately spend those dollars, and thus stimulate the economy. (People defend our historically low tax rates for the rich by claiming those dollars will be spent to create jobs; however, the evidence shows otherwise.)

So here we are, ending the first decade of the 21st century facing moral and fiscal bankruptcy.

Our government is broken; it now takes sixty votes to get any measure through the U.S. Senate, making a mockery of democracy and majority rule, and allowing a cohesive and determined minority to hold the nation hostage to the demands of the greedy and privileged. The income gap between rich and poor is wider than it has been since the gilded age, and the strain that gap places on our civic fabric is immense.

This is the environment within which we enter the New Year, and this is the environment within which gay citizens must work to achieve equal rights. It isn’t just DADT repeal—history has plenty of examples of what happens to minority groups during periods of national upheaval and fiscal distress. When times are tough, people look around for someone to blame.  In Germany, before WWII, it was the Jews. In the U.S. today, it is gays and immigrants.

People have asked me, over the years, why I advocate for equal rights for gays and lesbians. My answer has always been the same: I’m selfish. I want equality for myself, and I understand that only in a country where everyone is equal can anyone be equal. But the flip side of that is equally true. Gays and lesbians cannot achieve equality in an unequal and inequitable system. We are all in this together.

Happy New Year. I guess.