Here’s my sermon for your Sunday.
Back in the early days of the women’s movement, an oft-repeated mantra was “the personal is the political.” The point was that unless an issue was personal, you were unlikely to bother engaging it politically.
There’s research confirming the insight. Academics who study civic engagement talk about the connection between “salience” and action—the personal importance of any particular issue is one predictor of that individual’s political involvement.
This accords with common sense: unless something matters to you, you are unlikely to participate in political advocacy around that issue.
“Coming out” is the perfect political expression of that insight. People who may have favored equal rights for GLBT folks in the abstract found the issue much more salient when they realized that their own friend or family member was one of those subject to marginalization and discrimination. Suddenly, being an ally meant something more affirmative than refraining from opposition, or expressing an inclusive sentiment at a cocktail party.
It seems so obvious to us now, but in the early days of the gay rights movement, coming out was a real gamble—a gamble that might not have worked, and that took a great deal of courage. Until there was a critical mass of “out” gay folks, out was a lonely and sometimes dangerous place to be. Being “out and proud” didn’t simply risk social disapproval—jobs were lost, families estranged, friendships shattered.
Today, after a generation of activism, we can say with some assurance that the gay community is in “mop up” mode. There’s still a good deal of bigotry, but thanks to coming out, the handwriting on the civic wall reads “Come on in.” Out gays hold elective office, enjoy marriage equality in more and more states, and participate in Pride celebrations that are more celebratory and less defiant than in the old days.
If we needed any more evidence of the success of the gay rights movement, it can be found in the fact that other despised minorities are looking to the GLBT community for strategic guidance.
In a blog earlier this week, I referenced a meeting of the Secular Coalition for America. The Coalition includes a variety of organizations concerned with the marginalization of non-believers, the war on women and science, religiously-based homophobia, and especially with efforts by “bible-believing” conservatives to move America toward “godliness”—aka theocratic laws.
Coalition members want non-theists to emulate the central strategy of the gay civil rights movement, and come out.
According to recent Pew data, nonbelievers—defined as those who answer “none” when asked about their religious affiliations—number around 20% of the American population. In 2000, some 14% of the public self-identified as part of the Religious Right. And yet, the Religious Right exercises immensely more political power than the religiously disengaged. They haven’t just been drivers of the culture wars and efforts to recast discrimination as “religious liberty,” they have been the most effective foot soldiers in the war on science.
Lawmakers—and not just Republicans—fall over themselves to pander to the obsessions of that 14%, because unlike the “nones,” they’ve been so public and visible that we think there are more of them than there really are.
Think how much more rational and inclusive our politics would be if even half of the “nones” came out and worked with the many reasonable religious folks to demand equal treatment and respect for all Americans, whatever their beliefs or lack thereof.