We like to think of history as the orderly progression of change over time, but the records disprove this notion: The Eastern Bloc fell overnight, the U.S. was gripped by the fear of terrorism after 9/11, and the financial center of gravity moved from New York to D.C. in a matter of months. One thing we hear again and again here from gay leaders is that “eventually” gays and lesbians will enjoy full equality, but could “eventually” be coming a lot sooner than we think? There are signs it will.
The Prop 8 Effect
The first sign gays and lesbians may be enjoying equal citizenship status in the U.S. is the most obvious: As the marching slogan goes, we “want it now.” Wanting something to happen doesn’t make it happen, but public pressure does. In the aftermath of Prop 8, which saw Californians stripped of their marriage rights just a few months after receiving them, the LGBT movement turned a corner. At the heart of this change was the reframing of the debate from being about “gay rights” to “civil rights.” The change may seem semantic, but it has had far reaching implications. Put simply, it’s a lot easier to get Americans behind the idea of supporting civil rights, which we’re raised to believe is a virtue and hallmark of American democracy, than it is to win them over on the gay “lifestyle.”
This is something large LGBT groups don’t seem to have grasped quite yet. For decades, their strategy was to win over straight America by convincing them that “we’re just like you.” It’s not a bad strategy, but the protesters and grassroots groups have come up with a better one: “We don’t care if you like us, but you must treat us as equals.” Unfortunately, the institutional weight of large LGBT rights groups have made it difficult for them to adapt to this new environment, as we saw last week in their tepid non-responses to New York Gov. David Paterson’s gay marriage bill announcement. Rather than supporting the move, most expressed a fear that it would not pass.
The underlying message was “We don’t want to disappoint people when it doesn’t happen.” This is a well-meaning but patronizing response; even a loss would be a win for the gay community. Why?
Frankly, we have little to lose. We’ve lost heavily in the fight to keep constitutional bans against same-sex marriage from passing. And as a younger generation, which views sexuality and gender as a fluid thing, enters and commands the public square, they don’t have the patience or temperament to win over the bigots. Nor should they have to. By making their case often and vocally, gay rights protesters forced the issue onto the American dinner table (after Ugly Betty and before Anderson Cooper 360) and by reframing it as a civil rights issue, they’re winning.
Republicans Step Back From Bigotry
The collapse of the Republican party is partly tied to its anti-gay rights stance. That much is clear. As Scott Schmidt, Meghan and Cindy McCain talk niceties to the Log Cabin Republicans, they also admit that their changed tune is based on politics as well. There will probably always be a conservative wing of American politics (and conservatism is not, by definition, anti-gay), but a debate as to whether the Republican party will be the standard bearer is not a crazy notion.
For decades, social wedge issues got the GOP elected (that’s what “rallying the base” is all about), but the electorate is moving moved past those issues (or wearied of the same battles being fought over again and again) and the GOP looks, and acts, increasingly out of touch. The party can either become a social conservative regional party or it can begin embracing common sense equality issues. Either way, it’s a win for gays and lesbians.
It’s All Politics, Dude
If there’s one thing we learned, gay equality is almost universally used as a pawn in political maneuvering.
Rare is the politician that speaks up for us without having an ulterior motive. Bemoan it, but that’s just the nature of politics. However, with the strong and vocal equality movement enjoying the big mo’ and Republican zealots like Maggie Gallagher making anti-gay supporters look like idiots, it doesn’t take a genius to see that for many Democrats, speaking out on behalf of gays and lesbians can score them political points.
Think of it this way: If you can paint your opponent as a homophobe and you live in a moderate district, you should. It will help you get elected.
Meanwhile, the more states that offer marriage equality, the more difficult it will be for DOMA to hold-up both legislatively and in the minds of voters. The longer it stands, the more legal challenges it will face. Already, gays and lesbians in Massachusetts are suing the federal government for denying them basic federal marriage protections, even though they’re legally married in their state.
This isn’t going to stop anytime soon. At some point (we’d say when the number of states offering gay marriage gets to 10 or so), the Supreme Court will be forced to weigh in. The environment has changed and continues to change rapidly. We need only to help the train pick up more steam.