As another election year intensifies, more is at stake for gay people than a few overdue policy reforms. Ending the expulsion of qualified service-members from the military, extending hate-crimes enforcement, and enacting bona fide federal protections against bias remain top priorities for the gay-rights movement.
But after icy treatment by the Bush administration, gay people and their increasingly visible and vocal allies want nothing less than a climate change in federal leadership. Even swing voters and some conservatives would welcome it.
On a recent flight across the country, my seatmates included a middle-aged couple, him white and her Latina. Like many fellow travelers in the past two years, they asked me what it meant that I wore a circular white button stating simply but emphatically in black, “I do!”
“Believe in equal marriage rights for committed same-sex couples,” I answered matter-of-factly. I looked them each in the eye, attuned as usual to hints of empathy or glimmers of hostility. Poised to make the most of the exchange, I added, “And if Britney Spears can go to Las Vegas for a 55-hour wedding, couples who have been together for 55 years… .”
The man, the older of my two inquisitors by at least 10 years, cut in. And the conversation took a sudden and unprecedented turn. “My son,” he ventured, with a tight self-conscious smile, “is gay. And I’m a Republican. But I’ve had employees at my company who had to go back to work, as old as I am, when their partner passed away. They had no more health insurance and no survivor’s benefits. That situation isn’t right,” he stated. “And it needs to change.”
Such sympathy is far from isolated, and, politically speaking, has been cultivating for decades. This year marks the 30th anniversary of a fateful chapter in the nation’s awareness of gay people. Following a campaign that captured coast-to-coast attention, California voters in 1978 handily rejected a ballot measure to fire teachers and faculty suspected of being homosexuals.
Just weeks after the election, though, a disgruntled former policeman and political rival shot and killed San Francisco mayor George Moscone and first-term Supervisor Harvey Milk, an early standard-bearer for gay rights. Within two years, a movement for equal rights that had high hopes for the Carter years saw its goals go up in smoke amid opposition from fearmongers like Jerry Falwell and Anita Bryant and a conservative takeover of Congress.
The late ’70s weren’t the last window to open and close on the chance for major political breakthroughs. In 1993, Bill Clinton’s inauguration signaled a new day in Washington. Openly gay people – including Roberta Achtenberg and the late Bob Hattoy – gained new access and prominence as federal appointees. Courts weighed the fairness of ousting openly gay service members simply for that reason, even as the new president faced pressure to make good on a pledge to end such expulsions.
But the drive to fully lift the military ban fell apart, amid recriminations. Advances in the period proved more incremental than seismic. D.C. repealed its draconian sodomy law, a decade before the Supreme Court would have struck it down as cruel and intrusive. The president himself prohibited antigay discrimination in the federal workforce, but was stymied in the drive to pass a broader civil rights bill covering all workers.
Six more states, for a total of 12 (it has since grown to 20) made discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal. One of those states, Minnesota, became the first to include gender identity in its law, barring mistreatment of people for not conforming to sex stereotypes or appearances. Yet even modest state-based protections against bias met resistance in ballot measures aimed at pre-empting and rolling back basic rights. The battle to pass the Maine state law, for instance, persisted for 29 years, including four referenda campaigns, before its ultimate victory.
For gay people, the current moment comes with some impatience for large and lasting change. It also finds a public more conscious than ever before of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender family members, neighbors, co-workers and celebrities. To the point of nonchalance among the young and educated, many Americans are cognizant of the plotline of coming out, the problem with repression, and the distinction between lying and living openly.
Gone, for instance, are the days when Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) could ignore the knocks on his closet door from reporters questioning his votes against gay rights and, by extension, his hypocrisy. Nor can he get away mislabeling his paranoia at discovery as some form of persecution. If he wants a taste of real mistreatment he could talk to a courageous gay Idahoan I know who yearned only to serve his country in uniform but was hounded out of the ranks and sent home. Such cases are needless casualties of a policy Craig staunchly defends.
There may be other Craigs in Congress, but their era is now over. The ‘08 election, no matter its winners, will usher in decision-makers unable to deny the presence or escape the accountability of openly gay people in every precinct of the nation. Even according to the scattershot gauge included in the government’s census, cohabiting same-sex couples dwell in all but a handful of the nation’s counties.
John F. Kennedy was fond of saying that victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan. If gay people capitalize on this election year and help leverage into office their own and allies in sufficient numbers to deliver reform in the aftermath, credit will go not only to the persistent donors, activists, and appointees who pushed the long-delayed policies into law.
It will also go to the thousands of gay people who held their families, workplaces, and congregations to the standards of solidarity, teamwork, and fellowship that they preach. And it will go to all those who cast their lot with them in that struggle for integrity and bent the arc of history toward justice.