First published at Between the Lines News on January 15, 2008
In terms of gay-rights progress, brace yourself for a difficult year.
This is not because things are getting worse for gay and lesbian people. It’s because the national conversation on gay-rights issues is getting harder.
One reason is that, as cliché as it sounds, we are more polarized than ever. Gone are the days when House Speaker Tip O’ Neill could sharply criticize President Reagan by day and play cards with him after 6 p.m.
And even if Obama changes the tone in Washington, it will take a long time for that to trickle down. It has become too easy to surround oneself solely with like-minded people. (The internet is one key factor.)
The result is a bunch of echo chambers, outside of which opponents seem not just wrong, but borderline-insane.
The second reason is that the gay community’s specific goals have shifted somewhat. We are no longer asking merely to be left alone, as when we were fighting sodomy laws and police harassment. Our central political goal, for better or for worse, has become marriage.
Marriage is not merely a private contract between two individuals. It is also an agreement between those individuals and the larger community. It requires, both legally and socially, that community’s support. And so the old “leave me alone” script no longer really works.
The third and most important reason why the conversation is getting harder is that the gay community is at a crossroads regarding how we treat our opponents.
On the one hand we talk about reaching out, promoting dialogue, emphasizing common ground.
On the other hand we are quick to label our opponents as hate-filled bigots.
This combination obviously won’t work. A bigot is someone whose views, virtually by definition, are beyond the pale of polite discussion.
One sees this contrast in the fracas over Obama’s choice of Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration.
Compared to most evangelical pastors, Warren is a moderate, who focuses on common-ground issues such as poverty and AIDS over the usual culture-war stuff.
But Warren supported Prop. 8, the California initiative that stripped marriage rights from gays and lesbians. (He has since suggested some possible support for civil unions.)
Obama’s camp is taking the “big tent” approach, acknowledging differences with Warren but emphasizing shared values. In a similar vein, Melissa Etheridge has opened a dialogue with Warren.
Most gay-rights leaders, by contrast, have decried Obama’s choice of Warren as a slap in the face. As one friend put it, “it’s like inviting a segregationist to lead the invocation—I don’t care what other good things the guy has done.”
And there’s the rub: Warren does indeed espouse a “separate but equal” legal status for gays and lesbians (at best). Should we treat him the way we treat segregationists?
Before answering, remember that the majority of Californians, and a larger majority of the rest of the country, hold the same position as Warren on marriage. So does Obama himself (though he did oppose Prop. 8).
So in asking whether inviting Warren to lead the invocation is akin to inviting a segregationist to do so, we are also asking whether the vast majority of Americans are akin to segregationists.
It’s a painful question to confront. And the only fair answer is “yes and no.”
On the merits, yes. For practical purposes, no.
From where I stand, the arguments against marriage equality look about as bad as the arguments for segregation. They commit the same fallacies; they hide behind the same (selective reading of) scripture; they are often motivated by the same fears.
But I’m mindful of the fact that “from where I stand” includes decades of hindsight regarding segregation.
Today, it shocks us to read things like the following:
“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with White people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the White and black races which will ever FORBID the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”
The segregationist who wrote that? Abraham Lincoln.
It is easy now to paint all segregationists as hatemongers, waving pitchforks and frothing at the mouth. Easy, but quite wrong.
The fact is that most segregationists were people not unlike, say, my grandmothers, both of whom were wonderful, loving, decent human beings, and both of whom—much to my embarrassment—opposed interracial marriage.
Their reasons had to do with tradition and the well-being of children. Sound familiar?
My grandmothers were not hatemongers. They were products of their time. So was Lincoln, so is Rick Warren, and so are you and I, more or less.
I don’t mean for a moment to let Rick Warren off the hook. He ought to know better. Maybe someday he will.
For now, labeling him and the majority of Americans as “bigots” won’t make that day come any faster.
In the meantime, brace yourself for a bumpy ride.