The Work Left To Do

First published at on October 30, 2009

Less than a week before the election, polls continue to show close races in both Washington State, where voters may substantially expand domestic-partner legislation, and Maine, where they may rescind marriage-equality. We could win in either state (or both)—but we could lose, too.

Win or lose, there’s one truth this campaign has made abundantly clear. It’s an unpleasant truth, one that most of prefer not to dwell on. Yet it’s important to face:

Many people still find homosexuality weird, disgusting, or abhorrent, and they don’t want it around their children.

If you found that last sentence distasteful to read, let me assure you that it was not pleasant to write. But it’s what we need to reflect on if we’re ultimately going to win.

Confronting this truth is necessary for countering a pervasive myth in our community—namely that, when it comes to securing our rights, it doesn’t really matter what other people think of us.

This myth gets expressed in various ways: Morality is a private matter. What we do at home is no one else’s business. Our rights don’t depend on other people’s comfort-level.

Like most myths, it sounds plausible because it contains a measure of truth: the objective value of our relationships indeed does not depend on what other people think of us. But political battles don’t track objective value. They track public opinion.

And so our opponents run apparently effective ads stating that (for instance) if Maine keeps gay marriage, kids will be taught homosexuality in schools.

This claim is, strictly speaking, false: Maine curriculum is controlled locally, and whether or not Maine schoolchildren learn about homosexuality doesn’t directly hinge on whether the state embraces marriage equality. But the claim also contains a germ of truth: the greater the number of states with marriage equality, the more likely it is that, in the course of regular instruction, students will learn about the existence of gay people.

Such a result is very scary for some parents. As Matt Foreman writes at Bilerico []:

“[T]he kid/schools attack ads are effective because they go right to the parental-protection gut of parents. They carry a double-whammy: first, that young people can be taught (read ‘recruited’) to be gay or lesbian, and second, that kids will come home asking questions about sex and sexuality. Whether we like it or not, most parents deep down would really rather their children not turn out to be gay and certainly don’t want to be talking about sex, period, let alone gay sex with their kids. This is deep, non-rational stuff.”

(It should go without saying, but age-appropriate discussion of gay people and relationships does not usually involve explicit discussion of gay sex. It SHOULD go without saying, but it can’t, because many opponents seem unable to make that simple distinction.)

There are several lessons to be gleaned here.

First, the closet is still powerful. While some of us treat “National Coming Out Day” as a quaint relic of bygone times, the reality is that many who claim to be our friends and neighbors are still viscerally uncomfortable with us at some level. I don’t care how popular Ellen is: a majority of her fellow Californians voted to deny her the right to marry.

What this means is that merely knowing that we exist is not enough. Our fellow citizens need to know us at a deeper level. It DOES matter what they think of us.

Second, and related, the case for marriage equality can’t be divorced from the case for moral equality—that is, the case for our relationships’ being positive and valuable (and holy, for those of a religious bent). Those of us who make the moral case are sometimes dismissed as “apologists.” We need more apologists (in this classic sense of the term).

Third, we need to keep exposing our opponents’ true intentions, which have become increasingly evident in this campaign season. As Jonathan Rauch explains at the Independent Gay Forum [],

“Opponents of gay marriage in Maine do not just want to block gay marriage. They want to use the law to force all discussion of gay marriage out of the schools. In other words, they demand to turn the public schools into closets.”

This, despite the fact that nearby Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut have marriage equality. And despite the fact that some of these schoolchildren have gay relatives. Or are being raised by gay parents. Or are gay themselves.

In short, our opponents’ agenda is a truly radical one, which aims not merely to deny us marriage but to obliterate our very existence. We need to call them out on it.

I’d love to be pleasantly surprised next Wednesday morning, and discover that our opponents’ appeals to voters’ irrational fears were no match for our appeals to their better nature. It could happen. But whatever happens, we have much work left to do.