Op-ed: Let's Be Strong Men Who Stand Up For Women
LGBT history overflows with stories of women who have come to the aide of gay men: the concerned mother who founded PFLAG, the doctor who proved that homosexuality was not a pathological illness, the popular 1960s communist who wrote that gays and lesbians were born that way and should be true to themselves in order to find happiness, and the countless number of lesbians who, after years of feeling excluded from the gay liberation movement by their gay brothers, put aside their frustrations to care for them at the height of the AIDS epidemic when hospitals wouldn’t.
These are just a handful of the famous examples. It leaves out the sisters who defended us against bullies, the best girlfriends we came out to and took to the prom, and the mothers who handled our fathers who didn’t always know the right way to say they love us.
This history begs a question that nobody seems to be asking: If women have stood and fought alongside gay men in some of our darkest, toughest, hardest won battles, why are most gay men paying so little attention to the vicious war currently being waged against women: the attack on their constitutional right to a safe and legal abortion. The cynical, but probably true, answer is that gay men are apathetic toward the fight because we don’t feel a connection to it. While we feel a sense of indebtedness to the many women who have had our backs over the decades, gay men simply seem to feel that this fight doesn’t concern us.
And this is why we are wrong:
Reproductive rights and all of the gay community’s significant legal gains over the last decade hinge on the same constitutional protection of privacy, whether we're talking about striking down the sodomy laws, or the lower court wins that landed the recently decided Proposition 8 and DOMA cases in the Supreme Court. This right to privacy, established by the Supreme Court in the 1960s to grant contraception rights, was expanded upon in 1973 with Roe v. Wade, which gave women the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Some 30 years later in the sodomy case, Lawrence v. Texas, this right to privacy was broadened even further to protect same-sex sexual activity. The Lawrence win has been a vital piece of every significant LGBT legal victory in the last 10 years, up to and including the two marriage cases recently decided by the Supreme Court.
With the hundreds of bills currently being proposed in state legislatures across the country—600 in 2013 alone—attempting to dismantle a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion, the conservative right is waging an obvious war on a woman’s right to choose. But they are also waging a not-so-obvious war on the constitutionally protected right to privacy. And if they are successful at chipping away at that right to the point that it becomes obsolete or easily overturnable, all pro-LGBT victories protected by it would suddenly be vulnerable.
A strong majority of Americans are now pledging support for marriage equality, and the momentum gained by the recent Supreme Court rulings cannot be understated. Perhaps this is another reason gay men have been reluctant to engage in the war on women—if our rights are all but ensured, why would we endanger the political good faith we’ve curried by becoming involved in the volatile issue of reproductive rights? It’s a shortsighted question which forgets that public opinion and the politics of social issues are fickle. Any member of the gay community enjoying a sense of inevitability regarding our civil rights should note that at the time of the Roe decision, reproductive rights were just about as popular with Americans as marriage equality is now. Initially, the Roe decision incurred no Republican backlash and didn’t become a partisan issue until the GOP platform called for an overturning of it during Reagan’s first presidential campaign. Suddenly political party lines were drawn around the issue with prominent leaders on both the right and the left changing long-held stances for political gain. It was a frightening example, one the gay community should pay close attention to, that when it comes to political support for social issues, there are no guarantees.
For almost 20 years, the conservative right wing lumped the reproductive rights and LGBT rights movements together and, with much success, used us as the backbone of their pitch to “values voters” that our legal rights would result in the nation’s moral undoing. But as the millennium approached, and support for gay rights began to cross political lines, conservatives decoupled the issues, focusing less on their anti-equality stances while doubling down on their anti-choice positions. As a result, the two movements have had very different trajectories—most tellingly at the state court level, where the LGBT community enjoyed unprecedented wins just as the same courts began leveling equally unprecedented restrictions on a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion. This disparity was at its most glaring recently in Texas. There, on the senate floor, it took an 11-hour, non-stop, bathroom-breakless, speech by state senator Wendy Davis to filibuster a bill that would have inflicted the nation’s strictest abortion restrictions on the women of that state. But less than 12 hours later, the Supreme Court overturned California's Proposition 8, making same-sex marriage legal in the state of California, and DOMA, granting federal marriage benefits to married same-sex couples living in states where their marriage is legal. Meanwhile, Texas's legislature approved the restrictive abortion bill a few weeks later, and Gov. Perry signed it into law last week.
As a married gay man, it’s been difficult to watch women’s rights to a safe and legal abortion come under such virulent attack while the LGBT community has experienced a near avalanche of legal advancements. This is especially true since the LGBT movement owes so much of our success to the early right to privacy wins by the reproductive right’s movement. Preserving this right to privacy is tantamount to preserving personal autonomy, the principal at the heart of both the LGBT and reproductive rights movements. Working together on this, our groups can and should be a powerhouse force for policy change. It’s time for a re-coupling. The gays and the girls have always been better together.