The Majority Report
BY Jonathan Rauch
November 19 2010 5:00 AM ET
It sounds like a joke, but it isn’t, and you get your choice of punch lines. So…these college students walk into a mom-and-pop bakery in Indianapolis with an order for rainbow-colored cupcakes and cookies. Seems they’re celebrating National Coming Out Day. The bakery owners turn down the job, saying it violates their moral principles.
Punch line 1: The students, though unhappy, take their order to another bakery and tell reporters that the incident shows the need for continued dialogue between gays and the community.
Punch line 2: The city opens a discrimination investigation against the bakery to determine whether it should be kicked out of the city-owned space it has occupied for two decades. “I’d hate to lose them,” says a local official, “but we can’t tolerate any kind of discrimination like that.”
In real life the story ends with both punch lines. And many gay folks would have no problem with that. Why tolerate discrimination?
For the gay equality movement, however, punch line 1 is the right answer—and punch line 2 is positively dangerous.
This is a new development. It stems from the fact that we—gay Americans and our straight allies—have won the central argument for gay rights. As a result, we must change. Much of what the gay rights movement has taken for granted until now, and much that has worked for us in the past, is now wrong and will hurt us. The turn we now need to execute will be the hardest maneuver the movement has ever had to make, because it will require us to deliberately leave room for homophobia in American society. We need to allow some discrimination and relinquish the “zero tolerance” mind-set. Paradoxical but true: We need to give our opponents the time and space they need to let us win.
Let me explain.
First, what I’m not saying: that the fight for equality is finished. It isn’t, of course. Most states prohibit gay marriage. The military ban on gays serving openly has proved frustratingly persistent. Gay kids still face routine harassment and bullying, as we’ve all painfully observed with multiple news reports of suicides this year.
But we all know momentum is on our side. And even more significant is the source of that momentum. In 2010 the most important gay rights story that you probably never read came from Gallup: “Americans’ support for the moral acceptability of gay and lesbian relations crossed the symbolic 50% threshold in 2010. At the same time, the percentage calling these relations ‘morally wrong’ dropped to 43%, the lowest in Gallup’s decade-long trend.”
Since—well, since forever, the American majority regarded homosexuality as immoral, and the only question was whether to tolerate or repress it. In 2008, however, the lines converged, at 48% on each side. Today, same-sex relations are deemed morally acceptable by a margin of 52% to 43%. The “moral values” argument is on our side.
This is a watershed in gay Americans’ relations with our country. The belief that homosexuality is morally wrong undergirds all the other problems that homosexuals face. When the foundation of moral disapproval crumbles, so, in time, must all the superstructures of discrimination and stigma. To a majority of the public, the “morally deviant” shoe will be on the antigay foot.
So let’s pinch ourselves and say it: American homosexuals and our allies are entering a new and unprecedented phase. For the first time, we are emerging into majority status.