Hope and History




Maybe there’s a good reason that we have yet to rise up and demand equality. Maybe most of us believe that ending the wars, fixing the economy and health care, and protecting the environment are more important than any of the gay rights legislation before Congress. If you offered me a choice between marriage equality and climate change, I’d choose climate change.

Unquestionably, a lot of us have been patient about progress on gay civil rights during these first months because we are still traumatized by the culture wars. We fought hard to get this president and Congress elected, and we don’t want to mess up their chance to fix what’s broken. But the window of opportunity for bold action on gay rights at the federal level grows narrower every day. Obama will probably never have as much political capital as he has now. Things will go wrong: Unemployment shows no sign of slowing, the wars could drag on for years. To move beyond this impasse we must learn not only from our history as a movement but also from our history as individuals.

The anxiety that a fight for equal rights for gays could derail this administration bears more than a passing resemblance to the anxiety that the world will end if you come out to your parents. For some people, of course, the world does end. For most of us, however, those fears turn out to be narcissistic fantasies. When we come out the truth does set us free. Usually, the people we feared would abandon us rise to the challenge and accept us.

We have to face the fact that we are in a moral battle and that the truth is on our side. Bruce Bastian says, “The president and Congress have really big items on their plate. I’m sure some politicians think, Why can’t the gays be patient? Well, every day that we’re patient we have more gay kids killing themselves. We have more soldiers getting their careers destroyed. We have more religious bigots convincing people to stay in the closet. You can’t get rid of bigotry with legislation, but you certainly can stall it. You can shut it up. Every day that we sit quiet and stay patient, we are losing people.”

Suspending “don’t ask, don’t tell” “is a winnable moral victory,” says Nathaniel Frank, the author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America. Frank thinks this issue, if framed in moral terms, could remind both gay and straight people of what we most admired about Obama in the first place. “Obama can’t get us out of the Middle East overnight or cure poverty or fix the environment with an executive order. But he can do this,” he says. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, the straight Irish Catholic Iraq war veteran who became chief sponsor of the House bill for repeal, makes the same point: “This is about speaking truth to power, choosing the harder right over the easier wrong. You have to expect people to do the right thing.”

To act with moral authority we must confront and dismantle our enemies’ fears. “The antigay Christians are afraid that we want to normalize homosexuality in the schools and that their kids will be taught that homosexuality is OK. They’re right. That is what we’re trying to do,” says Mitchell Gold, chairman of Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams furniture and founder of Faith in America, a nonprofit that fights religious prejudice against gay people. “I want gay 14-year-olds to know that it’s OK. What the president is looking for is to have this great educational epiphany with antigay opponents, but how is that going to happen?”