We gave into another post-election temptation too. Many drew a simple parallel between our struggle and the black civil rights movement. Signs at protests said, “I have a dream too,” “Welcome to Selma,” and “Gay is the new black.”
There’s something to this, but it’s dangerous territory, and we have to be careful not to lose our bearings here. Gay is the new black in only one meaningful way. At present we are the most socially acceptable targets for the kind of casual hatred that American society once approved for habitual use against black people. Gay is the dark pit where our society lets people throw their fears about what’s wrong with the world. (Many people, needless to say, still direct this kind of hatred toward black people too. But it’s more commonly OK to caricature and demean us in politics and the media in ways from which blacks are now largely exempt.) The comparison becomes useful, though, in forcing us to consider the differences between our civil rights struggle and theirs.
Except in a few statistically insignificant cases (the gay kid who happens to be the child of gay parents), being gay begins with recognizing your difference from the people with whom you have your earliest, most intimate relationships. As such, it’s an essentially isolating experience and therefore breeds in many gay people certain qualities -- such as independence and perfectionism -- that can undermine our ability to cooperate and compromise with others. Though some of us were lucky enough to find role models, mentors, or gay friends early in life, we weren’t born into the kind of beloved community that the African-American church aspires to be. Today, the church is still the strongest black American institution, and though it is far from a perfect place, for its members it’s a cradle of love and shelter from oppression.
Our oppression, by and large, is nowhere near as extreme as blacks’, and we insult them when we make facile comparisons between our plights. Gay people have more resources than blacks had in the 1960s. We are embedded in the power structures of every institution of this society. While it is illegal in this country to fire an African-American without cause and in most places it’s still legal to fire a gay person for being gay, we are more likely to have informal means of recourse than black people have. Almost all gay people have the choice of passing. Very few black people have that option. Of course, we shouldn’t have to make that choice, and our civil rights struggle is about making sure that we don’t have to.
On a deeper level, though, the gay civil rights struggle is about preventing discrimination based on our proclivity to love, as distinct from the messier foundation of racial discrimination, which primarily has to do with protecting white privilege and wealth. No one would deny that fear of mixed marriages significantly inhibited the progress of the black civil rights movement. (Blacks won employment and voting rights a full three years before the Supreme Court finally struck down miscegenation laws in 1967.) But love and sex were not, as is the case with gay civil rights, unambiguously the heart of the matter. This is the reason our progress has been slow: Love cannot be understood in the abstract. You cannot understand it until it touches you or you find your way into its orbit.
We have to stop rage from getting the best of us right now, and keep love at the fore of everything we do and say in this battle. We are close to winning everything we want. We are so close that we do not have time to rehash the Malcolm/Martin struggle between anger and peace, force and nonviolence. Let’s call the Mormons out on the campaign of lies they funded, but let’s find a way of doing it that steers clear of hatred. Enough with the “Fuck Mormons” signs. Some Mormons are gay, not all Mormons voted against us, and a few of them publicly put themselves on the line for us.
We are taking to the streets now -- while writing this, I received an e-mail from a friend pointing me to an online organizing of protests on November 15 in all 50 states -- and we are angry, probably not least at ourselves for our own complacency and cowardice, for not working as hard as we could, for not giving as much as we could, and for letting so much slip from our grasp. Let’s find a way of channeling the passion of this flash point and harnessing this energy for the long haul so we can do the hard work of claiming the full rights and realizing the full lives that we know we can have.
When you use faggots to start a fire, you don’t just dump a bunch of twigs on a few logs and hope something catches. You choose your tinder carefully, you bundle it vigilantly, you place it carefully -- then, and only then, you set the fire.
On Election Day the No on 8 campaign prepared statements for its website to post in the event of a victory or of a loss. One of the people in charge of this task left the office that night with her eyes full of tears. “I am so angry,” she explained, “that they dragged us into this shit. And they shouldn’t have. We already won, and still, they are making us fight for what we already won.” She pulled herself together. “But we’re going to win. We have to win. I am 23 years old,” she said, “and this is my civil rights battle.”
For a moment I was overcome with admiration for this woman’s passion, and at the same time, with a shiver of thought that, if it were made of words, would consist of something like the phrase You are going to die. It was a keen intimation of mortality, of the sense in which our lives, even in the moments of our most focused and profound presence, are merely fragments of the endless story of the human struggle for dignity. A friend in Los Angeles said he saw a sign at one of the protests saying, “Rosa sat so Martin could march so Barack could run.” For us, as for the African-Americans who lived through the ’60s, many apparent failures will, in retrospect, clearly be progress. We lost a lot on this Election Day, but we gained a lot too. Not least was a president who has shown almost every sign of goodwill we could wish for and a Congress eager to follow his leadership where we are concerned.
A lot of us have been fighting for as long as we can remember, trying to keep the world from seeing us as faggots. Maybe it’s time to give up that fight and choose another one instead. Go ahead and be a faggot, in a way that shows the world that a faggot is a person. Start a fire, but let your fire be a beacon. Let your fire burn away your hate, and it will burn away the hate of your enemies. Let your fire be the light that shows your love. If you do that -- if we do that -- we will win the world, and soon.