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Ding-Dong, Jesse
Helms is Dead

Ding-Dong, Jesse
Helms is Dead


First Jerry Falwell, now Jesse Helms. One by one, the famous bigots of America are contributing their best (and last) service to this nation's progress -- they're dying.

First Jerry Falwell, now Jesse Helms. One by one, the famous bigots of America are contributing their best (and last) service to this nation's progress -- they're dying.

Helms, the former North Carolina senator who passed away July 4, was born in 1921 -- three years after World War I ended and the year Adolf Hitler became leader of the Nazi Party. Indoctrinated in hatred decades before the civil rights era, Helms was known to whistle racist songs to black elected officials, and, as evidenced by transcripts from any number of Senate hearings, he had an amazing obsession with butt sex. ("There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy" typifies his thoughts on the matter.) As can happen to the luckiest of men, Helms's fetishes sometimes coalesced into one exciting orgy, as when he led the charge against government funding of Robert Mapplethorpe's "obscene" art.

In a tribute in July, President Bush described Helms as an "unwavering champion of those struggling for liberty." I can't say Bush's praise surprised me, but the Helms I remember was less devoted to liberty than he was to simply making other people's lives miserable.

Yet by vociferously making gay people his target, the gentleman from North Carolina ended up accomplishing the opposite of what he set out to do: He not only made us sympathetic, he made us stronger, prodding us to organize among ourselves and with the other evildoers--including the abortion-havers and the immigrants who want to take your jobs.

Folks like Helms will always exist, because hatred is the easiest route to infamy. But Helms seduced a population that has shrunk, and he represented a certain mind-set that has passed. That's why religious bigots like Fred Phelps of "God Hates Fags" fame look like madmen, not prophets. Helms championed a view of America that aged and declined as he did. And it's probably better that the senator died when he did. If he had stayed around for this November's presidential election, a victory by a black man probably would have killed him.

Now that Helms is gone, there doesn't really seem to be anyone who can successfully carry on his life's work. All the other tyrannical titans are either dead or close to it. Falwell, the preacher and Hustler-suing monster who was nearly as terrible and insanely bigoted as Helms (but a bit busier lining his own pockets), died last year. And Anita Bryant, who famously helped repeal a 1970s Florida ordinance that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation, is now 68 and never really heard from (on account of the bankruptcies and tacky concert runs).

Nowadays the political marketplace simply offers fewer rewards for outright bigotry. (Helms's increasing isolation as a lawmaker in the latter part of his tenure, which ended in 2003, was proof that he, as The Washington Post put it, "often took stands that isolated him from the left and the right.") Compared to a Helms or a Falwell, today's bigots wield little real power besides that of the comfort of blather. They feed a conservative viewpoint -- but in actual effect they more closely resemble institutions like the Roman Catholic Church, which instructs its followers to do one thing (reject contraception and abortion, for example) but knows that many of them will do just the opposite (according to the Guttmacher Institute, Catholic women are almost as likely to have an abortion as nonreligious women).

Today's just-for-profit pundits lack the power of a Helms or the pulpit of a Falwell. And they're getting pretty old themselves. Syndicated conservative talker Michael Alan Weiner, who does business under the name Michael Savage, is 66. Sure, he's psychotically antigay, and he reaches something like 10 million listeners. But think about it. Savage's audience is much smaller than the number of folks who grew up absorbing Sesame Street's overarching message that "one of these things is not like the other, but that's OK."

The talking heads on Fox News Channel and other cable outlets do espouse a popular conservative agenda, but they're still what a Helms would call members of the coastal, cultural elite. And what of professional opinion-haver Rush Limbaugh, who's relatively young at 57? His $38 million contract, three divorces, and arrests on drug charges assure that he no longer carries much moral clout with conservatives.

Also supposedly on the bigot circuit is 46-year-old Ann Coulter. But she isn't a threat to gays in the slightest. Actually, according to mutual friends, she loves them -- though some pals have dropped her as she's become more unhinged. (Calling John Edwards a "faggot" didn't help.)

Other "threats" are bush league. Heads of megachurches or honchos of right-leaning media empires may oppose gay marriage, but they're not exactly voting against funding for AIDS drug therapies or legislating to prevent gays from adopting children. James Dobson, 72, of Focus on the Family and Family Research Council fame, might believe gays have a "sickness" that can be "cured," but his Christian doctrine forces him to profess love for everyone. And in the case of Rupert Murdoch (77!) and the rest of the cultural and conservative elite, well, they're having dinner with gays nearly every night.

Frequent presidential candidate Alan Keyes is a harmless wing nut. Perennial office-seeker Pat Buchanan once seemed threatening, but he got just 0.4% of the vote in the 2000 presidential election. Plus he'll be 70 soon.

As New York University's Patrick J. Egan and Hunter College's Kenneth Sherrill wrote in 2005 in Public Opinion Pros, "Older, colder Americans are being replaced by citizens who express more warmth for gay people." Their research showed that from the 1980s to the '90s, the proportion of people who said they had a gay acquaintance or close friend more than doubled, from one in five to a majority.

Today, we live and politick with a new generation of voters--average people with gay cousins or coworkers who just can't view gays as some alien army of perverts -- and they will make their mark in this year's election, on local, state, and national levels. This is the great gay hope of California, where an initiative on the ballot this November threatens to make marriage equality unconstitutional. Without a charismatic national leader or legislator (the unlovely folks behind the Protect Marriage operation don't have the talent), there's no one to rile the masses against the imaginary lavender menace.

Not that there won't be a dark surprise. The satellite radios and the 10,000 channels on TV and the wide-open Internet all need hot air to bring in consumers. The easiest path to attention is manufactured outrage. And swaths of America -- those not really overlapping audiences who tune in to Dobson's Christian radio show and Savage's outrages -- still love to be grossed out by the dirty gays, the frightening Mexicans, and the immoral urbanites. A new demagogue may yet emerge--but will he be as scary, as powerful, as Helms once was? Not likely.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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