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America Is Rushing to the Altar

A West Point cadet and his boyfriend, 2013: here's what freedom looks like.

A West Point cadet and his boyfriend, 2013: here’s what freedom looks like.

All over the teevee, Straight commentators are marveling at how fast Americans’ views on Gay marriage are changing. Why, they’ve never seen anything like it! And they can’t explain it.

Not to worry; I am here.

Jerry Falwell did us a big favor. Then he died.

U.S. politics changed dramatically in 1980; Ronald Reagan kicked Jimmy Carter out of the White House and ushered in a new conservatism marked by hyper-capitalism and greed, military aggression (with invasions of Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989, and illegal funding of the Contra War in El Salvador throughout the decade), racism, sexism (the Equal Rights Amendment died in 1982) and homophobia. The pendulum swung far to the right.

Now it has swung to the left with the re-election of President Obama, and LGBTs are among the beneficiaries.

Falwell, a Baptist TV preacher, had huge political ambitions, and his support for Reagan was key in forming a new electoral coalition. Whenever one of these big shifts happens, the composition of the political parties realigns. Today’s TV talking heads, with their sound-bite brains, remember all this as involving “Reagan Democrats,” who were White ethnics and union workers in Macomb County, Michigan, right outside Black Detroit. But Falwell’s Fundamentalists were arguably the more important voting bloc; they were nationwide and united behind Reagan, in an effort to reverse abortion rights. President Carter won the union vote in 1980 despite the Reagan Democrats. He lost conservative Christians, despite being one himself.

Rep. Martha Griffiths, D-Michigan, steered the Equal Rights Amendment through Congress. It failed to be ratified by the states, thanks to a backlash led by Phyllis Schlafly, an Illinois lawyer portraying herself as a happy housewife. (Warren D. Leffler)

Rep. Martha Griffiths, D-Michigan, steered the Equal Rights Amendment through Congress in 1972. It failed to be ratified by the states, thanks to a backlash led by Phyllis Schlafly, an Illinois lawyer portraying herself as a happy housewife. (Warren K. Leffler)

It’s proven impossible over the years to roll back abortion rights, and Reagan had a sense of how hard it would be. Every January Falwell and his allies would converge in a big demonstration at the Supreme Court trying to overturn Roe v. Wade; they helped elect Reagan and kept expecting him to show up, but he never did. Year after year he gave them a speech played over the loudspeakers, but he never once appeared in person; he didn’t want to be in a picture with them.

To juice up his movement, Falwell expanded his issues to cover “family values” and demonize Gay people. Abortion was always his number one target, and Gay people seemed like easy pickings. His strategy was successful for awhile, but it was fatally flawed.

He ran a persecution campaign, but those only work for awhile. (He should have known that, being a Christian.) Nothing generates more sympathy than TV pictures of people being abused.

Civil rights marchers being beaten by Alabama State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, 1965. This scene led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.

Civil rights marchers being beaten by Alabama State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, 1965. This scene led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.

Falwell had a problem; he couldn’t scapegoat all the women of America because there are too many of them. The goal of the anti-abortion movement has always been to put women back in their place. It’s not about unborn babies or the right to life, it’s about how grown women act here and now. It’s about men’s power and who gets to decide things. If Falwell had waged war on all women, not only would they object, so would a certain percentage of men; so he turned his venom on Gay people instead, thinking (and not unreasonably) that queers had no defenders anywhere.

It worked for awhile; but he and his clones, especially Pat Robertson, gradually became better known for hating Gay people than opposing abortion. They helped this image along by making outlandish claims and repeating obvious lies.

A hurricane did not destroy Disney World, and Gay Day went on as usual.

Where once Gay people were unmentionable, all of a sudden we were being talked about constantly.

We came out. And we kept coming out, coming and coming.

We started to reveal ourselves in the 1960s in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and of course in New York. What started as a trickle in time turned into a flood.

Daddy didn’t like that his boy was a queer, but Mama still loved her son; so did Grandma, aunts, uncles and cousins. As for that Lezzie daughter, well, anybody could see that Martha Griffiths had a point – and Betty Friedan, the whole lot of them. A woman ought to be able to be a doctor if she wants to be, or even a lumberjack. If that’s what she wants, well, it won’t pay to try to stop her. She never was the type to wear pearls anyway.

Three strands this time, plus a cross necklace. Schlafly promised to turn back the clock to the days of "Father Knows Best."

Three strands this time, plus a cross necklace. Schlafly promised to turn back the clock to the days of “Father Knows Best.”

Here’s a fact that’s still unbelievable to me: I was the first openly-Gay person in Cincinnati (Palm Sunday, 1978), along with an MCC pastor who soon left town. The Rev. Howard Gaass and I lent our full real names to a bunch of articles in The Cincinnati Enquirer. The reporters did a fine job with it, sensitive and accurate. They interviewed all the Lesbians and Gay men they could find. But none of the women were quoted by name, and only two of the men.

I don’t know what was running through Howard’s mind, and I’ve never criticized his leaving town; I hope he just got a new opportunity and jumped on it. But I knew you can’t run a social movement while hiding your name and face behind a curtain. You have to take responsibility; you have to show some leadership. On Gay issues that was especially important, because the stereotype was that we were all wimps and sissies, ready to run if somebody looked at us cross-eyed.

You have to be willing to sacrifice, in public, for your beliefs, even if it means you’ll get killed. John Lewis, in that Selma photo above, nearly did get killed. But now he’s a Congressman from Georgia.

(While I’m just blogging!)

The famous Gay debate at the American Psychiatric Association in 1972: Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny and a Gay psychiatrist (John E. Fryer) in a Halloween mask.

The famous Gay debate at the American Psychiatric Association in 1972: activists Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny and a Gay psychiatrist (John E. Fryer) in a Halloween mask.

I have never spent much time thinking about why it took most LGBTs so long to come out. I think I’d probably resent them, actually; so I’ve always banished that particular thought. What was obvious to me, that coming out is an absolute necessity, was not so obvious to most. I do not hold to the standard blather about coming out that “it’s an intensely personal decision that everybody has to make for themselves,” so that we end up with Ricky Martin finally telling the truth in 2010, once he had to explain how he and his male partner ended up with two kids. I don’t begrudge the man, even if he was livin’ the crazy life all those years.

I’d rather have allies than not. (And I suppose Frank Kameny could ask what took me so long – except that in 1960 when he took the U.S. Government to the Supreme Court over anti-Gay discrimination, I was only 9.)

Please tell the Talking Heads that this incredible shift on Gay marriage has come about because we started telling our families and friends the truth.

And because Jerry Falwell was a Public Idiot.

And because of AIDS.

Oscar nominee, Best Documentary. Didn't win. Gay films never do.

Oscar nominee, Best Documentary. Didn’t win. Gay films never do.

I don’t have much to say about AIDS today, except that I’m glad to be a founder of AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati, the world’s second-oldest support and advocacy group.

It grew because of Lesbians more than Gay men. The real heroes of AIDS, and there are many, are women who didn’t have it. That pattern was repeated in city after city – Gay women, Straight women, compassionate and courageous women.

What finally broke down the sexism of Gay men was that we needed those women.

The political connection between AIDS and Gay marriage is that what once was unmentionable became a topic on everyone’s lips. Ronald Reagan tried his best never to mention the word, until his friend Rock Hudson came down with it.

I was working at Gay Men’s Health Crisis while Hudson was jetting off to Paris, desperately trying to save his life. I didn’t blame him; my clients were doing the same thing. Still, there was a pathos to that whole episode. Hudson denied being Gay and having AIDS as long as he could, and then it stopped mattering.

I lost only one close friend to AIDS, an Episcopalian from Ohio named Craig Jason Byers. To his name I add composer Calvin Hampton, whose Mass music I used to sing at seminary in 1974, the same year I first marched in the Stonewall anniversary demonstration. “Pride Parades” used to be demonstrations, kids. (And yes, I was scared that first time.)

I credit my religion, my faith, my Christ, for propelling my activism. I credit my mentors Ervin Faulkenberry, Howard Galley and Brooke Bushong, Episcopal Church evangelists who couldn’t have been less like Jerry Falwell.

I credit the prophet Amos, to tell the truth; “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

God made me do it – and still does.

A flood of Gay victims made our existence inescapable.

People with AIDS; Frank Kameny. Matthew Shepard; “God Hates Fags.” Too many to count, and still going on today; Edie Windsor, fighting DOMA to the Supreme Court; Uganda’s David Kato, murdered for being Gay.

Sweet Matt, an Episcopalian headed for a career in the State Department; he wanted to serve his country.

Sweet Matt, an Episcopalian headed for a career in the State Department; he wanted to serve his country.

All that victimization finally piled up – just as a new generation arrived, determined, as new generations always are, to prove that their parents were completely wrong about something very important.

For my generation it was the War in Vietnam, civil rights, women’s rights. For this generation, we’re It.

I still hate their tattoos and always will, but thank you, America’s Youth. You are once again leading the world.

2008 election results among LGBTs. (Political Science & Politics Journal)

2008 election results among swing-state LGBTs. With Democrats, women and young voters, we elected this President. His re-election marks another generational realignment in the governing coalition, much as Reagan changed the 1980s. (Political Science & Politics Journal)

Marriage is easier to deal with than discrimination.

When America changes, even radically, the change is only partial. Yes, we fought a civil war to end slavery. But we waited another hundred years to start to enact racial equality.

Same-sex marriage will soon be the law of the land, whether or not we win the cases to be argued this month in the Supreme Court. Maybe we’ll lose; we lost Bowers v. Hardwick in 1986, then won Lawrence v. Texas just 15 years later. Yay, Gay people can have adult sex in private without getting thrown in jail!

(Justice Scalia, hateful bigot that he is, was right in Lawrence, that if Gay sex was made legal, Gay marriage wouldn’t be far behind.)

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been repealed, but the Employment Non-Discrimination Act continues to languish. Apparently it’s okay with Congress if you’re queer and willing to die for your country, but not okay to be Gay at Chick Fil-A.

Tracey Hepner and her wife, Brig. Gen. Tammy S. Smith.

Tracey Hepner and her wife, Brig. Gen. Tammy S. Smith.

Marriage is something everyone can identify with (even as heterosexuals increasingly reject it), while having a job where you’re treated the same as everyone else is still too much to ask. This is just what John Lewis, Dr. King and millions of African-Americans went through in 1965; “you’re citizens but you’re not allowed to vote.”

Picketing the White House in 1965; not a leatherman or bikey dyke in sight.

“Homosexuals Are Citizens, Too”: picketing the White House in 1965, not a leatherman or bikey dyke in sight.

Of all the Gay issues to provoke a deep response in Americans, why is marriage the great galvanizer? I think it comes down to two things.

First, Falwell and his ilk were and are such clowns that anyone could see through them and laugh, long before Jon Stewart perfected political satire on “The Daily Show.” Ol’ Jerry was kind of a big fat guy, and he set himself up for ridicule the day he went after Tinky-Winky.

Falwell was a firm believer in using simple, powerful symbols to get his message across; his Moral Majority rallies featured lots of flags and patriotic music sung by well-scrubbed, clean-cut White kids; it was like getting beaten over the head with a Pat Boone record. But Falwell made a mistake when he went after this little cartoon kid.

Falwell was a firm believer in using simple, powerful symbols to get his message across. His Moral Majority rallies featured lots of flags and patriotic music sung by well-scrubbed, clean-cut White kids; those rallies were like getting beaten over the head with a Pat Boone record. But Falwell made a mistake when he went after this innocent cartoon kid.

Something else happened as part of this that I don’t think anyone’s really noticed.

• Goaded by their girlfriends, young Straight men stopped feeling threatened by Gay men.

I suspect this is the most powerful change of all; the dueling stereotypes (“All Gay men are sissies”/”All Gay men are dangerous rapists”) lost their power.

This is the personal, psychic equivalent of today’s political statement that Gay marriage has no effect on Straight marriages.

So live-and-let-live will soon become the law. Not even Fundamentalists can shout down “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That’s scripture in the United States, a self-evident truth.

It is a sad fact, though built into our democracy, that the law always lags social change. The battles over evolution and climate change are winding down, too. Obama’s re-election sealed their fate. I don’t know what will become of the Republican Party, but it’s increasingly obvious that ya just can’t turn back the clock. The 195os are done.

This is the best generation of young Straight men the world’s ever seen. My admiration for them knows no bounds. (Well, it knows one bound; I don’t desire them. But you know what I mean.) These guys are great!

When Scalia lost the football players, all hope went with them.

This Is What a Feminist Looks Like: when Scalia lost the football players, all hope went with them.

Finally, there’s this; it goes back to that quiet conversation between Gayboy and Grandma, Lezziegrrl and Grandpa. On the back porch, or over a cup of tea, or right after a big screamfest in the living room, or down at the fishin’ hole, where you have to whisper because the fish have ears:

It isn’t just sex, it’s love.

Well, it's both sex and love, actually. But love remains, decades after sex fades. And there aren't many grandparents in America who would deprive their kid of that.

Well, it’s both sex and love, actually. But love remains, decades after sex fades. And there are fewer and fewer grandparents who would deprive their kid of that.

So we win – and will live to fight again another day.++

2 Responses

  1. I am just glad to be alive and part of the great *realization* (albeit sometimes a bit dangerous) that LGBTI people are your sisters, brothers, children, best friends and coworkers and finally we get to celebrate, and mourn, our loved ones JUST LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE!

    Now, in Uganda, what is it going to take to shake some sense into those who are incited by the almight dollar instead of the God Almighty? I still miss Anglican David Kato, he was the real McCoy!

    Thanks for this and big hugs from South of the Border(s) to you and Luke!

    Leonardo/Len

  2. Hi Josh,

    Thank you for this wonderful piece of wisdom and history. I continue to give thanks for you and your ministry.

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