Saturday, May 04, 2013

Reflections on a True American Success Story


When I was a student teacher back in the 80s, I told my class that the next Martin Luther King, Jr. will come from the gay rights movement.   It never happened.   Then again, it never had to.
Times have been tough for the progressive movement lately, notwithstanding the fact that their chosen Presidential candidate has now won the last two elections.   We live in a world where civil wars abound, and America seems able to do nothing to stop them, despite its willingness to lose billions of dollars and thousands of lives in the process.   Domestically, we are witnessing the kind of spiraling inequality of wealth that only a Marxist could have predicted a half century ago.   The middle class may soon be put on the endangered species list, but the poor?  They indeed will always be with us, and nobody seems interested in fighting on their behalf.   By contrast, progressive politicians have taken a shot at battling for gun control legislation.  But what have they accomplished?  Despite the support of 9 out of 10 Americans, they couldn’t even get background checks approved.

If the Biblical Joseph had been around these days, he surely would have dreamt about lean and ugly cows – but I’m beginning to wonder if his dream would be confined to only seven of those animals.  Maybe, he would have told the Pharaoh that while each of the animals in his dream represents a lean year, sadly, there were more of them than he could possibly count.  

Yes, we progressives have had some tough times lately.  And take it from a fed who is witnessing life under sequestration – there doesn’t seem to be much hope on the horizon.  But amidst all the darkness, we progressives at least can point to one incredible success story – the movement for gay rights.  And progressives are only now recognizing that this movement may have lessons to teach us about the other domains in which we seem to be consistently failing. 

So, how should we think about the way gay people and their allies have waged the war for equality?   Consider the following points:

Point one: this has been a bottoms-up movement associated with the grass roots, rather than with the leadership of particular individuals.  For decades, the movement made profound progress despite the fact that there was no one face, or even a small pantheon of faces, that was widely associated with it.   We’ve all heard of MLK, Gandhi, or Susan B. Anthony.  But how many gay-rights leaders have you heard of (other than just a few celebrities who have “come out”)?  Don’t bother to answer that question – it was rhetorical.

Point two:  when it comes to gay rights, there has been no one landmark event, like a Brown v. Board of Education, that symbolizes the end of the “old way.”   Instead, we have seen a series of small, gradual steps over a period of decades that have chipped away, block by block, at anti-gay discrimination.  To the extent there have been successes at the political level, they have taken place at the state houses, not on the federal stage.  Still, the successes have been slow but sure.  

Point three: despite those statehouse success stories, the gay rights movement hasn’t been associated primarily with capital buildings, court houses, or even mass demonstrations.   Rather, the heart and soul of this movement has taken place in schoolhouses and dormitories, and within families – friends and relatives have gradually come to recognize that their gay loved ones are worthy of respect and affection, and just as importantly, gay people have come to recognize that it is less painful to announce that they are different than to continue to live inside a closet.  

One by one, gay people have walked into the water and realized that it isn’t so cold after all.  And two by two, parents have looked each other in the eyes, asked themselves if they were willing to show their gay children unconditional love, and realized that the answer is hell yes!    The next thing you knew, in large swaths of civil society, gay people have come to be as accepted as, say, short people.   Given the choice, most of us tall folks wouldn’t especially want to be a short person, but other than Randy Newman, I don’t hear anyone talking about treating them with disrespect either.

Point four: the gay-rights movement was never shrill and oppositional.  I don’t think of any gay rights activists ever being anti-straight, the way I think of feminists who’ve been anti-male, or African-American activists who have been anti-white.  The gay-rights movement was critical only of prejudice, not of heterosexuality.  This made the movement less threatening and much more difficult to oppose with vehemence.

Take all of those points, reflect on the fact that this gradualist approach has been ongoing for a period of roughly four or five decades, and now consider that the movement finally does have two faces.  Ironically, given the amount of homophobia among black males, these faces belong to Barack Obama and Jason Collins.   

These men are pioneers: the first American President who supports gay marriage; the first openly gay man who plays in a major league sport.  And indeed, both are to be commended for their actions, which will surely advance the cause considerably.  But are they truly profiles in courage?  Think about it – Obama announced his support only after support for gay marriage stopped being a minority position, and his announcement didn’t hurt him in the slightest politically.  In fact, it only helped his standing with progressives.  As for Jason Collins, with few exceptions, he has received only praise and encouragement for his announcement.  The few who have taken him on publicly, like Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace or ESPN talking head Chris Broussard, have been roundly criticized in the media as troglodytes.   

The truth is that Collins is just another openly gay man – except that he has earned over $30 million in the last decade and is widely viewed as a hero.   I think he’ll be OK.

Barack Obama and Jason Collins jumped into the water with every reason to believe it was warm.  And it was warmed up by millions of courageous and compassionate people – gay and straight -- who came before them.  In each case, they saw gay rights as no less fundamental than any other type of civil right.  They knew that history was on their side.   They knew that the only way their movement could stall is if they went out of their way to piss off their opponents or force mega-wars before the battlefields were properly prepared.  They were confident, patient, and loving.  For them, their fight was about working FOR justice, not AGAINST the source of injustice.  You can hear the difference when you compare the gay-rights advocate to, say, many of those who relentlessly push BDS (Boycott, Divestiture, Sanctions) against Israel like it was the only imperfect regime in the world, or those early feminists who spoke about “maleness” like it was a form of herpes.

I recognize that some folks have decided to take the fight for marriage equality through the federal courts.  They think the time is right.   Being a litigator myself, however, I know that court battles are inherently unpredictable.  But I also know this: the battle for gay rights has proceeded so wisely for so long, that I’m not sure anyone now can stem the tide of progress.  Not a conservative jurist, not a shrill activist, and not even a smoothed-tongued, right-wing demagogue.

            No, my friends, nothing can stop the fight for gay rights from being an honest-to-God American success story.  The only mystery is whether progressives will focus on how this battle was waged and apply the lessons that are there for the taking.   We had better do it.  Because, God knows, there are precious few success stories to learn from these days.

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