Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tomorrow Is Another Day; The Gay Movement Today and Tomorrow

"The hairpin drop heard round the world" goes global:

Israeli soldier at a Gay Pride rally, Jerusalem

Gay Pride march, Bucharest, Romania

Gay Pride march in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Gay Pride March, Johannesburg, South Africa

Gay Pride march, Tokyo, Japan

Gay Pride march, Galway, Ireland

I am astonished at the progress of LGBTs that I’ve seen in my lifetime. What began for me in early adolescence as something terrifyingly occult and painfully secret is now a major social, political, and cultural force around the world. The idea of gay marriage is no longer just standard fodder for locker room humor and stand-up comedy, it is legal reality in 6 states with more coming. Being gay or lesbian is now broadly recognized as part of the variety of nature, something all of us who are gay have always known instinctively. We all knew in our heart of hearts from an early age that there was something fundamentally arbitrary and unjust in the criminal defective status assigned to us by the enforcers of conventional society. We now have the social and political space in which to build healthy lives and relationships over the course of entire lifetimes.

One of the great successes of LGBT politics since Stonewall is to take the marginal status once assigned to us by law and psychology and to turn it around to our advantage. It is not entirely coincidental that gay political activism first began to stir in the late 19th century. It was then that psychologists in Germany first coined the term “homosexual” and identified it as an innate status rather than as a series of sexual acts. The German Imperial government criminalized homosexuals and homosexual acts in 1871 in Paragraph 175 of their criminal code. The first ideas of homosexuals as a people appeared in the protests against that law in Germany at the close of the 19th century, and quickly spread through the rest of Europe and to the Americas. It was with Stonewall that, as historian Joan Nestle remarked, gays and lesbians ceased to be a police report, a medical case study, a locker room joke, and became a people.

And yet, despite all of that tremendous progress over the last 40 years, today’s LGBTs have exactly the same civil rights guarantees on the Federal level as they did the first night of the Stonewall riots, -- zero. The legal status of LGBTs is a now a widely varying patchwork of state and local laws. Only 16 states include LGBTs in their civil rights codes. Gay marriage rights in some states, but not in others, will not change that status. Our legal standing is just as much at the sufferance of the majority as it was in 1969. As we have seen repeatedly from Anita Bryant’s successful campaign to force Dade County, Florida to repeal its gay rights protections in 1973 to the victory of Prop 8 in California last year, the majority can turn on us. We can be fashionable and popular one year and be yesterday’s fish the next. Popular today, despised tomorrow, we will always be LGBT no matter which way the fashionable winds blow. Minorities are the creations of majorities. By definition, the minority must lose if its rights are ever put up for a vote by the majority. Until our status as full and lawful citizens of the United States is guaranteed by Federal law, we will remain vulnerable.

The leadership of the gay movement today is more diverse than ever before. However, its public face is still mostly affluent white male. Gender, race, and class divisions plague the movement now as they did 40 years ago. Yes, they do reflect larger divisions in American society, but these petty bigotries are luxuries we cannot afford. Lesbians have been much better friends to gay men than we have been to them. Misogyny does gay men no favors, especially when we have common cause against patriarchy with both lesbians and the feminist movement. The persons on the front line of the LGBT struggle these days more often than not are people of color and blue-collar folk. They have enough to worry about without having to face segregation within the gay community. The battle line no longer runs through San Francisco or New York, but today runs through places like Oklahoma and Newark. Perhaps the song we should be singing at our rallies these days is not just “We Are Family,” but the old union song, “Solidarity Forever.”


NancyP said...

Missouri is one of those front lines. The city of Saint Louis has anti-discrimination laws in place for accommodation and city employment, but the far larger (in population as well as area) suburban areas of St. Louis County, St. Charles, Jefferson County are not on for either of these issues. Somewhat surprisingly, an inclusive hate crimes law was passed at the state level in 1999.

Counterlight said...

I can remember when it was illegal to cross-dress in St. Louis, and the police would swoop down on Halloween revelers in the West End in the early 1980s.

St. Louis had a politically very quiescent gay community when I was there. It was starting to change for the better when I left in 1991. I think the AIDS crisis (and the very shabby treatment of AIDS sufferers in the City and County) finally got people angry enough to start organizing and speaking out.