Even in defeat, anti-gay measures a wake-up call

The last week and half has been a tumultuous one for gay rights: California Attorney General Kamala Harris went to court over a recently proposed voter-initiative entitled “the Sodomite Suppression Act” Indiana Governor Mike Pence passed and was then forced to amend an anti-gay “religious freedom law.” and Arkansas’s Governor Asa Hutchinson signed a stripped-down version of a copycat religious freedom law that he feared would harm investment in his state. Sure enough, it is no small victory that both Indiana and Arkansas’ laws have been scaled back, for now.

But that they could have been put forth and passed thanks to Republicans’ control of state legislatures across the country just goes to show how the status of gay rights in this country remains a hostage to right-wing whims.

It is unusual then, that on either side of the aisle there are commentators asserting that this series of events represents not just a victory for gay people but even gay hegemony. Over at the Washington Post, Phillip Bump writes that “the political war over gay culture is over, and the gays won.” On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg hysterically remarks that the gay community was “shooting the wounded” by going after these laws, since it has already claimed “total victory” on gay marriage. Newt Gingrich, for his part, called the opposition to the law a “lynch mob.” and another Fox News guest called them a “wolf pack.

Sure enough, liberals always seem to be overestimating their own successes, and conservatives their own persecution. But why concede the premise that gay rights have already won, when our most fundamental civil right, our own lives, remain under constant threat?

Take one look at this proposed California law, and then try and convince yourself that the gay community has moved beyond the level of fighting for its own survival. It states – verbatim – “that any person who willingly touches another person of the same gender for purposes of sexual gratification be put to death by bullets to the head or by any other convenient method.” As long as this kind of incitement is taken remotely seriously in our society, queer people must always be on high alert.

Note as well that the proposal was submitted by a California attorney by the name of Matthew Gregory McLaughlin, apparently a graduate of UC Irvine and George Mason. Ostensibly, a “respectable” fellow.

This is not, as Russell Berman writes in the Altantic, just one among “plenty of other long-shot, kooky, and even offensive ballot measures over the years [in California]”; this is incitement to a pogrom. “Legal experts,” however, contend “that [Attorney General] Harris has no other choice but to process McLaughlin’s proposal.”

The Indiana law is a relatively subtler affair, but no less an incitement. Jon and others were correct to point out that it basically calls for a kind of segregation and – what a coincidence! – that “religious freedom” was precisely the phrasing segregationists used to defend themselves during Jim Crow. But there are some key differences at work here that need parsing, starting with scale.

Segregation in its heyday was all-encompassing and total; with this law, on the other hand, a likely outcome would have been that some wingnut Christians might refuse to serve gay people cake. But as an open invitation for all kinds of institutions to deny queer people help, from bakeries to hospitals, the threat was all too real to ignore.

So the gay community has been issued this polite threat – one which, it stands to note, black people were never given when whites started enforcing segregation in the post-Reconstruction South – that Republicans and whack jobs still control many of our destinies, and some are ready to more than just troll us. Many queer people, particularly queer and trans people of color, had already gotten the memo. They received it a long time ago, and it kills.

Anti-homophobia protest, via Creative Commons

Anti-homophobia protest, via Creative Commons

Unlike the Indiana or Arkansas law, California’s proposed voter initiative is not a polite reminder but a reminder that, at the end of the day, no matter how much respectability some gay people accumulate, others will still want us all dead.

Larry Kramer’s exhortation to gay men during the AIDS crisis comes to mind: “If [that] doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble.”

Inevitable or not, gay marriage won’t change the fact that they want us dead. For many queer people, by the way, gay marriage was never a priority to begin with – homelessness, lack of healthcare or deportation were, among others.

No doubt, with gay marriage on the cusp of becoming a reality, and many gay and lesbian people in positions of considerable economic and political power, the situation has changed in our favor. But that doesn’t mean that it’s time to throw in the towel. Quite the contrary.

Right now, there are burgeoning mass movements underway to build a more just society, from Black Lives Matter to the Fight for 15. At the core of each is resistance against forces that do not value life. Gay people – knowing that their lives too, in different ways and at different times, have not been valued – must stand with them. Right now, at this moment, there is a historic opportunity to build solidarity and support other struggles. As Shaun King, a leading chronicler of the protest movement writes, the rifts between issues like gay rights and civil rights are already eroding away.

So let’s not be like Patricia Arquette, who – though bless her heart – didn’t exactly endear herself to a lot of people by saying “we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. [Now] it’s our time…” That’s not how solidarity works.

The bottom line is this: no one can be truly free until every last one of us is.


James Neimeister is a freelance writer from Ohio. His interests include: Russia, Ukraine, education, technology, and "cyberspace."

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