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Gay Rights Movement: Going Forward or Backward?

Much has happened since I last taught my course on gay and lesbian history in the fall semester of 2002.  On the one hand, we've seen sudden, dramatic, exciting progress: the "Massachusetts Miracle" that has resulted in thousands and thousands of legal marriages, the elevation of the openly gay Gene Robinson to be a bishop in the Episcopal Church, and the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas (particularly considering the breadth of Justice Kennedy's opinion) are excellent reasons for celebration.  But we've also witnessed significant setbacks, particularly in last November's election, when state after state passed constitutional amendments limiting marriage to a man and a woman.  We now face the prospect of a national marriage amendment.   It's widely believed, accurately or not, that opposition to gay marriage played a vital role in the reelection of President Bush.  From the standpoint of those of us who are committed to full inclusion for gays and lesbians in every area of American society and culture, that's troubling news.

Last November, I wrote this post at my blog and Cliopatria after the election: Perspective after Disappointment. Rather than paraphrase, let me just quote from myself:

Few folks remember that the very first time gay and lesbian issues were on the ballot, those of us fighting for GLBTQ equality were soundly defeated.  The story is well told in Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney's magisterial Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America.  In June 1977, reacting to a modest human rights ordinance adopted in Dade County, Florida, former beauty queen and Christian activist Anita Bryant mounted a campaign called, slyly enough, Save Our Children.  Bryant and her SOC called for the repeal of the ordinance, which was the first in the country to grant protection in housing, public accommodations, and employment to people based on their "affectional or sexual preference."

Today, we think of Miami-Dade County as a fairly liberal part of Florida...  In any event, Miami-Dade was far more conservative 27 years ago.  When Bryant's referendum to repeal the human rights ordinance went before the voters, the anti-gay forces won 69%-31%, carrying every section of Miami except for Coconut Grove.  Even Jewish liberals in the beach areas voted against the ordinance.

It's difficult to overestimate what a crushing blow this was.  In 1977, the organized gay and lesbian rights movement was eight years old, dating its emergence from the Stonewall Riots of June, 1969.  (Yes, there was a very small movement long before Stonewall, but not in the public eye and not in much position to influence legislation.)    In the eight years prior to the Miami-Dade debacle, gays and lesbians had taken their first steps on to the public stage.  Dozens of U.S. cities had held their first gay pride parades; several had passed anti-discrimination ordinances.  In Massachusetts, Elaine Nobel had become the first open lesbian elected to public office when she became a state legislator in 1974.  (Too many of my gay and lesbian friends still believe the martyred Harvey Milk was the first open homosexual elected in America.)  As always happens to a civil rights movement that enjoys initial success, a sense of inevitability arose; most gay and lesbian activists in the mid-1970s would have had every reason to anticipate uninterrupted progress.

But the history of civil rights in America is not one of instant reward.  Emancipation Proclamations have a way of being followed by Jim Crow laws, as it were.  Who could have imagined that it would take a full century, from the 1860s to the 1960s, for the fifteenth amendment to be enforced in much of the South?  From a historian's vantage point, it cannot be surprising that after the successes of the mid-1970s, the movement ran into a formidable roadblock in 1977. 

Then, as now, the opponents of gay and lesbian rights were what we still call today "the religious right."  Indeed, it could be argued that the rise of modern Christian conservatism was linked to virulent opposition to the small, early achievements of those struggling for gay and lesbian equality.  Led by figures like Anita Bryant and stoked by their Miami triumph, the religious right had a number of striking successes later in 1977 and 1978 repealing human rights ordinances that protected gays and lesbians.   In the spring of 1978, voters in other liberal cities like Eugene, Oregon, and St. Paul, Minnesota, repealed gay rights ordinances  by margins of better than 2 to 1.  As far as religious conservatives were concerned, gays and lesbians had been beaten, and beaten soundly, at the ballot box.  The "moral counterattack" was in its ascendancy, and gays and lesbians had every imaginable reason to fear the end of their movement.

After several post-Stonewall years of toleration, in 1977 articles in national magazines and newspapers reflected a growing public antipathy towards gays and lesbians.  Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in the New York Times: "Gay used to be one of the most agreeable words in the language.  Its appropriation by a notably morose group is an act of piracy."  In Out for Good, Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourskey note:

"Under the boldface headline 'Enough! Enough! TV is Killing Us with Gays', the Atlanta Constitution's Sunday Magazine published a prominent opinion piece by Amy Larkin, its former 'Dear Amy' advice columnist, railing against the gay invasion of the private lives and home spaces of decent people. 'I don't hate homosexuals, or think their sex life is my business', Larkin began,'but I'm tired of their coming out of their closet and into my living room.'"
Gosh, that could have been written by some of my more right-leaning friends in 2005, not 1977!

Yet for all of its power, the religious right was not able to permanently derail the movement for gay and lesbian equality.  As I noted in my obituary for Ronald Reagan a year ago,  the future president played a key role in helping the gay rights movement to its first significant post-1977 success: the defeat in November, 1978 of the California Briggs initiative, which would have barred openly gay or lesbian schoolteachers from the classroom.  That victory reversed an eighteen month long string of defeats for gays and lesbians, and reminded those on both sides that the fight was far from over.

Honestly, I think that today we're in a situation remarkably analogous to that of 1977-78.  We can look back on some remarkable recent triumphs, and at the same time, be sobered by some huge disappointments.   Then, as now, the gay and lesbian movement is divided between those who are worried about "trying for too much" and "overreaching" and those who are convinced that win or lose, we must push on towards ultimate victory.  (That tension between moderates and radicals is found in every successful civil rights movement.  We need Martins and Malcolms; we need Lucy Stones and Susan B. Anthonys.)  But what our history tells us is that whatever our pace, and whatever our temporary setbacks, success will come.   

One difference between the late 1970s and the mid-00s is that gays and lesbians in America can look abroad to see great successes as well.  Countries ranging from Canada to New Zealand to Denmark to, rather surprisingly and delightfully, Spain, have moved towards gay marriage.  Relatively conservative Switzerland just last weekend gave gays and lesbians full equality with heterosexuals under the law, though the Swiss are unwilling to use the term "marriage."  Thirty years ago, Americans were leading the movement; today, we are well behind our brothers and sisters to the north, in Western Europe, and in parts of Oceania.

Many young gay and lesbian activists today, like activists for other causes at other points in history, have expected too much too soon.   They expect success to come in an uninterrupted flow, with few obstacles on the road to full and total inclusion in public life.  But no civil rights movement has that kind of story.   African-Americans waited a century between the end of the Civil War and the end of Jim Crow; women in this country waited three quarters of a century between the Declaration of Sentiments and the passage of the nineteenth amendment.  Gay and lesbian public activism has a history, but not one nearly as long as those.  In the thirty-six years since the Stonewall riots, we've come an astonishingly long way.  Who would have predicted legal gay marriage in an entire state by 2004?  Who would have predicted that the default position of many conservative opponents of marriage equality is support for domestic partnerships?

Ultimately, I'm immensely optimistic about the long-term future of the gay and lesbian rights movement.  It's not going to be an easy struggle, and it's not going to be without its heartbreaking disappointments, often of the scale of those we suffered last autumn at the polls.  But history shows us that voters change their minds, and it shows us that no civil rights movement has ever failed in the end.  We must remember that, and study our own history for comfort and for example.