“A homosexual with power. That’s scary.”
So says Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn) in Gus Van Sant’s 2008 biopic of the gay rights pioneer.
In 1978, Milk’s “power” derived from being a San Francisco city supervisor—at the time, the nation’s highest-ranking public office held by a known homosexual—which he parlayed into a campaign to quash a proposed California law, known as the “Briggs Initiative,” that would’ve prohibited openly gay people from teaching in public schools.
That proposition was ultimately defeated by a wide margin, and while Milk and those in his inner circle deserve enormous credit for underlining the inherent bigotry and unfairness in all anti-gay legislation, we must pay equal homage to the gay community’s secret weapon: All the straight people who voted in their favor.
Simply put: Without homosexuals, the gay rights movement would not exist. Without heterosexuals, the movement would not succeed.
Obviously, this is mostly a matter of arithmetic. Depending on which survey you believe, the non-LGBT community encompasses somewhere between 90 and 98 percent of humanity. By definition, if the remaining sliver wants to secure legal and social equity, it cannot wage its war single-handedly; it must elicit help elsewhere. The moment gay rights advocates understood this was the moment they started winning.
At their core, all successful civil rights struggles in history have come about through persuasion—that is, the oppressed party persuading its oppressors that it would be in everyone’s interest for the oppression to stop.
For gays, this has required little more than coming out of the damn closet and carrying on with their regularly-scheduled lives. As innumerable studies have shown (not that we particularly needed them), the likelihood of a straight person supporting equal rights is exponentially higher if he or she knows at least one openly gay person personally. Hence the unprecedented support for LGBT rights among the young: Gay millennials have embraced their sexual identities—whatever they may be—with a confidence and a zeal that are unprecedented in human history.
Here’s the pièce de résistance: The closet door only swings in one direction. Once you’re out, you do not get pulled back in. The idea that the government could compel newly-empowered LGBT folk to revert back to second-class status has all the practicality of re-introducing “colored only” drinking fountains or repealing women’s right to vote.
Yet that is precisely what a select group of states are now trying to do to their gay and transgender residents. From “religious liberty” statutes that license businesses to deny service to gay customers to “bathroom bills” that force certain men to use the ladies’ room and certain ladies to use the men’s room, states like North Carolina and Mississippi are determined to lead the march back to the 1950s, no matter what the Constitution and the Supreme Court say.
That’s the setup. The punch line is how miserably and inevitably these initiatives are going to fail.
It might not happen right away—some of these bills have already been put into practice—but make no mistake: Every form of anti-LGBT legislation is destined to crash and burn sooner or later, because their continued existence is incompatible with the American way of life.
To be sure, as a people, we did not always think this way. The notion that gays and other sexual deviants are morally equivalent to heterosexuals—and thereby entitled to equal protection under the law—represents such a pronounced and swift realignment of national values that many millions of Americans are still experiencing whiplash.
On the one hand, I have some sympathy for those who are not completely comfortable with this new social orthodoxy that says you can assume control over both your sexual and gender identities—that neither your birth nor your culture need dictate who you are or with whom you spend the rest of your life—and that the state must respect those choices since, in the end, they aren’t really choices at all. For anyone who grew up in a world of binaries and so-called “tradition,” the ubiquity and acceptance of “alternative lifestyles” might seem a little bit odd and a little bit frightening, and one can’t be expected to adapt to this brave new world overnight.
On the other hand, I really can’t think of anything more reflective of the Jeffersonian ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness than embracing your true identity as a human being. We may never agree on the true meaning of “happiness,” but if it doesn’t include the freedom to love, marry and/or sleep with the object of your heart’s desire—and to love yourself in the process—why would it be worth pursuing in the first place?
In today’s world, gay marriage is an American value. Transgender rights are an American value. Liberty means nothing unless it applies to everyone equally. Those who are reticent about extending their own basic freedoms to others are welcome to take as much time as they need to get used to this new reality, but they are not welcome to use their discomfort as a license to break the law and violate the Constitution.
Which brings us back to gays and power, whose dynamic has changed quite a bit since the days of Harvey Milk. Then, the power to defeat anti-gay legislation was essentially political: Milk and company conducted a door-to-door grassroots campaign to change hearts, minds and ultimately votes by convincing a majority of (straight) California residents that discriminatory laws are inherently unfair and destructive.
Today—hearts and minds having been changed such that 60 percent of the American public now supports same-sex marriage—this same power has become economic. As the Confederacy once again rallies around some hateful, asinine Lost Cause, not only have the forces of LGBT rights responded with picket lines and snarky Facebook groups, but they have been joined by major corporations and individuals who have threatened to withhold business from those states until these terrible laws are abandoned or repealed. In effect, the titans of the 21st century business world have opted to hold these states’ economies hostage until they snap out of their fanatical authoritarian haze.
Long story short (too late?), the gay community will not be trifled with anymore. Not only does it now have the law and the Constitution on its side, but also the financial muscle to enact harsh punishment on municipalities that choose not to treat LGBT people as fellow human beings. In those places, to levy discriminatory laws represents not only a moral failing, but a form of economic suicide. It forces those legislators to ask, “Is our eagerness to subjugate the gay and transgender communities so great that we will risk destroying our own economy in the process?”
That’s how far the gay rights movement has come. An “agenda” that was once considered radical, dangerous and absurd has become so manifestly mainstream that it can now be regarded as a prudent investment decision.
Gays with power. Scary, indeed.