Consent of the Governed, Part 2

This past Monday, the president nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court.  The balance of power being what it is, unless Kavanaugh is found with a dead girl or a live boy (in the immortal words of Edwin Edwards), he will be confirmed by the Senate later this year and the nation’s highest court will be as ideologically conservative as it has ever been in our lifetimes.

From the moment Justice Kennedy announced his retirement last month, liberals have been running around the airwaves with their hair on fire, screaming that this development constitutes the end of the world as we know it.  That the replacement of Kennedy’s so-called moderation with the true blue right-wingery of his successor will usher in a generation of irreversibly destructive decisions on every issue the left holds sacred, from abortion rights to gun control to civil liberties to campaign finance reform.

While Democrats’ concerns about Kavanaugh are undoubtedly well-founded—after all, he comes pre-packaged and pre-approved by the conservative judge factory known as the Federalist Society—they are also misleading and incomplete, insomuch as they overlook a much larger and more profound fact:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 85 years old.

Lament Kennedy’s departure if you wish, but the truth is that he was a fundamentally right-wing jurist whose flirtations with progressive causes, however crucial, were few and far between.  While he is rightly credited with preserving abortion rights in 1992 and effectuating same-sex marriage in 2015, he is equally responsible for the majority opinions in Bush v. Gore and Citizens United v. FEC—the two worst Supreme Court decisions since Plessy v. Ferguson, according to most liberals.  During the most recent term, he voted with the court’s conservative wing in every high-profile case that was decided by a 5-4 vote.  Every.  Single.  One.

Long story short:  Replacing Kennedy with a rock-ribbed conservative will not be the end of the world as we know it.  But replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a rock-ribbed conservative?  That will be the end of the world as we know it.

Perhaps it is bad form to observe that most human beings do not live forever, but if the Democratic Party is truly freaked out about losing every major Supreme Court case for a generation or more, it must come to grips with the fact that its most beloved and indispensable justice—the Notorious RBG—is an octogenarian and two-time cancer patient who, for health reasons, might need to leave the bench before the next Democratic president takes office.  Ginsburg may intend to serve well beyond the current administration, but then again, so did Antonin Scalia on February 12, 2016.

If Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer plan to make themselves useful in the coming months, they ought to emphasize, in no certain terms, that a Republican-majority Senate in 2018-2019 guarantees the appointment of Judge Kavanaugh—already a foregone conclusion, so far as I can tell—and that the re-election of Donald Trump in 2020 makes it exceedingly likely the court will contain only three—or perhaps only two—liberals by the end of Trump’s second term.  (Ginsburg’s like-minded colleague Stephen Breyer turns 80 next month.)

Elections have consequences, and one of them is a Supreme Court shaped in the image of the sitting commander-in-chief—an arrangement that has been in place continuously since 1787.

The left can whine all it wants about Russian shenanigans and Mitch McConnell’s dirty tricks vis-à-vis Merrick Garland, but the fact remains that people voted for president in November 2016 in the full knowledge that a) the winning candidate would be selecting the successor to the late Antonin Scalia, and that b) there would almost surely be additional openings on the court before his or her presidential tenure was up.  Candidate Trump made this point repeatedly on the campaign trail.  In retrospect, Hillary Clinton did not make it nearly enough—a mistake her party’s candidate in 2020 would be well-advised to avoid.

Lame as it may sound, Neil Gorsuch is on the Supreme Court today because Donald Trump received the most electoral votes in 2016 and there weren’t enough Democrats in the Senate to stop him.  Brett Kavanaugh will be on the Supreme Court this fall for precisely the same reason.

If you find this situation intolerable, you have two choices:  You can vote for Democratic senators on November 6, 2018, and for a Democratic presidential candidate on November 3, 2020.  Or you can assume John Roberts will magically evolve into a liberal overnight and that Ruth Bader Ginsberg will live to 120.

Personally, I’d recommend Option No. 1, however inconvenient it might be.  You’d be surprised what a democracy can accomplish when its citizens behave democratically.

The Skater and the Veep

Poor Mike Pence.  He says something mean about gay people one time, and now he has to hear about it for the rest of his life.

Did I say “one time”?  Sorry, I meant “for his entire political career.”

How anti-gay is the vice president of the United States?  Well, anti-gay enough as Indiana governor to sign and promote that state’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which licensed businesses to deny service to LGBT customers.  Anti-gay enough as a member of Congress to vote against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Matthew Shepard Hates Crimes Act.  Anti-gay enough to proclaim that “homosexuality is incompatible with military service” and that federal HIV funding should be re-routed to organizations that “provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior,” whatever the hell that means.  Anti-gay enough, in any case, to compel his current boss, Donald Trump, to joke in a private meeting, “He wants to hang them all!”

To be fair, when Pence first ran for office in the year 2000, it was de rigueur for a Republican to hold aggressively negative views about homosexuality without worrying about political blowback down the line.  This was an epoch, after all, when same-sex marriage was illegal in all 50 states and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was considered a net plus for gay civil rights.

Here in 2018?  Not so much.  Now that marriage equality is the law of the land and LGBT folk have a visible presence in virtually every facet of society (including the armed forces), Pence as vice president has become increasingly reticent to make his true feelings on this matter known.  Indeed, there may be no greater illustration of the LGBT movement’s success than the general squeamishness with which many cultural conservatives broach the subject—if they bother broaching it at all.

Unfortunately for Pence—a man who, as Andy Borowitz once quipped, “really thought he’d be president by now”—the internet has an uncanny ability to record and retain one’s every last public utterance, and gay people know an unreconstructed bigot when they see one.

So it was that Pence recently found himself in an unexpected virtual skirmish with Adam Rippon, a sassy figure skater from Scranton competing at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.  Asked last month about possibly meeting the vice president as a member of Team USA, the openly gay Rippon tartly responded, “You mean the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy?”

“If it were before my event,” Rippon continued, “I would absolutely not go out of my way to meet somebody who […] has gone out of their way to not only show they aren’t a friend of a gay person but that they think they’re sick.  I wouldn’t go out of my way to meet somebody like that.”

Rippon is hardly the first to publicly chastise Pence for his abysmal civil rights record since he rose to become one Big Mac away from the presidency.  Shortly after the 2016 election, the entire cast of Hamilton famously implored the then-VP-elect, who was sitting mere feet away, to “uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us,” implying a profound worry that he would not.  As well, in the days before the inauguration, the streets outside Pence’s temporary D.C. residence were transformed into a raucous, glittering gay block party organized by a group called WERK for Peace—an act of trolling that, if not particularly effective, at least had a nice rhythm to it.

In the teeth of all this cultural pushback—and his own odious history—Pence has opted to seemingly take the high road as of late, either by remaining silent or affecting an air of congenial magnanimity toward his would-be antagonists.  Following the Hamilton incident, for instance, Pence assured an interviewer, “I wasn’t offended by what was said,” adding, “When we arrived we heard a few boos, and we heard some cheers.  I nudged my kids and reminded them that is what freedom sounds like.”

It was in that same spirit of ecumenicalism that Pence last week tweeted to Rippon, “I want you to know we are FOR YOU.  Don’t let fake news distract you.  I am proud of you and ALL OF OUR GREAT athletes and my only hope for you and all of #TeamUSA is to bring home the gold.  Go get ’em!”  Around this time, USA Today reported—and a Pence spokesperson oddly denied—that the vice president had attempted to arrange a meeting with Rippon to try to work out their differences, and that Rippon had rebuffed the invitation, at least until after the Olympics conclude on February 25.

Here, then, is the $64,000 question:  Should Rippon take Pence up on his (apparent) offer?  For Rippon and every other social liberal in America, is it wise to scorn the man who is second-in-line to the presidency, rather than engaging with him in good faith when the opportunity presents itself?

Bearing in mind the only truly relevant fact about Pence—that he could become the 46th chief executive at a moment’s notice—might it be strategically advantageous to call the vice president’s bluff that he values all his fellow Americans equally and—by implication—is willing to have his mind changed?

Is it possible, in other words, that some kind of summit between Pence and members of the LGBT community might eventually persuade the former—as it has already persuaded 62 percent of the public and five-ninths of the Supreme Court—that the latter is a group worthy of the rights, privileges and basic dignity afforded every other American citizen?  And might such outreach result in more favorable legislation in the years to come?

I know:  Probably not.  Surely anyone who would willingly tether himself to Donald Trump is morally suspect at best and irredeemable at worst—an assumption tragically reinforced by such disgraces as Pence’s staged walkout from an NFL game last October after several black players kneeled during the national anthem.  He may not have fully drunk the Trump Kool-Aid yet, but he certainly knows how to toe the party line.

The real question, though, is how this weird mixture of stoicism and prissiness will manifest itself if and when Pence graduates from understudy to leading man.  From the Oval Office—without a vain, impulsive man-child to answer to 24 hours a day—will he resume his former life as a crass culture warrior—Trump with a Bible and a Midwestern accent, more or less—or will he transmogrify into the restrained, even-tempered statesman he has occasionally portrayed to the world since January 2017?

We may never find out the answer to that question.  (At least not until Robert Mueller has finished his work.)  All we can reasonably hope is that his overtures of goodwill are genuine and, if so, that we will be able to summon the nerve and generosity to meet him halfway.

The Greatest

If I could ask President Obama exactly one question—and if he were forced to answer it honestly—it would be, “How did you really feel about gay marriage between 1996 and 2012?”

See, in 1996, when the future commander-in-chief was running for the Illinois State Senate, he responded to a questionnaire from a Chicago LGBT newspaper by writing, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”

Sixteen years later, sitting in the most powerful office on planet Earth, Obama said to ABC’s Robin Roberts, “It is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

There you had it:  Two totally consistent positions on an explosive social issue from a brave political leader acting on principle.

There was only one problem:  For the entire 16-year period in between those two statements, Obama was staunchly and unambiguously opposed to same-sex marriage whenever he was asked about it—not least during his 2004 Senate campaign and his initial run for president—explaining that his Christian faith dictates that marriage is an institution between one man and one woman.

Indeed, for a solid eight years or so, Obama’s public stance on gay marriage was more regressive than Dick Cheney’s.

Among many LGBT folk, there was always the suspicion that, until 2012, Obama was never quite on the level about what his true feelings on this subject were.  Because he was such a proud liberal on so many other domestic matters, because he cared so deeply about civil rights for all citizens—because he was just so goddamned smart!—we assumed his public opposition to equal marriage rights (while supporting civil unions) was an act of ideological hedging by an ambitious, savvy political tactician.  If he believed in marriage equality in his heart (as his response to that questionnaire suggested), he was not prepared to gamble his political future on it until a majority of the public agreed with him—as it finally did by the end of his first term.

Here, in other words, was a classic example of President Obama “leading from behind”—an executive style that sometimes comes across as not leading at all.

Now, I realize—on this final full day of Obama’s presidency—that to dwell on the inner workings of the man’s soul rather than on the impact of his policies is to risk missing the forest for the trees.  All things considered—regardless of when he officially and wholeheartedly got on board—Obama has been the greatest thing to happen to the LGBT community in the entire history of the world.

It now seems like a lifetime ago, but don’t forget that when Obama was sworn in on January 20, 2009, same-sex marriage was legal in exactly two states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, and thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, even those unions were not recognized on the federal level.  Meanwhile, gay citizens could not serve openly in the Armed Forces, HIV-positive foreigners could not travel to the United States at all, workplace anti-discrimination measures for LGBT people were largely a joke, and the notion of gender-neutral bathrooms was scarcely a twinkle in anybody’s eye.

Fast-forward eight years, and you realize that we now live in an entirely different country from the one George W. Bush left us with.  Complain all you want about feet-dragging and unfinished business—believe me, you’ll find plenty of material to work with—but there is no denying that President Obama’s reign has been a golden age for LGBT rights unparalleled in human history.  Indeed, it would not be much of a stretch to conclude that our 44th president has provided more hope and protection to his gay countrymen than our first 43 presidents put together.

Not that he accomplished all (or any) of this by himself.  Apart from signing an executive order every now and again (itself no small thing), all the major breakthroughs on this front—the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, passage of the Hate Crimes Protection Act, Obergefell v. Hodges, and so forth—were the culmination of years, if not decades, of grunt work by untold scores of activists, writers and other ordinary people in pursuit of an impossible dream.  Many of those folks didn’t live to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but their impact on subsequent generations is profound beyond measure.

In truth, Obama’s primary role in effecting a more gay-friendly America was his stepping back and simply allowing it to happen.  Rather than constantly getting in the middle of things—no doubt out of fear that it could backfire—he made a habit of steadily—even stealthily—setting the tone and laying the legal groundwork whereby the barriers to a more just society could be toppled without any resistance at the top.  (The Justice Department refusing to enforce DOMA in 2011 was a classic, crucial example of this.)  Notwithstanding his opposition to marriage rights until 2012, the president made clear his desire to be an LGBT ally from the very beginning.  In the long run, his actions spoke for themselves.

To be sure, there was a great deal of luck in his occupying the Oval Office at the exact moment when defending gay rights suddenly became cool, and we cannot overlook the multitude of cosmic coincidences that conspired to make Obama such a godsend for the gay movement, independent of how much (or how little) it might’ve interested him otherwise.

That said, it is very difficult to imagine the United States having progressed this far under a President John McCain or a President Mitt Romney—two men who didn’t give a damn about gay people and wouldn’t have lifted a finger to make their lives better.  To note the confluence of Obama’s rise with the wide acceptance of the dignity of LGBT people may be historically correct, but it also shortchanges the monumental import of Obama’s efforts to nudge the country, ever-so-slowly, in the right direction.

I’m sure I will never have the opportunity to ask Obama my original question face-to-face—namely, what did he really think and when did he really think it?

Then again, perhaps I will.  Not to brag, but I did briefly meet him once before.

In the fall of 2007, the then-senator and presidential candidate gave a characteristically rousing speech near the Parkman Bandstand in Boston Common at dusk.  There were hundreds of spectators, but I arrived early and found a spot right in front, leaned up against the metal fence dividing the audience from the candidate.  After he spoke, he glided along the throng of cheering admirers, shaking the hands of everyone within reach, including me.  I don’t recall if our eyes met, but I appreciated the chance to physically connect with a man who, at that time, was considered by most liberals as more-or-less the second coming of Christ.

I didn’t completely buy into the hype myself.  First of all, he was then trailing Hillary Clinton by 20 points in the polls and couldn’t possibly secure the Democratic nomination.  And second, even in the innocent days of 2007, I knew better than to expect that any president, no matter how brilliant or charismatic, could solve all the problems in the world with a mere flick of his hand.  (While Obama himself never claimed the job would be that easy, his most devoted fans certainly got that impression.)

With this in mind, it was all I could do that evening to shout the words “good luck” in his general direction as he let go of my hand and continued on.  I admired the hell out of him, but I knew he would never actually become commander-in-chief.  After eight embarrassing years of George W. Bush, what right did we Americans have to be led by someone so dazzling, so worldly, so intelligent, and so…normal?

We didn’t deserve him, yet in the end we elected him twice.  He was the president we needed, and only in retrospect will we fully understand just how lucky we’ve been since January 20, 2009.  We may never see the likes of him ever again, but then the miracle is that we got him once.  All we can do now is be grateful.

Questions For Hillary and Donald

The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is Monday, September 26, at 9pm.  Here are some questions I would like to ask both candidates:

Mrs. Clinton:  On policy, do voters have any reason to think you won’t be serving President Obama’s third term?

Mr. Trump:  Is it true—as one of your ex-wives has claimed—that you once kept a book of Hitler’s speeches as your bedside reading?  If so, what did you learn from them?

Mrs. Clinton:  You have said there is no conflict between your pledge to regulate big banks and the fact that you have received millions of dollars in speaking fees from those same banks.  Do you truly not understand why many Americans cannot take your “tough on Wall Street” posture seriously?

Mr. Trump:  You have praised President Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback,” which resulted in hundreds of U.S. citizens being illegally detained and deported because they were of Mexican descent.  Do you also support President Roosevelt’s initiative to hold more than 100,000 U.S. citizens in internment camps because they were of Japanese descent?

Mrs. Clinton:  You consider yourself a champion of the LGBT community.  However, you publicly opposed full marriage rights for same-sex couples until March 2013—exactly one month after retiring as Secretary of State.  When did you decide that gay people are equal to straight people with regards to marriage, and did it ever cross your mind that supporting marriage equality as America’s chief diplomat might have been helpful to the LGBT community?

Mr. Trump:  Earlier this year, you suggested that any woman who has had an abortion should be punished in some way.  Do you still think that today?  If not, what made you change your mind?

Mrs. Clinton:  You have expressed regret for saying that one-half of Trump’s supporters constitute a “basket of deplorables.”  Upon reflection, what do you believe the true figure to be, and how will you win the trust of those people once in office?

Mr. Trump:  When physical violence erupted at several of your campaign rallies, you lamented how such clashes don’t happen more often, saying, “Nobody wants to hurt each other anymore.”  How do you reconcile this philosophy with your pledge to bring “law and order” to America’s most violent cities?

Mrs. Clinton:  Why do you think you lost the 2008 Democratic primaries to Barack Obama?  If you lose the 2016 election to Trump, do you think it will be for the same reasons?

Mr. Trump:  In an interview, you claimed to be a highly religious person on the grounds that many evangelical Christians support you.  Are you religious in any other respect?

Mrs. Clinton:  If it were politically feasible, would you repeal the Second Amendment?

Mr. Trump:  You have disavowed the support of former KKK grand wizard David Duke.  Is there anything you two actually disagree about?

Mrs. Clinton:  Are you ever concerned about your propensity for appearing to have violated the law, even when, in fact, you haven’t?  Whom do you most blame for this perception—the voters or yourself?

Mr. Trump:  If a poll came out tomorrow saying that a majority of your supporters now oppose building a wall along the Mexican border, would you drop the whole idea and never mention it again?

Mrs. Clinton:  You have said you regret using a private e-mail server because of all the trouble it has caused your campaign.  Is that the only reason for your regret?

Mr. Trump:  You say you have a plan to defeat ISIS, but you intend to keep it a secret until after you win the election.  If Clinton wins instead, are you going to keep it a secret from her as well?

Mrs. Clinton:  Is there any major issue about which you think the majority of the public is dead wrong?  If so, have you ever said so in public?

Mr. Trump:  In your convention speech, you said, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”  If that’s the case, why didn’t you run in 2012?  Or 2008?  Or 2004?

Mrs. Clinton:  During the primaries, you opposed Bernie Sanders’s plan to make all public colleges tuition-free, arguing it would just be too darned expensive.  If you believed, in 2003, that it was worth funding the Iraq War with money we didn’t have, why doesn’t the same standard apply to higher education?

Mr. Trump:  You once said, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do.”  Where did you come by this information and why haven’t you shared it with the generals?

Mrs. Clinton:  In recently hacked e-mails, Colin Powell wrote of you, “Everything [she] touches she kind of screws up with hubris.”  Did it surprise you to read this?

Mr. Trump:  The screenwriter of the Back of the Future movies recently revealed that the character Biff Tannen was largely based on you.  Do you take this as a compliment?

Mrs. Clinton:  Have you ever consciously lied to the American people?  If so, why?

Mr. Trump:  Based on how casually and frequently you have completely reversed your position on one issue after another, why should anyone believe a single word you say?

Mrs. Clinton:  When you entered this race, did it ever occur to you that you might lose?

Mr. Trump:  When you entered this race, did it ever occur to you that you might win?

With a Little Help From My Straight Friends

“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.

The GOP Reaps What It Sows

Super Tuesday saw a veritable fruit salad of disingenuous comments from all parties involved—from Marco Rubio’s declaration of victory after losing 11 of 12 states to Donald Trump’s claim of being a “uniter” at the very moment when several leading members of his party announced they would rather suck on an exhaust pipe than allow Trump to become the face of the GOP.

However, if there was one assertion that rose above all the others for its sheer, jaw-dropping chutzpah, it was the following reaction to Trump’s continued success from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan:

If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games.  They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry.  This party does not prey on people’s prejudices.  We appeal to their highest ideals.  This is the party of Lincoln.  We believe all people are equal in the eyes of God and our government.  This is fundamental, and if someone wants to be our nominee, they must understand this.

Between that statement and Chris Christie’s facial expressions during Trump’s victory speech, I can’t remember the last time I laughed this hard following a presidential primary night.

Specifically, Ryan was addressing Trump’s initial reluctance to bat away the endorsement of a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, although (let’s face it) he could’ve been referring to pretty much anything Trump has said or done over the last eight months.

While Ryan deserves heaping praise for taking such a clear, principled stand against everything Donald Trump represents, his characterization of the party he leads is so comically lacking in self-awareness that Trump himself could not have put it any better.

The Republican Party doesn’t prey on people’s prejudices?  It believes all people are created equal?  Speaker, please.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I could’ve sworn the GOP had built its entire brand—say, over the last three or four decades—on such “high ideals” as denying marriage rights to same-sex couples because God intoned that gays are no different from murderers and child molesters.  I do believe it was Republican leaders who defended the “liberty” of business owners to deny service to gay customers for the exact same reason.

Whenever an unarmed black teenager is senselessly murdered by a white police officer, Republicans are always the first to assume the kid must’ve done something to deserve it.  When it comes to elections, Republican officials never hesitate to make it as difficult as possible for African-Americans and Hispanics to be able to cast a vote.

Quick as GOP leaders are to evoke “religious liberty” as a cornerstone of American democracy, they somehow always find a loophole for anyone wearing a turban, hijab or some other manner of foreign-looking funny hat.  (Rarely, of course, do most Republicans take the time to understand which funny hat corresponds to which foreign-looking religion.)

Perhaps you saw the exit poll showing that 60 percent of Republican voters agree with Trump’s plan to prevent Muslims from entering the United States on the basis of their religion.  Even assuming that every single Trump voter is included in that 60 percent, we are still left with 40-50 percent of non-Trump GOP voters who apparently think that all Muslims are terrorists.  Or, at minimum, that Muslims are so inherently suspect that it’s worth discriminating against all of them on a federal level.  You know, just in case.

This is the party Paul Ryan would have as a paragon of liberty, equality and justice:  A party distrustful of Muslims, contemptuous of gays and utterly oblivious to the plight of Hispanics and blacks.  If Ryan is serious that any prospective nominee “must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry,” they would need to begin with the Republican Party itself.

Ryan calls it “the party of Lincoln.”  If I may rework a line from a classic Woody Allen movie:  If Lincoln came back and saw what was going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.

Bigotry By Any Other Name

Is homophobia a choice, or are people just born that way?

Amongst all the silliness and bombast at the most recent Republican primary debate, there was the following statement from Ben Carson, who was asked to clarify his position on same-sex marriage:

“I believe that the Constitution protects everybody, regardless of their sexual orientation or any other aspect.  I also believe that marriage is between one man and one woman.  There is no reason that you can’t be perfectly fair to the gay community.  They shouldn’t automatically assume that because you believe that marriage is between one man and one woman that you are a homophobe.”

In a strong field, that might rank as the most incoherent thing that any candidate has said about any issue.  It would be easy enough to ignore or dismiss it—most media outlets have done just that—except that a) it came from the highest-polling candidate in the race (more or less), and b) it forces us to confront the issues of marriage and homophobia in a manner that is just too interesting to pass up.

Getting right to the point, then:  Is it possible to oppose same-sex marriage without being homophobic?  Can you believe that gay people are morally and legally equal to straight people while also believing that only the latter are entitled to marriage?

I’ll be honest:  I do not find these to be difficult questions.

No, you cannot oppose gay marriage—or any other gay right—without the disease of homophobia coursing through your veins.  Thinking that gays are beneath the institution of marriage is precisely to think that heterosexuals are a superior human species—a view otherwise known as homophobia.

“Defending” traditional marriage is homophobic by definition.  You can’t have one without the other.  To say that these two people can receive a marriage license but those two people cannot is axiomatically to think that the former are more deserving of the American dream than the latter.

Hence the absurdity of Carson’s statement.  He wants to have it both ways, but how could this be?  If you believe—as Carson apparently does—that gay people are entitled to equal protection under the law, how could that protection not include the right to get married?

Officially, marriage is nothing more than a legal contract between two consenting adults.  It’s a secular institution whose broader meaning is determined by those who enter into it.  Conservatives can bang on and on about what marriage is “for”—commitment, sacrifice, procreation, serving God—but the truth is that marriage is whatever each individual couple makes of it.  It is neither possible nor desirable for the government to make those decisions for them.

If you truly thought that all men and women are created equal, then the notion of withholding marriage from gay people wouldn’t even occur to you—just as prohibiting marriage between interracial couples wouldn’t make sense to anyone who believes in equality of black and white.

The reality is that most Americans are adept at holding utterly contradictory views in their heads, and most of the time they don’t even realize they’re doing it.  This has been true since the founding of the republic (see:  Jefferson and slavery) and we can expect it to continue until long after we’re all dead.

The far more interesting trend—and a welcome one at that—is the degree to which homophobia itself has fallen out of fashion.

Even as the country remains fairly divided on same-sex marriage—the current split is 60 percent in favor, 37 percent opposed—very few people today are comfortable with being viewed as anti-gay.  Even as they espouse policies that are obviously and deliberately discriminatory toward gay folks, they are very careful to launch into a “some of my best friends are gay” routine, insisting that their opposition to gay rights should not be construed as opposition to gay people.

It’s a ridiculous and hypocritical stance—an insult to the intelligence of anyone who made it through kindergarten—but it’s also indicative of how thoroughly gay people have been integrated into polite society.

Remember:  It was as recently as the 1980s that gay people were so marginalized by their leaders that, when Ronald Reagan’s press secretary was asked if the administration was aware of a “gay plague” known as AIDS, the entire press room erupted in laughter.

In the 1990s, anti-gay animus was so strong that Bill Clinton—a Democrat!—was able to sign the Defense of Marriage Act and institute “Don’t ask, don’t tell” without experiencing any real pushback from the gay community because, hey, what other option did they have?

The difference between then and now in enough to give you whiplash.  Not only is same-sex marriage legal from coast to coast, but gay people are so visible in every walk of life—including positions of power—that the straight community has no choice but to treat them like human beings.

Or at least to give lip service to that effect.  A chunk of Americans remains opposed to affording gays equal protection under the law, but—as if taking a cue from Pope Francis—they are far less cavalier than they’ve ever been before, concealing their true feelings behind inclusive and compassionate rhetoric.

Today, you can’t even be a Democrat unless you offer full-throated support for every plank of the dreaded “gay agenda,” and you can’t run for president as a Republican without at least pretending to have a few gay acquaintances and acknowledging that homosexuality is, in fact, a real thing.  (I wish we could say the same for climate change.)

But let’s not be cute about it by letting opponents of gay equality off the hook.

Yes, I am aware of many good people who support “traditional” marriage and, by all outward appearances, harbor no prejudice toward their gay colleagues and treat everyone with respect.  They regard their views on marriage as an honest disagreement—invariably informed by their religious faith—and not, in any case, as an expression of bigotry, intolerance or blind hatred.

Well, of course that’s how they feel.  In any great debate about civil rights, everyone wants to view themselves as the hero—the person on the “right side of history.”  Being several generations removed from when, say, George Wallace could proudly stand at a podium and bellow, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” we no longer allow ourselves to hold prejudicial views without performing an elaborate sleight of hand to convince ourselves and others that we are not the villain in this story.

Sorry, but it won’t wash.

In this era of equality, you can no longer get away with threading this particular needle without looking like a disingenuous nincompoop.

If you’re going to support anti-gay legislation, then you have to own the fact that—whether you realize it or not—you, yourself, are anti-gay.

If you don’t want to be tarred and feathered as an intolerant prude, then quit advocating for a society that withholds basic rights from an entire group of citizens on the basis of their emotional attractions.  That, after all, is exactly what an intolerant prude would do.

If you truly believe, à la Ben Carson, that “the Constitution protects everybody” and “there is no reason that you can’t be perfectly fair to the gay community,” then join the rest of us in effecting a system of laws that actually are perfectly fair to the gay community—namely, laws that don’t care whether your significant other is a man or a woman, because why on Earth should that make a difference?

Show, don’t tell.  Either you believe that we’re all equal before the law, or you don’t.  Sooner or later, you have to pick a side.

Republican Holy War

The problem isn’t that Ben Carson wouldn’t vote for a Muslim president.

The problem is that few other Republicans would, either.

The problem isn’t that Donald Trump dignified the insane anti-Islam rants of some random crank.

The problem is that a massive chunk of all GOP voters share those same toxic views.

It would be bad enough if the men representing one of America’s two major political parties happened to be a bunch of xenophobic cretins.  But it’s worse than that because, as it turns out, a plurality of their fans are, too.

In other words, the GOP primary’s rank bigotry isn’t a bug.  It’s a feature.

Nor is the party’s contempt for certain Americans limited to Muslims.  At various junctures, Republican candidates have demonstrated robust, unchained hostility toward immigrants, women, homosexuals and unbelievers, among others.  And their supporters have followed them every step of the way.

Not all of them, of course.  Perhaps not even a majority.

But if there is any measurable difference between Democrats and Republicans, it is that the latter are significantly more likely to harbor open suspicion and disapproval of minorities—individually and collectively—on the basis of their minority status.

In a recent Gallop poll, we find that while 73 percent of Democratic respondents would vote for a qualified presidential candidate who happened to be Muslim, only 45 percent of Republican respondents would do the same.  Similarly, although 85 percent of Democrats would vote for a gay candidate, only 61 percent of Republicans would as well.  For an atheist candidate, the party split was 64 percent versus 45 percent, respectively.

While those numbers are nothing for either faction to brag about, the gulf between the two is unmistakable, and it leads us to a fairly obvious conclusion:  As it currently stands, the Republican Party is a one-stop shop for paranoia, hatred and prejudice toward anyone who seems even slightly foreign to some preconceived, mythical idea of what makes someone a “real American.”

Yes, many self-identified Republicans are sane, decent folks.  Yes, there are many components of GOP dogma that have nothing to do with shunning minorities and other undesirables.  Yes, conservatism itself is still a perfectly legitimate means of thinking about the world.

And yet I wonder:  Why are there any “moderate Republicans” left?  At this point, isn’t that phrase a contradiction in terms?

Case in point:  If you happen to think that all Muslims are terrorists and all gays are perverts, then it makes perfect sense that you would align with today’s GOP.  Their values are your values.

But if you don’t think those things—if you find the denigration of entire classes of people to be juvenile, unattractive and dangerous—then why would you throw in with a political party that loudly and proudly does?

Notwithstanding whatever else you might believe—say, about taxes or foreign policy—why would you join arms with an organization that—at least in its presidential candidates—has adopted enmity and ignorance as its defining characteristics?  What’s the appeal in belonging to a gang so fundamentally unappealing?  After all, you can always vote for Republicans without being one yourself.

The explanation, I suppose, is roughly the same as why so many Catholics remain committed to their church, in spite of its history of raping innocent children and using every means necessary to cover it up.

That is:  Many people are quite skilled at keeping utterly contradictory ideas in their heads and somehow still getting through the day.  They compartmentalize, embracing virtue while ignoring or overlooking vice.

And in the end, it is religion where the Republican Party exerts its most breathtaking feats of hypocrisy and self-deception.

In fact, Ben Carson’s infamous rumination on Meet on the Press about the dangers in electing a Muslim president contained the most telling statement any candidate has yet made on the subject of mixing religion and politics.

To the question, “Should a president’s faith matter?” Carson responded, “I guess it depends on what that faith is.”  As far as most Republican candidates are concerned, that’s exactly right.

The GOP fashions itself as the champion of religious freedom—defender of the clause in the First Amendment that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Don’t believe it for a minute.  The GOP would love Congress to make a law respecting the establishment of religion, and the only religion its leaders are interested in exercising freely is their own.

When that ridiculous Kentucky clerk refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples because she is personally opposed to same-sex marriage, she informed the media that “God’s law” takes precedence over man’s law, and when certain Republicans defended her willful disregard of the latter, they defined her “struggle” precisely in terms of a religious war.

How often we have heard—from nearly every major and minor candidate—that Christianity is “under attack” and being “criminalized” because those who don’t believe in gay marriage—ostensibly for Biblical reasons—now have to grin and bear the fact that the Supreme Court has ruled against those beliefs.  Mike Huckabee, the self-appointed leader of the cause, said, “No man […] has the right to redefine the laws of nature or of nature’s God.”

I wonder:  What exactly is the difference between that statement and Sharia law?  The latter, of course, is the idea—popular in the Middle East—of running a legal system based on teachings in the Quran and other Islamic holy works, rather than on any precepts devised by man.

In principle, there is no difference at all.  Huckabee and the king of Saudi Arabia apparently agree that the word of God is more important than the rule of law, and that an individual’s own religious convictions can and should overrule any rule that comes into conflict with them.

And yet—amazingly—it is these same cultural conservatives who attack and condemn Sharia law at every opportunity, insisting that some nefarious Islamic cabal is secretly plotting to bring Sharia to the United States and is this close to succeeding and—my God!—what a horrible world it would be if America became an oppressive, Bronze Age theocracy.

Read those last few paragraphs again and tell me this isn’t the most spectacular double standard in recent American politics.  Taking them at their word, GOP leaders evidently think that religion in the public square is both good and bad, that holy books are simultaneously more and less authoritative than the Constitution, and that Christians—who represent 70 percent of the U.S. population—are under threat, while Muslims—who are less than 1 percent—are on the verge of taking over the whole damn country.

The logistical cartwheels in this reasoning are enough to give you whiplash.  The term “Schrödinger’s cat” springs curiously to mind.

In reality, though, the thinking is straightforward and simple, and it’s exactly like Ben Carson said:  Christianity good, Islam bad.  God is great, except when his name is Allah.

Once you convince yourself—as Carson and company have—that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with living in a free society like ours and that no individual Muslim could possibly adopt America’s values as his or her own—a self-evidently absurd idea—then it becomes quite easy to make comically hypocritical statements like the above and somehow think you’re being principled and consistent.

But these guys aren’t.  They believe in religious freedom when the religion is Christianity and when the “freedom” involves preventing gay people from leading fulfilling lives.  I’m sure the irony of the latter will sink in sooner or later, although we probably shouldn’t hold our breaths.

In the meantime, we would all do well to remind ourselves that freedom means nothing if it only applies to certain people and that the United States, for all its religious citizens, does not have an official state religion and does not take sides in religious fights.

This did not happen by accident.  In the fall of 1801, a group of Connecticut Baptists sent an urgent letter to the new president, Thomas Jefferson, pleading for protection against religious tyranny by a rival sect.  Jefferson’s famous response, which guaranteed such protection, intoned that “religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God” and that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment amounted to “a wall of separation between Church and State.”

As Christopher Hitchens used to say:  Mr. Jefferson, build up that wall.

Best of Enemies

It’s almost too obvious to mention, but when it comes to religious liberty in America, we are in the midst of a veritable golden age.

The First Amendment to our Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and damned if we haven’t nailed it in the last many years.  The right to live according to the dictates of one’s faith has never been stronger, and there is little indication that this will change in our lifetimes.  As ever, we don’t realize how lucky we are.

Whether you are a Christian, a Sikh or a Seventh Day Adventist, you can travel to your place of worship on Sunday (or whenever) totally unmolested by your government or, with rare exceptions, your fellow citizens.  Observant Jews can wear kipot and refrain from eating pork, while Muslims can pray five times a day and…refrain from eating pork.

While being a member of the “wrong” religion can get you shunned, maimed or murdered in many other countries of the world, America is truly a land of pluralism—a nation that, at least on paper, protects its most vulnerable citizens just as robustly as its most populous.

Indeed, the inclination toward granting each other religious freedom is so forceful—such a prevailing view—that we are now having a semi-serious debate about whether the right to one’s faith-based opinions actually entitles an individual to break the law and deny the civil rights of other individuals.  Yes, even if that particular individual happens to work for the government.

Of course, I am referring to the one-woman crusade currently being waged by a Kentucky county clerk named Kim Davis.  As an observant Christian, Davis has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, because doing so would violate her religious beliefs.  This in spite of the fact that, since June 26, gay marriage is the law of the land in all 50 states.

In effect, the issue is whether the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause can ever supersede the rule of law.  In other words, can the word of God take legal precedence over the word of Congress or the Supreme Court?

As we have seen, this question has precisely one correct answer.  By refusing to issue marriage licenses to couples who have every right to obtain one—even after the nation’s highest court explicitly ordered her otherwise—Davis has been held in contempt and carted off to jail.  While, as an elected official, she cannot technically be “fired,” it doesn’t look terribly likely that she will remain in this job much longer.  And rightly so:  Why should Kentucky taxpayers be compelled to pay a clerk for not doing her job?

Much has been made of the disclosure that Davis herself has been married four times and divorced thrice.  Personally, I’m still reeling from the fact that, five months after divorcing Husband No. 1, she give birth to twins who were adopted by Husband No. 2 but were, in fact, fathered by Husband No. 3.  (Feel free to read that sentence again.)

Of course, all of that is perfectly legal and we should never judge or make assumptions about anyone’s marital history.  Relationships are complicated, and marriage is messy even under the most ideal circumstances.

On the other hand, marital infidelity is clearly and definitively condemned in the Bible and, in Deuteronomy, is punishable by death.

Kim Davis has said she performs her official duties in accordance with the Biblical definition of marriage.  It begs the question:  If she really means that, then why hasn’t she hired someone to kill her?

Happily for everyone, she plainly doesn’t mean it.  She is against homosexuality for reasons all her own and, like every Christian, she handpicks the Biblical passages that align with her views and ignores the ones that don’t.

This is not to suggest that her beliefs are not sincerely held.  It just means they are not held for the reasons she claims and that she is a massive glittering hypocrite when it comes to enforcing holy writ.

Of course, as an American, she is fully entitled to be the horrible person that she is and to believe whatever the hell she wants.  That’s the very definition of religious liberty and no one would dare force her to think differently.  If we all agreed about everything, we wouldn’t need a First Amendment in the first place.

However, we are nonetheless a society in which laws reign supreme over religion, and it’s precisely because we have so many different religions that can each be interpreted in a billion different ways.  While it might be amusing to imagine a culture in which everyone can ignore any rule they disagree with, the idea of actually doing it doesn’t even pass the laugh test.

Put simply:  To say the First Amendment includes the right to deny someone else a marriage license makes no more sense than saying the Second Amendment includes the right to commit murder.

Certainly, there are countries in which “the authority of God” (as Davis called it) has final say over who gets to live or die, let alone who can get married or not.  Of course, these countries tend to be predominantly Muslim and their system, known as “sharia,” is universally condemned—particularly by American conservatives—as medieval and antithetical to everything that Americans hold sacred.

How curious, then, that many of these same conservatives (read: half the GOP presidential candidates) are now defending this very same principle when the God in question is a Christian one.  How peculiar that defying settled law through Islam is repulsive, but doing the same through Christianity is just fine.  I’m sure there’s a non-racist, non-homophobic explanation for this somewhere.  As an atheist, I regret I’m not the best person to find it.

In any case, I didn’t come here to talk about Kim Davis, as such.  Really, I would just like to take a moment to underline how unbelievably lucky the gay community has been lately with respect to its would-be antagonists.

It would have been one thing if the self-appointed poster child for upholding “traditional marriage” were someone who actually engaged in the practice herself.  Someone who could credibly claim to be holier than thou.

That this particular mascot for following “God’s will” happens to be a raging phony is not merely hilarious; it also demonstrates just how phony her entire argument is.

To be clear:  Davis’ personal morality has absolutely no bearing on the legal arguments vis-à-vis her behavior as the Rowan County clerk.  Her actions would be contemptuous and absurd regardless of how many husbands she has had.

That, in so many words, is the point:  The law does not care about morality.  The law exists whether you agree with it or not, and applies to all citizens equally.  Further, if you happen to be a public official whose one and only job is to carry out the law, then your opinion of the law does not matter.  Either you do your job or you resign.

But of course, this doesn’t negate the role that ethics play in our day-to-day lives, and this is where Davis has become the gay rights movement’s new best friend.

Now that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states—and will almost certainly remain that way forever—there is nothing left to concern ourselves with except for the proverbial “changing hearts and minds.”

And where persuading people of gays’ inherent humanity is concerned, what finer image could there be than a thrice-divorced heterosexual turning her back on a homosexual couple attempting to get married just once?  In what possible universe does the person who has cheated her way through three marriages assume the moral high ground over couples who are embracing this sacred institution afresh?  What possible threat do those couples pose to society or morality, other than the possibility that, in time, they may turn into people like Kim Davis?

A Great Big Heart

If you regularly tune in to contemporary FM radio, you may soon come across a pretty little love song called “Hold Each Other” by the New York-based duo A Great Big World.  Keep an ear out:  If the melody doesn’t get your attention, the lyrics probably will.

It begins innocently enough:  The usual business about some girl who sets the singer’s heart aflutter.  “I was trapped inside a dream / I couldn’t see her next to me / I didn’t know she’d set me free.”  And so forth.

However, when we get to verse number two, something weird happens.  The voice on the record is different—but still clearly male—and the object of his affections is no longer a “she.”

“Something happens when I hold him / he keeps my heart from getting broken / when the days get short and the nights get a little bit frozen / we hold each other.”

Following a bridge containing no gender references either way, we return to the original vocalist and his initial female love interest:  “Something happens when I hold her / she keeps my heart from getting older.”  Fade out.

Happening upon this song for the first time, I assumed that whole middle part was just my imagination.  However, upon further investigation, I discovered that—lo and behold—my ears were working just fine.

The band behind the record, A Great Big World, is a pair of millennials named Ian Axel and Chad King.  They are known (if at all) for the heartfelt but slightly nauseating ballad “Say Something” featuring Christina Aguilera, but have otherwise kept themselves pretty well under wraps outside of their immediate fan base.

Accordingly, it had probably not been widely known that one of them, Chad, is gay.  (Ian is not.)  Although they divide singing and songwriting duties equally and their repertoire contains a fair share of love songs, Chad has opted not to draw attention to his homosexuality in his work because, well, that’s just how he is.

With “Hold Each Other”—the first single from the group’s forthcoming second album—he decided to do away with any such reservations and, perhaps for the first time, sing what he really feels.

Hence the song’s unusual linguistic structure, with Ian crooning about “her” and “she” at the beginning and end, while Chad waxes about “him” and “he” in between.

It’s a minor breakthrough in American popular music, and a triumph for humanity in so many different ways.

Certainly, this is nowhere near the first instance of a pop artist singing about his or her love for someone of the same sex.  Indeed, it was only this past February when Sam Smith won a bucketful of Grammys for a hit song, “Stay With Me,” that was based on a relationship with another man—a point Smith charmingly underlined in one of his many acceptance speeches that evening.

On the other hand, you wouldn’t necessarily know “Stay With Me” is about a same-sex encounter simply from listening to it.  The song contains no gender-specific pronouns and, if sung by a heterosexual about someone of the opposite sex, it would still make perfect sense.

Indeed, perform a sample survey of all the love songs written over, say, the last five or six decades, and you’ll find that a considerable chunk of them follow this same pattern, containing lyrics so general that they could—without changing a word—be sung by anyone, for anyone, irrespective or sex or orientation.

This leads us to an obvious yet critically important point, which is that love itself is universal.  Whatever form it takes, the need for an emotional and physical connection to another person is that rare trait that transcends every boundary across the human race.  The capacity to love and be loved in return is part of what makes us human in the first place.

Bearing this in mind, we might well ask if it even matters whether the pronouns and minutiae of a particular tune correspond to those of the person listening to it, or whether that’s irrelevant to how strongly the song resonates.  If love is love, then what’s the difference if the gender designations don’t completely match up?

It’s not such an easy question, especially when considered in a broader cultural context.  After all, the entire premise of the gay rights movement—and the central argument for legalizing same-sex marriage—is that gay love and straight love are fundamentally the same thing.  Once this fact was established once and for all, and marriage was seen as being rooted in love and commitment above all else, the case for restricting the institution to heterosexuals ceased to make any moral or legal sense.

Now that Team Gay has essentially won that argument—with a major assist by the U.S. Supreme Court—we have the breathing room to wonder if there is, in fact, something different about being gay and in love compared to the alternative.  Having convinced the world that our crazy emotional quirks are as deserving of respect as everyone else’s—no more, no less—are we now going to turn right around and claim that we are special?

To a degree, yes, we are.

Recent studies have concluded that, at best, maybe 3-5 percent of the world’s population is attracted exclusively to people of the same sex.  This is not going to change.  While the steadily growing acceptance of gay folks by straight folks has profoundly transformed and improved the day-to-day lives of the former (and the latter), the fact remains that same-sex attraction is a statistical oddity whose participants will always be severely outnumbered and, inevitably, feel a little off-kilter about their emotional inner wiring every now and again.

In other words, although the essence of gay relationships is identical to that of straight ones, the fact of being in this tiny minority—one whose very existence has never quite been explained or justified—means that the gay experience will never be taken for granted in artistic media the way the straight experience has.  There will only ever be so many openly gay musicians to tell this story, leaving those precious few who need to hear it with far less material in their iTunes libraries than they would like.

Which is all to say that, when a gay listener hears a gifted male vocalist croon matter-of-factly about the man who stole his heart—well, it’s kind of a big deal.

As it happens, “Hold Each Other” did not initially include the switch from female to male pronouns from one verse to the next.  It was only when Ian, the straight half of A Great Big World, asked Chad, “How are you going to sing this honestly?” that they decided to tweak the words as they did.  Chad himself was skeptical at first, saying in a recent interview, “My whole singing life, I’ve always wanted to sing about girls […] just because it’s what people do.  It’s what the pop world is like.”

However, once he realized that Ian had a point—that singing about loving a woman would ring false in an art form that’s supposed to be about honesty and truth—he knew that he didn’t have a choice.  If you’re not willing to come to terms with who you really are, then what’s the point of being an artist?

Indeed, what’s the use of living at all if you spend your time pretending to be someone else?

Reflecting on his 20-odd years of fighting for same-sex marriage in the United States, the blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote in 2012, “The point of the gay rights movement, after all, is not about helping people be gay.  It is about creating the space for people to be themselves.”

It’s a distinction that is narrow but deep.  You see, it’s not just about gays having the freedom to watch Glee and listen to Lady Gaga without embarrassment or shame.  It’s also about straight people watching Glee and listening to Lady Gaga without embarrassment or shame—or gay people playing football, joining the army or engaging in any other “straight” activity.  It’s about pursuing your own happiness and interests without concern for what other people—or you—might think.

Opponents of the gay rights movement often carp about how gay people should not be entitled to “special” rights and privileges.  They are absolutely correct.  Like black people, women and every other historically marginalized group, gay people ask nothing more than to be treated like everyone else.  Because, as it turns out, we are like everyone else.

A song like “Hold Each Other”—which allows both of its singer-songwriters to express themselves on their own terms—demonstrates both the hope for and the flowering of this radical idea that we call equality.  If a reserved male singer can summon the nerve to mention that the object of his affection is a guy—and if the rest of the world can accept that, yes, sometimes this does really happen—it means the efforts of the past half-century have not been in vain.

The truth is that, for the gay community, the pronouns do matter.  After a lifetime of listening to music about heterosexual relationships and having to do the gender conversions in our heads, to hear a song that does the work for us is both a relief and an affirmation:  A hopeful, understated validation that says, “You are not alone.”