Saturday, November 6, 2004

Feinstein’s Regret

A colleague and I got into Monday-morning quarterbacking the election on Thursday and she said to me, “I know it’s going to be painful for you to hear me say it, but I think the gay marriage issue might have made the difference.”

Diane Feinstein is in the news for saying the same thing, much to the chagrin of a lot of her California supporters. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is now taking gas for his decision to take such a strong pro-gay stand and force the issue onto the national and international stage.

Diane isn’t alone. Massachusetts’ gay congressman Barney Frank took issue with Newsom’s stand, urging him to try the Massachusetts approach instead and do the work through the courts and not through the media.

My colleague needn’t have worried about trampling on my sensitivities. I have a pretty tough skin when it comes to gay liberation. It comes from growing up at a time when the stock response to gays was, “I thought people like that killed themselves.” When you live in poverty in your youth, you don’t require fabulous wealth -- a house with walk-in closets will often do.

For about the first twenty-four hours after the news sank in I was fighting against the sense that my house, walk-in closet and all, had just been burned to the ground. Now I’m starting to look for remnants of things to start over on, and there’s a little voice nagging at me to stop with this hyperbole and get as fast as I can into reconstruction. And it’s saying something about compromises.

There’s a book just out by Thomas Frank entitled, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Frank addresses the fact that all sorts of red state folks voted for Bush despite the fact that they were in effect selling their birthright to economic equality, social welfare, education, decent jobs, healthcare, housing, and keeping the farm, simply in order to slow down the move toward a more relativist approach to sexuality. I say “simply” obviously because I think they’ve got their priorities very wrong. To them, obviously, it feels like a rational choice.

Feinstein and Barney Frank and my colleague are right, I think. This is going to take some time. People come up with some very funny ideas. Like the injustice of segregation is justified by your fear of what might happen to your white daughters if they have to share a classroom with little black boys. Or allowing women to haul their husbands into court for beating on them and forcing sex on them weakens the institution of marriage. Or having a gay fellow soldier gaze at you with lust in the shower is an insult to your manhood.

All of these fears have to be processed through the brain and filtered through a sense of justice and fair play, and that all takes time.

Asking me to wait on same-sex marriage while you work on this, Mr. and Mrs. Red State Person, strikes me as similar to asking black folk to wait another fifty years to end segregation. And asking women to wait a few years before we stop punishing them because a condom broke.

Democracy has taken a couple centuries since the French and American revolutions to reach this stage of evolution. Compared with that, waiting for Americans to catch up with their Canadian and European brothers and sisters on the concept of same-sex marriage is nothing. It will all happen. Gay people will come out one day from under this cloud of fear.

I have a sense of connection with the religious right and their fears of sex. I look at Jerry Springer and I see some woman getting into a fistfight with her daughter because she’s been sleeping with her daughter’s boyfriend. Or the Dating shows where some prancing rooster of a twit has three girls fighting each other in front of a TV audience for a one-night stand with the guy. These programs leave a nasty taste in my mouth and I wish they weren’t on TV. I imagine this is the feeling some of the religious right might be having when they think of two men or two women in the throes of sexual ecstasy. As a good friend said to me once about homosexuality, “I have no trouble with it in my head; it’s my stomach that has problems with it.”

That seems primal, just as the fear some whites had of black skin seemed primal and just as greed and the merging of sex with power seem to be primal. Look a little closer, though, and you are likely to find it isn't primal at all; it's simply conditioned thinking. Prejudices are learned. If I'm wrong, and it is primal, fine. Get over it. Some people feel sick at the sight of fat people, short people, children with cleft palates. Calling something primal is not an explanation; it's a description of a pathology. You don't turn aside with a "nothing can be done; it's primal..." You look at yourself in the mirror and say, "What's with you, jerko!" And you get your facts sorted out.

During the late 60s, California battled over the Briggs initiative to put all gay teachers out of a job, and Anita Bryant achieved notoriety for her campaign to “Save Our Children.” Both these movements were operating on the primal fear that gay people’s sexuality was child-focused. Nothing hurt gay people like that degree of misrepresentation. It was so obviously blatantly totally wrong. And yet people could hold that position and act on it from public office.

The left is faced now with developing a strategy for dealing with the fears of the religious right that our cultural attitudes about sex will send us all to hell. It’s not the only challenge, but it’s one of the big ones.

Some people are well down the road. I personally am just beginning to get my head around the challenge. How does one face what appears to be a circling of the moral wagons when they see you as an Indian?

Already I’m reading pleas that we learn to compromise. That’s not my inclination. One compromises when you want to spend fifty bucks on dinner for two and your partner wants to spend a hundred. You eat for seventy-five.

But when people say to you, “Give up your civil rights to equal access to justice” and you say nothing doing, the compromise is not to surrender half of them.

“Justice delayed is justice denied” was the shorthand of the black civil rights movement. Senator Feinstein and Barney Frank and my colleague and countless others, in feeling the pain of loss in this election, are suggesting we might have done better to delay justice. I know the appeal of practical realism -- get what you can now and save the rest for another time.

If that's the way things are going to go in the immediate future, I won't fight it. But I hope people will not allow compromise to cloud the fact that it is still justice denied.

November 6, 2004

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