James Kirchick, who’s at the Brookings Institution, has an article in the June 28 issue of The Atlantic, which is bound to piss off a whole lot of gay folks. I know, because two of my closest friends responded to my positive review of the article, pissed off, kind of.
Kirchick argues that gays have made so much progress of late (who can deny that!) that we really ought to lighten up on the world, stop making demands for wedding cakes, for example, with the same vehemence we used in demanding rights in housing and employment.
I’ve been on both sides of this argument. The angry gay that still lives inside me still wants to roar that the battle isn’t done until the last enemy is dead. That wedding cakes aren't the point – the point is that a company doing business in America has no right to deny any customer who comes into their shop.
The less easily riled part of me (there really is one) wants us all to acknowledge that we live in a complex world of conflicting desires, and that we accomplish more in the long run by following common sense, showing a willingness to compromise, and above all by keeping things in perspective and reacting to wrongs with proportional responses. For me, that means screaming bloody murder and rallying the troops until the bastards take their boot off your neck, but when told some twit doesn’t want to bake you a wedding cake, taking your business elsewhere and reminding yourself you’re an ass if you buy a cake from somebody who hates you enough to spit in the batter.
There’s a bigger reason, actually, why I think you don’t fight every battle, don’t push the enemy to the wall whenever they look at you cross-eyed. I believe prejudice comes from fear and ignorance and the goal, if even remotely possible, should be conversion, not fighting till one of you drops. The belief that there is something “inherently wrong” with homosexuality, to put it in traditional Roman Catholic terms, comes from a starting point in the dark ages, from the justified Hebrew conviction that there were enemies all around and one had to make rules that would value life and survival at all costs. The tribe (or tribes) came close a number of times to being eliminated from the face of the earth. I have no trouble understanding how they would want to make making babies an absolute good. From that comes a prohibition on non-reproductive sex: no prostitution, no masturbation, no birth control. Made sense at the time, probably, just as lopping off the hands of thieves made sense when, as nomads, they didn’t have the means to lock them up and had to go on living with them.
Carrying on this practice of prohibiting non-reproductive sex in this day and age makes no more sense than lopping off the hands of thieves. Not only that, but just as a cut can get infected, the notion of prohibiting non-reproductive sex got infected with the notion that the rule comes not from the collective wisdom of society, but from an Almighty God who makes laws and hands them to community leaders on mountaintops. And, by the way, once a rule is made, it cannot be changed.
These are the vicious aspects of organized religion, the stuff of bigotry and nonsense. You don’t get rid of that overnight. And it strikes me that being smart is the way to go. Fight them with life experience and reason, not with bigger sticks and stones. Kirchick’s point is well taken here: the word has gotten around that one’s sexual orientation has virtually nothing to do with whether you’re a decent sort. Tossing LGBT people in the same hopper as rapists, murderers and thieves is cruel and stupid, and those who advocate such things need to be exposed as such.
I actually had this argument with someone, a religious person, who thought telling wedding cake bakers they couldn’t refuse customers on religious grounds was an assault on their religion. Our conversation went something like this.
Me: I absolutely agree. If you’re a baker, there’s no reason why you should have to bake cakes for Jews.
Him: Jews? We’re not talking about Jews! We’re talking about homosexuals!
Me: But don’t you agree that there are Christians who believe that the Jews killed Christ, and maybe they don’t want to bake cakes for murderers? Don’t they have the right to refuse on religious grounds too?
Him: It’s not the same thing. There’s nothing wrong with being Jewish.
Me: Says you. Christians historically have had lots of problems with Jews. Martin Luther hated them for not converting. His prejudice was taken up by the Nazis. On religious grounds.
Him: But that was ignorance. And we don’t accept Nazis these days.
Me: And some day you will look on your prejudice against gay people the same way we now look at anti-semitism – a set of convictions we are way overdue in shedding.
I’m not sure how persuasive I was, but I like to think at least I might have planted some seeds of doubt. The widespread acceptance of gays these days suggests that those seeds have taken hold in much of the population.
But back to the wedding cake question, or more to the point, the issue of how adamant we need to be in demanding gay rights for all, absolutely, and now. Kirchick ticks off some of the many examples of progress in most of America toward gay liberation, including the astonishing possibility that a gay man might actually be a candidate for top office in 2020. I’d actually argue the new willingness of many macho men to engage in gay sex because it’s “no big deal” is a much bigger indicator of change, but let’s move on.
The implication is that, by focusing on the half-empty glass, we are missing the wonderful opportunity to pop some champagne corks, and that makes us dull and humorless instead of the kind of people we were meant to be: people who sing and dance and live life in technicolor to the fullest.
I’m quite aware of the fact that I’m speaking as a gay man living in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is thought of by much of the world as a gay Mecca. And it’s easy to overlook what it’s like to be gay in places less exposed to diversity, where anybody different from the norm, not just gays, are at risk of being shunned and faced with actual violence. To say nothing of the parts of the world where gay people face state-sponsored homophobia. Gay liberation has advanced only in pockets around the world, and the battle is far from over. Liberation is like democracy. It’s a journey, and never a destination. We’re always “working on it” and will probably never see it completed.
Kirchick’s harshest charge is that many in the LBGT community are being hysterical about homophobia. They are overreacting, he says.
He’s right. Some are. But what’s the point of being gay if you can’t be a hysterical queen now and again. It’s a real part of the culture.
Let the hysterics be. They perform a service. Progress goes hand in hand with a step or two back now and then. Good that somebody’s paying attention. Blessed are the watchdogs who keep us all aware that we stop being vigilant at our own peril.
Mostly, I draw from this Kirchick article what I draw from virtually all sociological descriptions – the fact that we’re all looking at our part of the elephant and assuming incorrectly we know the beast in its entirety. The way around that, it seems to me, is not to argue over who’s got the story right, but to keep adding to our understanding of the story. Do the kids in your life know who Frank Kameny and Harvey Milk and Bayard Rustin are? If not, get off your ass and make sure they appreciate both the trajectory of gay liberation and the distance left to travel. That much we can all do.
Read Kirchick, I say, as a guy who’s focusing on the glass as half-full, not as the last word in the battle for LGBT liberation.
Only a piece of the story.
(And what’s wrong with drinking champagne more often?)
HAPPY 50th ANNIVERSARY OF STONEWALL, everybody!