This afternoon, I had my discussion section (Princeton, you might recall from previous posts, calls them “preceptorials,” or “precepts”) for my gender and sexuality class. We were talking about one of the earliest gay rights movements, the “homophile” movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Fifty years ago, organizations such as the Mattachine Society reached out to gay and lesbian Americans—particularly in California and New York, but all over the country as well—and preached a gospel of equal rights. Different activists and different organizations disagreed as to what the best strategy was to achieve this end, but the homophile community was focused on fighting back against discriminatory government policies that drove gay people out of jobs and society and denied them any legal recognition.
Well, times haven’t changed all that much. Even as my precept was discussing the Senate report on “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government,” the California Supreme Court was hearing arguments in the suit against California’s Proposition 8. Civil rights lawyers argued that the ballot initiative, which amended the state constitution to declare same-sex marriage illegal, was an unconstitutional amendment, and thus should be invalidated. The other side, led by Pepperdine Law School dean Kenneth Starr, argued that the “will of the people” in passing Prop. 8 cannot be questioned. Also up for discussion is whether same-sex marriages that took place between May 15, when marriage was legalized, and November 5, when Prop. 8 passed, will remain valid. The lives of all the couples who were married in that window are now in legal limbo. We will have to wait 90 days to see what the court decides about both Prop. 8 as a whole and the associated issue of the already-married, and it’s presently quite unclear how the court will rule.
What maddens me about all of this is that things have not changed that much. LGBT rights advocates are still trying to persuade federal and state governments that LGBT Americans are entitled to the same rights as straight Americans. Government seems to either not understand the nature of homosexuality—as it clearly didn’t in the ’50s—or to simply be unwilling to accept that gays are people too. I don’t know what it is. I can’t understand them. To be perfectly honest, I simply can’t view folks who want to deny LGBT people civil rights with any sort of reasoned fairness anymore. I just want to bang my head against the wall in frustration.
While things are certainly better for the LGBT community than they were 50 years ago, the ramifications of the institutionalized hatred for the queer population that was de rigeur then still pervade our society. LGBT folks can’t serve in the military. Gay men can’t give blood. There is no federal law protecting folks from being fired on the basis of sexual orientation. Most strikingly to most Americans, same-sex marriage is illegal in 48 states and the District of Columbia, and on a federal basis as well—and with that comes the loss to LGBT couples of all the social and economic benefits that marriage brings. And the problems extend farther than the legal sphere. Queer teens are at a far higher risk for suicide than their straight peers, and homophobic bullying and slurs are commonplace in the public school system. It is challenging on both a legal and a social basis for LGBT parents to raise their children. Transgender and gender-variant folks most often can’t get the support they need to live as who they are. I could go on and on and on.
Some folks argue that Americans are more comfortable with the idea of homosexuality than they were back in the day, thanks to Will and Grace, Ellen DeGeneres, and Rachel Maddow. Some queer folks look around them and say, “I’m not being harrassed; I have a job; I have friends and a community; I’m not living a double life. Things aren’t that bad.” Well, they kind of are. As far as the state is concerned, LGBT people do not exist. And you know what? That’s a problem. Even if focusing on marriage rights isn’t your thing, you have to admit that there are a lot of things shitty about being an LGBT person in America today. There are a lot of things that must be changed. The slowness with which the gay rights movement has progressed in 50 years is a sad thing, and so now we need to get out there and shake things up.
Folks who read this blog might well wonder why I’m so single-minded about LGBT issues. I guess I’m as self-interested as anyone else. As an LGBT American, I am sick and tired of being a second-class citizen. I want my kids to have the knowledge that their mom and their family are treated just the same as any other American family. And I fully intend to do what I can to make that happen.