Perspective after Disappointment
Hugo Schwyzer is an American author, speaker and professor of history and gender studies at Pasadena City College
In 2001, I developed and taught a course on Gay and Lesbian American History at PCC. I taught it for three consecutive semesters, and then took some time away from it. I will teach it again in the fall of 2005.
In the aftermath of the success of some eleven anti-gay marriage initiatives across the country in Tuesday's election, it's easy for those of us who advocate marriage equality and full inclusion to get depressed. This depression is exacerbated by the real possibility that conservative turnout was bolstered by anti-Same Sex Marriage sentiment, and that that boost in traditionalist votes played a decisive role in the president's re-election. It's not a happy time.
But history gives us a more comforting perspective.
Gay and Lesbian political history is not old. It's difficult to establish an exact beginning point; some place it with the "Society for Human Friendship" of the 1920s, or the Mattachine Society of the 1950s; the popular imagination dates it to the Stonewall Uprising of June 1969.
Few folks remember that the very first time gay and lesbian issues were on the ballot, those of us fighting for GLBTQ equality were soundly defeated. The story is well told in Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney's magisterial Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America. In June 1977, reacting to a modest human rights ordinance adopted in Dade County, Florida, former beauty queen and Christian activist Anita Bryant mounted a campaign called, slyly enough, Save Our Children. Bryant and her SOC called for the repeal of the ordinance, which was the first in the country to grant protection in housing, public accomodations, and employment to people based on their "affectional or sexual preference."
Today, we think of Miami-Dade County as a fairly liberal part of Florida. (I don't know much about Florida. My fiancee and I spent a glorious weekend on South Beach and Key Biscayne last year -- those were exciting and lovely. What little I saw of the rest of the city and state was less appealing, frankly...) In any event, Miami-Dade was far more conservative 27 years ago. When Bryant's referendum to repeal the human rights ordinance went before the voters, the anti-gay forces won 69%-31%, carrying every section of Miami except for Coconut Grove. Even Jewish liberals in the beach areas voted against the ordinance.
The gay and lesbian community had no history at the ballot box. This was setting precedent -- and what a disheartening precedent it was! And yet, it marked the coming-of-age for what is now the senior generation of GLBTQ activists. And it also set the stage for some smashing successes. Less than 18 months later, gay rights supporters would have their first major win at the ballot box.
In November 1978, a conservative Californian state senator named John Briggs got an initiative on the ballot called Proposition 6. It was designed to bar openly gay and lesbian teachers from public school classrooms. Briggs, taking a page from the Bryant playbook, was using children as the wedge issue. The conservatives were confident. But a newly galvanized coalition of gay activists, led by San Francisco's Harvey Milk, managed to turn the tide. They even (as I wrote in June) managed to enlist Ronald Reagan's opposition to Prop. 6. And on November 7, 1978, California voters resoundingly rejected the Briggs initiative, 58-42. 17 months after their first defeat by the voters on one side of the country, gays and lesbians had their first victory on the other. And three weeks later, following Milk's assassination, the political movement had its first martyr.
As one of my local heroes, California state senator and lesbian activist Sheila James Kuehl points out, "no group has ever fought for civil rights in this country without eventually attaining them." The struggle is hard. There will be setbacks. But all is by no means lost, and we must have some intelligent and thoughtful perspective on just how far we've come. As Amp at Alas, A Blog points out,
Measure this fight in generations, not in elections. In 1984, marital rape was still legal in most states and not even Walter Mondale would have dared come out in favor of civil unions.... (Today)Massachusetts has same-sex marriage, and with the failure of the FMA that's not going away.
Since I last taught my course on gay and lesbian history (in the fall of '02), the movement has had a series of dramatic successes. The Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas (undoing the monstrosity of Bowers v. Hardwick); the elevation of Gene Robinson as a bishop in the Episcopal Church, and of course, the "Massachusetts miracle" which shows no signs of being undone anytime soon. The fact that even President Bush seems to have no problem with civil unions or domestic partnerships is a sign of just how far we have moved the debate in a very short period of time.
I am a heterosexual man. (I don't like the term "straight"; I'm enough of an evangelical to believe, as my friend Richard Mouw points out, that none of us are "straight." We all fall short of a mark, we are all bent and twisted to one degree or another.) But from my childhood, I have believed that I was called to play a small part in the struggle for full inclusion for my gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered brothers and sisters. (I apologize for the hubris, let me reemphasize the "small" in the previous sentence!) I do this work through teaching and outreach. As a hetero Christian man, I can, frankly "go places" where my queer friends cannot. Indeed, if I were a gay man, I might not have dared teach the course that I teach, even with tenure. My heterosexual privilege gives me a strong defense against homophobic attacks.
Yes, I'm still allowed to marry. Next year, I will get married for the fourth time to a woman I love with all my heart. God and the state give a man like me second, third, and fourth chances to "get it right." I'm grateful for that, and at the same time, palpably furious that our society will not give even one such chance to my queer brothers and sisters. It makes me shiver with rage and frustration, frankly. But I can swallow my harsh words, speak gently to those with whom I disagree, and try and offer the perspective that my profession teaches me to offer.
Though short, GLBTQ history in this country has had its shares of highs and lows. In the early 1980s, the community was hit simultaneously with the ascendancy of the Reagan right and the dawn of the AIDS crisis. The movement survived then, and it will survive the disappointments of November 2004.
In another 27 years, I will be 64 and ready for retirement. I imagine I may well still be teaching GLBTQ history in one form or another. And I am sure of this: if the next 27 years see half the progress that we have seen in the 27 since Anita Bryant's victory in Miami, then we will have marriage equality in every state in the union by the time I retire. My faith in history, my faith in people, my faith in progress, and my faith in God all assure me that that is more or less a certainty. And that is a great comfort this week.
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