Stefan Borst-Censullo believes the mainstream success of Pride Parades means the gay rights movement is winning.
This year I attended (for a second time) both the Long Beach and Los Angeles Gay Pride Parades. As a participant and an observer, I found it a bit disheartening when some of the younger attendees complained about the “sanitized” or “family friendly” nature of the events. I think that it is important to remember however, that in seeing children, clergy, politicians, and members of the business establishment actively participating in these celebrations year after year means only one thing: the movement is winning.
In examining the dramatic success of the gay rights movement in the last decade, one really only has to remember one phrase: the personal is the political. Anti-gay policies can broadly be said to have roots in irrational personal feelings of discomfort (or even hatred). This means the successes of the gay rights movement have come mainly from changing the individual moral consciousness of an entire generation. This effort required reaching into the deep recesses of a person’s psyche through articulated political advocacy, the arts, and yes: even Pride Parades. In return, these efforts have produced a growing portion of the population that realizes their own personal stake in expanding basic human rights to individuals of all sexual orientations. This new consensus is now coming into fruition, and has created a huge shift in the political treatment of LGBT rights in a shockingly short amount of time. In brief, the story of the last ten years of gay rights requires both anecdotal storytelling and a broad historical analysis.
Last year around this time I made a comment on Facebook concerning the announcement from Don Lemon (of CNN) that he is gay. My comment was an admittedly crude remark that Mr. Lemon, by making this announcement (as well as his statement concerning the problem of homophobia in the black community), had “bigger balls” than his counterpart at CNN, Anderson Cooper (who is believed to be gay himself but has yet to make a definitive statement confirming the rumor). The larger substantive issue that I was attempting to speak about focused on my belief that popular, well-liked, gay individuals on the public stage have a responsibility towards the broader gay community. Like Rachel Maddow, I believe that public figures must be open and honest about their sexuality in order to further promote acceptance within the wider sphere of their influence.
But I must recognize that it is easy for me to assert this perceived requirement of others due to the fact that I as an individual represent an extremely privileged segment of society: college-educated, straight, white males. Making calls to action to a community to which I do not belong does seem essentially inappropriate (or at least problematic). However, there is something to celebrate in the fact that there now exists growing contingent of allies like me who are not only “tolerant” of the gay community, but feel it necessary to express opinions that ten years ago even moderate or conservative members of the gay political establishment would not promote out of fear of reprisals. There was a time (not too long ago) when the entire political climate was so poisoned by hate that even supposed natural allies to the movement stayed quiet out of (very real) personal concerns.
A decade ago, I attended a large public school in upstate New York. In my sophomore year of high school, a fledgling group of extremely brave individuals began a disciplined and complex political campaign to promote visibility of gay rights within the student body (acceptance was too dangerous at the time to pursue). I hung around these people because I supported their movement, but mainly because I was new to the area and these individuals were understandably sensitive to the feelings of an outsider in our shared suburban community. The group assisted in bringing about just a few major policy changes, but the steady progress that I witnessed between 2001 and 2004 with this organization paralleled several huge changes in the acceptance of all gay individuals.
In 2001, a person like myself who was supportive of gay rights was expounding an ethos in direct contradiction to the very notion of traditional suburban masculinity. There was no “Born this Way,” “It Gets Better,” or universally-loved George Takei Facebook page to make being gay acceptable in the mainstream teenage culture. Frankly, someone who dared say something mildly supportive of gay rights could expect a non-metaphorical ass kicking at the hands of some less-than-understanding young men on the school bus.
Despite the established cultural obstacles, groups that worked to promote change did succeed in my community. In 2001, few people who did not belong to the gay-straight alliance participated in the Day of Silence, during which gay individuals and their supporters choose not to speak in order to demonstrate the oppressive nature of intolerance in the school community. By 2004, participants included anywhere between a third and half of the entire school. In 2001, school administrators denied the gay-straight alliance status as an “official” club. By 2004, every member of the administration had a rainbow pin proudly displayed during events like the aforementioned Day of Silence. In 2005, the year after I graduated, I was in the audience for my sister’s junior prom, and watched a same-sex female couple walk down the red carpet. This was shocking for many of the parents in the audience, but the students seemed unfazed by the two young women holding hands. A discernible shift in what was “acceptable” had taken place.
George W. Bush was re-elected during my first year in college, partially due to the cynical strategy of Karl Rove to motivate evangelical voters using straight up homophobia. In response to the freakout after the state supreme court decision in Massachusetts allowed gay marriage, Republicans actively worked to create constitutional anti-gay marriage initiatives in critical swing states, including the deciding state of Ohio. At that point, only a minority of Americans thought that full marriage rights (or even the second-class status of civil unions) should be extended to same-sex couples. A majority of Americans even supported George W. Bush’s call for an amendment to the federal constitution prohibiting marriage equality.
What did the gay rights groups do? They fought back. They did not give an inch. They called the bigots assholes to their faces. They organized boycotts. They rallied around martyrs. They took on the conservative religious establishment directly and did not blink. Today, a majority of Americans support providing full marriage rights to same-sex couples. Perhaps even more important is the fact that in 2012 Barack Obama, while facing a tough re-election, actually came out in support of marriage equality—and this is seen as an essential move for his survival as a politician.
Electoral politics remain a problematic area for proponents of gay rights. However it is the judicial branch, where the personal feelings of a single individual can shape generations of American law, that has been surprisingly progressive in implementing legal acceptance of the community. The reality of full marriage equality might come as soon as Anthony Kennedy writes his inevitable majority decision in Perry v. Brown (the Prop 8 case). He is the same person who wrote the majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas back in 2003, which came extremely close to recognizing a fundamental constitutional right to consensual sex. In that decision Kennedy wrote eloquently about the inherent personal and private nature of sexuality and love, and it was this precise language that Judge Vaughn Walker cited in striking down Prop 8 in his Perry v. Brown decision in 2010.
A few weeks ago, Long Beach literally shut down for our annual pride parade (the number one moneymaking event for the city). Every city and county official attended in the parade itself, including our congressional representative. This was an event that saw everything from men dressed as nuns and BSDM cos-players in full leather to our local high school marching band playing Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”
But the most important sight at the event were the protesters—all five of them. They were contained to one loosely protected pen, and their signs were lame attempts to be as fiery and provocative as those from Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptist Church. Instead, the older men held up a few signs with Bible verses, and made comments at those marching in the parade. The bigots were now the ignored, despised minority.
This year I marched in the parade with the local Democratic club while my wife cheered in the audience alongside her father, who is from Memphis, Tennessee. He is a conservative Irish Catholic who lives in a state where public school teachers are banned from talking about the existence of homosexuality. On Pride Sunday he was among the throngs of people who happily waved the rainbow flag alongside thousands of other allies, while watching gay singles and families march in support of the expansion of civil rights. Despite the culture in which he was raised, and the retrograde legislation of his home state, my father-in-law easily recognized the universal nature of the goals espoused by the gay rights movement.
The era in which homophobes hold political power is quickly coming to an end, and true equal rights are an inevitable reality. This is an amazing development in just ten years, and it would never have happened without lobbying those with power to directly change specific laws or business policies. However, the truly amazing parts of this shift are the deeply personal changes that occurred within each individual who overcame the grip of institutional homophobia to finally accept homosexuality as a legitimate expression of love. For all of the protests, high-level analysis, and policy-based arguments that were used in the fight for gay rights, acceptance truly came as a result of small-scale personal interactions. Success truly happened when friends and family members confronted straight people with the simple gospel of “it is okay to be gay—even the President was swayed by his kids more than any lobbyist. The personal is the political, and in the arena of gay rights, this strategy has prompted demonstrable and wonderful examples of change in the lives of people throughout the country.
—Photo credit: Paul Schultz/Flickr