Timothy Oleksiak wants to point out — It’s not just about policy.
I have been gay my entire life, publicly so for nearly 20 years. In the space between my initial coming out as a gay man in 1995 and now, I have seen some amazing political advances in the lives of lesbian and gay people. Of these advances, the most recognizable has been the fight for marriage equality. Though the history of marriage equality in the United States began in 1970 in Hennepin County, Minnesota, the issue turned national in 1996 with passing of the federal law known as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)
After that, marriage equality faded from public attention until, in 2004, marriage protection amendments passed in 11 states. In these states, it was now constitutionally illegal for two women or two men to marry each other. With state constitutional amendments and DOMA passing comfortably at the congressional levels, it seemed like marriage equality was a lost cause.
Except that it wasn’t.
At my most cynical, I could not have imagined that 13 states and Washington, D.C. would have marriage equality laws on the books today. I could not have imagined that SCOTUS would overturn DOMA less than 20 years after it passed. The majority of states, 29 in all, have constitutional amendments prohibiting marriage equality but the homosexual community and our allies are ready to face the challenge of overturning these amendments. Recently, a new political development has the potential to once again positively transform the status of homosexuals in the United States.
That the fight for equality at the policy level is such a pronounced struggle is exciting.
And yet, I am worried that the fight for equality has left us in a tense position about what to do with our differences. I worry that the important policy victories that we have won together as lesbians, gays, and allies might be on terms that erase the meaningful differences between us. I worry that in our embracing equality, we might have ignored why homosexuality is a meaningful and important difference. By highlighting differences we become more aware of the unequal structures of power at play when distinct people interact. And when I bring such concerns to my ally friends I am asked,
“What do you want us to do?”
For starters, the good people of Ohio that refused to allow verbal insults toward two gay men to continue are not the issue. Moments like these, and there are many, where the actions of allies have increased the safety of homosexuals are important. Standing up to say, “I will not allow discrimination against homosexuals to continue here” is necessary. Voting in ways that support homosexual political interests is also important.
But I can’t shake the feeling that policy victories based in equality are an attempt to erase meaningful differences, as though difference doesn’t have value.
From this perspective, marriage equality is a conservative argument designed to make homosexuals look more like heterosexual couples. Access to marriage, in other words, makes policy sense because of what marriage means in this country: a normalized existence that continues normalized, middle class values. Ultimately, marriage equality turns out to be less of a threat to these values than would appear at first glance, and I wonder to what extent this has silenced conversations about differences.
The Russian “anti-gay propaganda” laws are worrisome because they attempt to erase homosexuality from public discussion. This is why the failure of the Tennessee legislation to silence teachers from saying “gay” in schools was such an important victory. In these cases, we have clear policies that are designed to silence homosexuals and their allies and working to overturn them is important.
But silencing does not always take the form of policy. And, if we are not careful, the recent success of marriage equality in the United States could lull us into the false belief that we don’t need to talk about the ways homosexuals are silenced in this country. “They can get married now,” the thinking goes, “Next!” But gaining access to social institutions and having a cultural voice are often distinct concerns.
When a person is uncomfortable seeing two men kiss or hold hands in public and that same person suggests that his discomfort should be alleviated by having gays “keep it inside,” that is silencing. Commenting that Jason Collins’ public disclosure of his homosexuality is irrelevant to professional athletics, says that homosexuals should remain quiet and out of sight.
Knowing that our presence has impacted the world and that homosexuals influence the ways all of us think and feel is important for us and our allies. Learning about homosexual contributions to art, music, or politics that you are already interested in is a way to end the silencing of homosexuals. Bringing up Amélie Mauresmo, Orlando Cruz, or Wade Davis as successful gay athletes is important not because their homosexuality makes them better or worse tennis players, boxers, or football players, but because their presence dislodges the assumption that those spaces are not for gay people.
Finding ways to mention our presence casually and comfortably is the responsibility of all of us. You don’t have to have a lengthy conversation about Cruz’s homosexuality as you watch a match with your friends. But the mention of Cruz as a homosexual while watching him fight can be a powerful way to end the false belief that homosexuals don’t or shouldn’t exist in spaces largely thought of as straight. As allies and homosexual civil rights advocates we can do this work right now.
The alternative is silence and erasure of homosexuals from discussion between the times that we are working together to change policy. And with this silence comes the risk of forgetting just who we are fighting for, and why.
Image courtesy of Flickr/Guillaume Paumier