Forty-five years after the Stonewall riots, eleven years after the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in Lawrence v Texas, almost four years after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and one year after the historic decisions that paved the way for legal same-sex marriage, gay rights seem to be moving in a decidedly forward fashion. From macho gay athletes to beloved “modern families,” gay identity is no longer a sign of the apocalypse except perhaps for fire-and-brimstone preachers and Duck Dynasty patriarchs. Especially when it comes to marriage, national polls indicate that the boulder of anti-gay prejudice is slowly being pushed aside. The most recent one from Gallup showed 55% supporting same-sex marriage rights, with a much stronger majority (almost 8 in 10) among younger cohorts. As we enter the gay pride month of June, however, it might be time to take stock.
That progress narrative, so beloved of Americans that we apply it easily to every marginalized group, is a tale oft told. The great American melting pot takes its disenfranchised (either internal ones or those arriving from distant shores) and, after a time of turmoil and legal tussle, stirs them into the approved soup of citizenship and acceptance. It’s a simple story, with no small amount of truth to it. That story – of exclusion and discrimination giving way to inclusion and equal rights – has been told about blacks and Jews, women and the disabled, and now lesbians and gays.
But simple stories are often deceptively so, and can obscure the persistence of prejudice and outright hatred. When we declare an era “post-racial” because we elect an African-American President, it makes it harder to see the racism that still structures our institutional and intimate lives. When feminism is dismissed as irrelevant because it is formally illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender, the stubborn realities of pay differentials and sexual violence become both harder to grapple with and simultaneously accepted as impervious to change. And when pundits and politicians imagine we are “post-gay” because 55% of Americans think its OK for gays to marry, we mistake the acquisition of (some) civil rights for full and robust inclusion.
Real change must of course be celebrated, and there is just cause for pride this month. For those of earlier generations – like the assassinated gay leader Harvey Milk whose likeness now graces a postage stamp – the world of 2014 seems light-years away from the days when gay bashing was not even news and easy exclusion and mockery was business as usual. Legal remedies, cultural inclusion, and even changes in consciousness have marked these past 45 years and have undoubtedly punched holes in the carapace of homophobia. But just as the US is not “post-racial,” it is not “post-gay” if by those terms we mean that these forms of animus have been transcended or superseded. For all the successes of same-sex marriage rights, the majority of states still have “mini-DOMAs” on the books and a slim majority is still, well, a slim majority and that majority supporting gay rights becomes a minority when you parse out the polls by region, religion, and party affiliation. ENDA – the employment non-discrimination act – has been introduced in Congress almost every year since 1994 and still has not been passed. Anti-gay violence is alive and kicking, most violently against those whose gender display seems at odds with dominant ideas of masculinity and femininity. Gay youth are still disproportionately represented among the homeless population and, yes, are still kicked out of their homes and bullied in schools. And for all the talk of the hoo-hum act of coming out, precious few openly gay anythings populate our corporate, political, and even cultural worlds. The Michael Sam brouhaha is a case in point. Most – from national pundits to local sports reporters – heralded his coming-out as a sign of a sea change in American culture, where even the most recalcitrant and traditionally homophobic spaces are opening up to a newly emboldened gay presence. True enough, but there is another side to this story, especially as it is complicated by the now infamous kiss he planted on his boyfriend after learning he was an NFL draft pick. If the story signaled only progress and triumph over bigotry, wouldn’t it be the case that it wouldn’t be a story at all? In other words, the very fact that gays still have so many “firsts” to achieve (and ones, frankly, a lot more important than football) much less “seconds” and “thirds,” could be interpreted as a sign of a glass half empty, or at the very least a more convoluted story of pride and prejudice. The support for Sam was only matched by the disgust that swept not just the wacky blogosphere but mainstream outlets as well. A chaste peck shouldn’t launch a thousand tweets. When a kiss is just a kiss, gay pride month may be worth a real celebration.