How the Culture War Was Won

Imagine for a moment that we live in an alternate universe where the United States is openly hostile to lesbians and gay men. How hostile? Well, in this world, the liberal state of Massachusetts bans lesbians and gay men from being foster parents. The only gay person you might find on TV -- and you'd have to search hard -- is either a lisping hairdresser or a young man tragically dying. Three Maine teenagers confess that they've thrown a young man over a bridge to his death because he's gay, and the national media don't even notice; ditto when hundreds of thousands of lesbians and gay men hold a civil-rights march on the nation's capitol. The U.S. Supreme Court issues a major decision comparing homosexuality to adultery, incest, theft and the use of illegal drugs; the chief justice adds, "To hold that the act of homosexual sodomy is somehow protected as a fundamental right would be to cast aside millennia of moral teaching."

My alternate universe, of course, is the United States just 15 years ago. It's dizzying to try to remember how different attitudes were back then; many American lesbians and gay men feel as if we've since been transported to an entirely different planet. Today, of course, you can scarcely find a TV show without a sympathetic lesbian or gay character, and politicians skirmish for the more than 4 percent of the electorate who identify themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual. Perhaps most important is the change in lesbians' and gay men's daily lives: Mentioning a same-sex partner in ordinary conversation -- to co-workers, doctors, nurses, teachers, contractors, strangers on a plane -- no longer feels death-defying, although it hasn't exactly become a yawn.

And yet open contempt toward lesbians and gay men still erupts. This past February, for instance, the Alabama Supreme Court denied a woman custody of her children, using language in its ruling much like that of the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision quoted above. Nor have American lesbians and gay men won the most important legislative or court battles. "We haven't won on the military, we haven't won on marriage, we haven't won on the Boy Scouts," says Kevin Cathcart, executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, "and yet the world is a completely different place."

Why? How, during one of the most conservative periods in American history, at a time when progressives were badly routed on nearly every front, did lesbians and gay men win the culture war? And can an energized lesbian and gay community win the tougher civil-rights battles ahead?

Between 1987 and 1993 -- the dates of two exhilarating and massive gay-rights marches on Washington -- lesbian and gay issues were dragged out of the Ann Landers and home décor columns and onto the front and editorial pages, where they have remained. (Although bisexual and transgendered people are often lumped into the same organizations and acronyms, their causes haven't yet caught up). Between those two national marches, masses of people came out and lesbian and gay issues emerged as national questions. And as the right wing spewed antigay vitriol, the media crossed over to our side. Why?

Sometimes it takes despair to provoke action. And for despair, AIDS was unbeatable. Until the epidemic, lesbian and gay activists had been the usual motley crew: artsy-lefty types who didn't want to belong to the mainstream anyway or folks who'd been so bashed, blackmailed or ostracized that they felt they had little to lose (and self-respect to gain) by stamping "homo" on their résumés. And until AIDS, lesbians and gay men, like girls and boys at a junior high school dance, kept their political distance: Girls were feminists who worked on issues such as rape or battering or Central America or nuclear disarmament while boys touted (and practiced) sexual freedom. AIDS flushed out passable white gay men, men "for whom gay liberation had meant they could have better party lives -- I'm serious!" says John D'Emilio, history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and founding director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, "but who wouldn't have thought of going to a gay pride march or a Lambda fundraiser." The prospect of early death concentrated such minds wonderfully. Abruptly, these men's high-level Rolodexes, disposable incomes and insider skills went to work building organizations and lobbying policy makers. Women, meanwhile, started bringing two decades of feminist analysis and women's health organizing to the epidemic. For the first time, they were welcomed instead of driven away by misogyny.

AIDS also broke through to politicians who had dismissed or feared gay issues. Many liberal or moderate legislators believed bills against antigay discrimination were mainly symbolic, according to U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). But "AIDS was clearly life or death," says Frank. "And when these right-wing assholes -- and this did help us -- when [Jesse] Helms, [William] Dannemeyer and these fools began to try to interfere with lifesaving measures to pursue their prejudice," politicians were startled to see the viciousness aimed regularly at lesbians and gay men.

Even politicians afraid of a backlash in their districts nevertheless felt morally compelled to help. And so on AIDS bills, says Frank, "members [of Congress] voted with us, then braced themselves for the political blow -- and it didn't come." Surprise! If you were already known as a liberal or moderate, helping dying gay men didn't subtract any extra votes. As a result, AIDS built good working relationships between legislators, their staffs, and lesbian and gay activists.

In the midst of the AIDS crisis came the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-to-4 to uphold states' rights to ban sodomy. I remember being staggered when Bowers was announced; it was hard to grasp that my Supreme Court had just declared me less than a citizen. "Bowers was a wake-up call," says Cathcart. "It pushed a lot of gay people to stop pretending that there was justice, that things were fair, that the law didn't have to change." Furious, lesbians and gay men understood -- though Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe has suggested that the Supreme Court may not have -- that the decision was not only insulting but harmful. Anti-sodomy laws allow judges, government officials, employers and others to say that lesbians and gay men, as presumed felons, need not be granted parental custody, immigration status -- or simple humanity. Donations to lesbian- and gay-advocacy organizations jumped dramatically.

Read that last sentence carefully: That's right, Bowers was a steroids supplement for the lesbian and gay movement. Skinny organizations suddenly bulked up, adding staff and volunteers and tripling efforts. Suddenly they had the muscle to fight and win small but significant battles: rolling back the Massachusetts foster-care ban, defeating Lon Mabon's antigay Oregon ballot initiatives and winning a New York man the right to "inherit" his dead partner's lease to their shared apartment (and setting a breakthrough precedent on the legal meaning of "family"). Each small victory was "like lifting a gag order on some segment of the community," says Cathcart. If you're no longer afraid of losing your children, job, apartment or life, you're freed to volunteer with the gay community center hotline, join the lesbian and gay square-dance group, lobby your state representative or, at the very least, come out to your mother. A new shared subculture began to thrive, complete with a lively lesbian and gay press, pride events, lobbyists and ever more rainbow kitsch.

Then William Jefferson Clinton blasted lesbian and gay issues onto the national stage. "Bill Clinton did more for the cause of gay and lesbian rights than John Kennedy did on race," says Frank. Clinton brilliantly used his bully pulpit on behalf of lesbians and gay men -- even while running. A national presidential candidate stood up and talked about gay rights as a righteous, even moral, civil-rights cause. And not in code or in private but in the full light of day. Sound minor? It had never happened before. Lesbians' and gay men's collective jaws dropped. The media -- having already gotten a behind-the-scenes education on gay and lesbian issues as their colleagues weakened with AIDS or came out -- tentatively followed Clinton's lead. By the time the 1992 Republican convention pushed the culture war onto national TV, attacking lesbians and gay men in language that made our grandmothers cringe, the media declared gay rights "a story."

And Clinton kept it up, appointing openly lesbian and gay men throughout his administration, from the patent office to ambassadorships, and unleashing agencies such as the Department of Justice to help rather than harm lesbian- and gay-advocacy efforts. Even when Clinton badly underestimated American antigay sentiment (as many nongay liberals still do), his ease with gay issues set off a global warming that seems to have permanently changed the cultural climate.

Need it be said that Clinton was far from perfect? His attempt to change the military's policy, firmly blocked by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, was disastrous. And yet the debate itself was a breakthrough. For the first time, lesbian and gay rights were treated as public-policy issues deserving serious political consideration; gay men and lesbians were discussed not as lisping (or swaggering) jokes but as folks who wanted to serve their country. By the time of the 1993 LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) March on Washington, that was the story the media chose to run: that homos were not all drag queens or leather men or dykes on bikes or even "transgressive" professors (not that there's anything wrong with those) but also the girls and boys next door.

Surely it's no accident that 1993 was the year that the Hawaii Supreme Court suggested same-sex couples might deserve civil marriage rights. The court eventually bowed to public antagonism, letting die many same-sex couples' dreams of lei-bedecked weddings. But that suggestion set off a nationwide debate that transformed, in many minds, the phrase "same-sex marriage" from an unthinkable oxymoron to an unstoppable eventuality. Yes, Congress passed and Clinton signed the hideously misnamed Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, which banned federal recognition of same-sex marriage just in case any state ever made marriage a possibility. But as with the military debate, that defeat boomeranged. The Jane and Joe Homos, many of whom had never before been activists, mobilized dramatically for marriage rights (despite the distress of certain lesbian and gay politicos who see marriage as a politically retro goal). And the marriage debates have been stereotype busting. If all gay men were really irresponsibly lascivious hedonists racing from one sad anonymous encounter to the next, why would they want to commit themselves to each other for life?

With these debates came innumerable opportunities for lesbians and gay men to tell their individual stories, both in the media and in private. And mainstream minds began to change, with astonishing speed. Frank suggests that's because, unlike any racial, ethnic, class or religious minority, lesbians and gay men were already integrated into the social fabric, albeit invisibly. That's quite different from the experience of, say, African Americans, who had to fight simply to enter various neighborhoods, schools and jobs. "Because of prejudice," says Frank, "black people and white people in America have been living very different lives." Economically, culturally and too often emotionally, that gulf between black and white can still be hard to bridge.

Not so with gay and straight. In families, at school and at work (those three mass socialization experiences), gay and straight folks have long been side by side, as sisters or sons, as vocational-school or Ivy League classmates, as truck drivers or rock stars. And so when lesbians and gay men started coming out, "People learned that a lot of people they liked and respected were gay and lesbian," says Frank. "The average American discovered that he wasn't homophobic: He just thought he was supposed to be."

By the time of Matthew Shepard's hideous death in 1998 -- only 14 years after Charlie Howard was thrown off a Portland, Maine, bridge to massive media silence and just a decade after Rebecca Wight was shot to death on the Appalachian Trail for kissing her girlfriend -- lesbians and gay men were no longer alone in grieving over an antigay hate crime. "Gay people and transgender people are no longer considered fair game," says Cathcart. "The definition of what shocks the conscience has changed."

With the visible emergence of real, ordinary lesbians and gay men, both in person and in the media, bias against us has rapidly crumbled. The poll numbers are enough to bring hope to any progressive heart, even in a time as coldly conservative as ours. In 1988, according to the National Election Survey, only 47 percent of Americans supported laws protecting lesbians and gay men against job discrimination; by 2000, that had jumped to 64 percent (including 56 percent of Republicans). In 1992, the same survey found that only 26 percent supported adoption rights for lesbians and gay men; in 2002, an ABC News poll found that support had jumped to 47 percent. Even on the volatile -- and central -- question of marriage rights, the issue that most stands for complete equality, there's been a 20-point leap in support. In 1992, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 27 percent of Americans supported civil marriage rights for same-sex pairs; in 2001, an astonishing 47 percent did. And in a spring 2002 California poll by the firm Decision Research, 75 percent expected that within their lifetimes, same-sex pairs would win civil marriage rights. High-school students favor LGBT rights and same-sex civil marriage in much higher numbers and with even more conviction -- suggesting an entirely different political landscape for lesbians and gay men in 20 or 30 years.

Unfortunately, there's very little that other progressive causes can learn from this cultural victory. "Freedom" is the consumer culture's watchword, an idea propagandized constantly: the freedom to choose one's work and one's love and to enjoy (or suffer) the consequences of one's choices. Cultural acceptance of lesbians and gay men perfectly fits that American social theology, that bedrock belief in liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But that freedom is literally priceless: It requires no new taxes. Tolerance asks for nothing from the public purse and threatens no industry; it requires no changes in hiring practices (except perhaps the rapidly spreading corporate habit of offering domestic-partnership benefits -- which, not coincidentally, costs almost nothing). In fact, many companies quickly figured out that an entirely new market segment -- middle-class lesbians and gay men -- were actually grateful to be winked at in Volkswagen or IKEA or Miller Lite commercials. "Not only does cultural acceptance cost nothing," says Sue Hyde, New England regional organizer for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, "but it actually makes the rich richer."

Compare that with anything else on a progressive's wish list: universal health care, a livable minimum wage, progressive taxation, racial equality, environmental preservation, comparable worth, subsidized child care, public housing. These ask Americans not for freedom from one another but responsibility for one another -- responsibilities that are most costly for those most likely to vote. "To what extent is the gay and lesbian movement overall a progressive movement?" muses Cathcart. While most self-identified lesbians and gay men are Democrats and many work actively on other progressive issues, there's a reason gay Republicans feel no contradiction between their two group memberships: Liberty and justice based on sexual orientation would redistribute not a penny.

Meanwhile, it's not yet time for the forces of justice to abandon the field; the gay and lesbian cultural victory is still pretty limited. The United States is the last developed country that bans lesbians and gay men from serving openly in the military, keeps sodomy laws on its books and refuses immigration rights to a citizen's foreign-born same-sex partner. And the handful of gay-rights wins are starred with caveats. Only in 1996's Romer v. Evans has the Supreme Court voted clearly against antigay animus, and that ruling is very limited. Yes, there's been a tremendous outcry against the Boy Scouts for banning gay leaders, but we actually lost that one in the Supreme Court. Ten states and a host of municipalities have added sexual orientation to their nondiscrimination laws -- but mostly where they're least needed. Young people coming out are still on a precarious and lonely perch: The Park Slope, N.Y., or Ann Arbor, Mich., kid with a hip family might do fine, but far too many teens are still beaten, locked in mental hospitals or thrown out on the street when they come out at home or school. Parenting rights for lesbian and gay couples are terrifyingly spotty [See E.J. Graff, "The Other Marriage War," TAP, April 8, 2002.]. And only the handful of same-sex couples who live in the state of Vermont -- total population 613,000, roughly 0.2 percent of the country -- have a pup tent's worth of legal recognition for their unions. And even that temporary roof evaporates if the couple drives to New Hampshire for dinner.

And then there's marriage, without which lesbians and gay men have trouble even burying their dead, much less collecting a loved one's pension or Social Security benefits. Thirty-five states have passed Defense of Marriage Act statutes, which will be tough to undo. Other moral panics have swept the country in times of social change: Anti-miscegenation laws passed after emancipation and the Comstock laws passed in the late 19th century, as birth rates began to drop and as women agitated for education and the vote. Those statutes took between 50 and 100 years (and the brief heyday of the Warren Court) to sweep completely off the books. Right now, it looks possible that the Massachusetts and New Jersey courts might grant marriage rights within the next couple of years. Many of us believe that would guarantee another 50 or so years of court battles over whether those marriages are valid in such states as Alabama, Nebraska and Utah. But then, no sane political observer would have predicted our 1990s cultural victories. Given enough help from our progressive friends, can lesbians and gay men beat the clock? Tune in next decade to find out.