Teaching Tolerance

Congratulations, Mr. President! The progressive lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) community is delighted that you have an opportunity to turn America back on a path to tolerance. Here's what we expect in return: no more, and no less, than what we got from William Jefferson Clinton.

What's that? You say that Clinton botched every piece of LGBT–related legislation he touched? True enough. His “don't ask, don't tell” policy did make life worse for lesbians and gay men in the military, increasing the numbers of gay-related discharges. And he did sign into law the nasty 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which officially decreed that the federal marriage algorithm was limited to boy + girl, no substitutions.

But until Congress turns blue, we really don't expect you to push much LGBT–related legislation. What we do expect is strong moral leadership. Clinton moved LGBT issues forward by light-years, simply by talking about and treating us as full human beings and valuable American citizens.

Clinton's stand took political courage in 1991, back when LGBT issues were still radioactive. But we won that culture war. Here's a little secret that the pollsters haven't figured out: Most Americans don't really care very much about homos, one way or the other. Have you noticed how national poll results swing wildly when voters are asked whether they back a federal marriage amendment? That's because most Americans don't think enough about lesbian and gay issues to have a firm opinion either way--and are probably holding two contradictory points of view at once. On the one hand, they believe the Constitution is a sacred document, guaranteeing liberty and justice for all, and is far too important to screw up. On the other hand, they're not entirely comfortable with queers, and are nervous about opening marriage's doors. But given a few years, the ho-hum example of Massachusetts--and, soon, New Jersey--newlyweds will start dissolving those anxieties like Xanax, at least outside the Deep South. Even there, where some rad-right religious leaders insist that we're infectious sinners who can bring down civilization, large numbers of their followers now know (and like) LGBT family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. They may know we're going to hell, but they're not quite as certain that we need to be electorally cleansed.

So here's your job: Reinforce Americans' leanings toward our better civic ideals through show and tell. When you talk about helping all working families, make sure your photo ops include not just senior couples, three-generation African American families, and minimum-wage moms but also lesbian and gay families (with and without kids). When you appoint lesbian and gay officials and judges and ambassadors, invite their partners or spouses and children onto the platform for the announcement and the swearing in. When you undo “don't ask, don't tell,” showcase the real soldiers, sailors, pilots, translators, and Marines who've been needlessly kicked out of the military. Reveal us as human beings.

Next, tell. When LGBT folks are attacked, quickly and forcefully speak out against meanness and division, and in favor of making room for everyone. Just shut up already about how much you're against same-sex marriage--message received!--and talk instead about the globally admired, centuries-long American commitment to liberty, which keeps expanding to embrace people once despised. Agree with Dick Cheney that marriage has always and should continue to be left to the states. Insist that it hurts everyone when constitutions are amended lightly to enforce one generation's biases. Talk about getting government out of our bedrooms and back into the boardrooms, where cleansing really is needed.

And after you've taken care of the current crises (Iraq, the economy, restoring the bright line between church and state), please do one thing more: Take one action on behalf of the most vulnerable LGBT folks--teenagers. Kids who are just figuring out that they're gay (or whose classmates are figuring it out for them, because they're either too butch or too fey) are often miserably isolated. They're years away from being able to find--much less lean on--a wider LGBT community or family of friends. Some of these kids get kicked out into the street, or run away from beatings when their parents find out about their orientation. Others get used by the football team for target practice. Insist that no child should have to risk his or her life just by going to homeroom. Use October 11, which is National Coming Out Day, to announce a national safe-schools initiative that will protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered--indeed, all--kids against bullying and bashing.

The prescription is simple: Show us as human. Speak out against attacks. Help Americans live up to our civic beliefs. Talk is cheap--and very effective when used right.

E.J. Graff is a Prospect senior correspondent.