State of the Union: Gay Rights

It's been a long time coming, but it would seem that support for gay rights has finally become the new normal in America. What accounts for this transformation? Read on.

The first chink in the armor was clearly the repeated hypocrisy of vocal anti-gay crusaders being repeatedly caught en flagrante with members of the same sex. So now when we hear a politician or religious leader making virulently offensive statements about gays, we assume it's just a matter of time before they demonstrate their love and respect for family and for proper American values, in ways including but not limited to internet prostitution, airport cottaging and general duplicitous douchebaggery (that one's for you, David Frum).

It's not just the closet gays in the Right that have set these wheels in motion. Again and again, the people who preach 'family values' most loudly have proven that they possess the least understanding of it. Everytime a David Vitter or Mark Sanford appears on the news with walls of frost separating them from their wives, real Americans with real families question whether these are the people we want to follow on any sort of 'values.' And by extension, we then question the substance of the values themselves and return, if only for a little while, to revering ideals of tolerance, honesty and Golden Rules of every stripe.

Flash-forward to summer 2010. School bullying had already been front page news for most of the year, due to the general interest raised by the circumstances surrounding the Phoebe Prince case. So in a sense, America was primed to be horrified by any new suicides caused by bullying. The Phoebe Prince case reminded the aging media consumer exactly how cruel kids can be, and how that cruelty is intensified by modern technology. Bullying was no longer ignored as the product of harmless childhood insecurity.

This meant that when the news was saturated by the rash of gay teen suicides in July/August, these poor kids captured the general public's empathy: we recognized that these children were perniciously victimized, they were not emotional weaklings who took their lives because they couldn't' handle a bit of teasing. The synergistic energy of these events have rebranded all acts of victimization, even semantic ones (gay epithets) as an epidemic that needs vaccination, not bandaids after the fact. Ensuring the safety of all youth means, by default, GLBT youth as well.

Of all the deaths that were reported, one really captured the public imagination: Tyler Clementi. In this case it wasn't just the bullying that horrified us, it was the way it was conducted. His roomate made disdainful comments on twitter, sending the news of Clementi's activity to the entire world. But of course the biggest privacy violation was yet to come: when Clementi asked for private time in the room for a date, the bully set up a secret camera and a live feed so that the whole world could intrude on Clementi's private activity. Social media as a tool for privacy violation has been big news as more and more revelations come up about Google and Facebook selling data on users to the highest bidder. The ring of a familiar tragedy, exacerbated by the extensity and velocity of modern communication, made for an explosive combination. For the first time, the horror people displayed at the broadcast was not the fact that two men were kissing, it's the fact that the roommate thought he had the right to violate Clementi in this manner.


Media Pressure
  • Andrew Shirvell, Michigan's assistant attorney general, has been summarily fired after a bizarre crusade against the gay student body president of the University of Michigan. The cause of his downfall? Like many a Greek tragedy, hubris. The blog he created, filled with accusations with no relation to fact, went largely unnoticed for months, until Attorney General Mike Cox agreed to an interview with Anderson Cooper to defend his decision not to fire Shirvell. And then of course, like the champion chump that Shirvell is, he went on the Daily Show to defend himself, and was promptly eviscerated by Jason Jones. He was fired two days later.

  • While John McCain continues to cement his status as hypocrite of the year by promising to do everything he can to prevent the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell (henceforth referred to as DADT), his wife, Cindy, and his daughter, Megan, are running around the country, acting in ads and writing editorials eviscerating the government for institutionalizing discrimination against gays in the form of DADT and the ban on gay marriage. As you can imagine, the Cindy McCain story caught fire in the media, because her ad was released the same day that John McCain proclaimed his crusade.

Market Pressure
  • Disney is forced to pull the trailer for The Tourist, (which admittedly looked pretty dire anyway). The reason? Almost everyone who saw the trailer was offended by Vince Vaughn's joke using the word 'gay' in a derogatory manner, and spammed Disney with letters and calls. I can personally speak to how glad I was about this, given how often I had to listen to jocks call gay kids 'faggots' in high school, and each time it sounded like a whip crack.

Legal Pressure
  • While the Supreme Court has declined to make a ruling on DADT, the federal judge's injunction still stands, at least until the Department of Justice fulfills their legal obligation to defend the practice. Thus, Obama travels an Orwellian circle and becomes the first President in history who not only gets what he claims to want (a repeal of DADT), but returns it with a note saying, "Thanks but no thanks, but I'd prefer to do this the hard way. Congress is awesome." Even so, the precedent is set, and once a legislative decision is achieved, then the principle will be enshrined in multiple bodies (and will therefore be almost impossible to overturn).

  • Unlike in the federal courts, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown have declined to appeal the court decision overturning Prop 8 in California. A citizen activist group has appealed the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court rules on Dec. 6, but it is widely expected that the case will be thrown out on the basis that the citizens group had no standing to appeal. Only the state government had the right to appeal, and they declined to participate. So there's a high likelihood that come the New Year, gay marriage will be legal in California.

Military Pressure
  • While the final ruling on DADT is pending, Army officials are using their discretion and choosing not to discharge outed soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • The leaked Pentagon review has proven that the majority of soldiers and commanders do not have a problem with openly gay soldiers serving in the military, which directly contradicts the long standing argument that allowing openly gay troops will compromise military readiness.

I'm not trying to say there aren't difficult hurdles to cross in the forms of wealthy activist groups and entrenched intolerance. President Obama has been especially disappointing in the arena of gay rights. But, after all, this is The Oncoming Hope, not The Oncoming "Things That Make Me Tear My Hair Out." And the fact is, there has never been so much mainstream media attention on these issues before, and with each new revelation of misconduct, more people will shift to the cause.

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