In spite of the passage of Prop 8 in California and Amendment 2 in Florida, Hendrik Hertzberg sees a glimmer of hope for gay rights in America.
The defenders of equal access to marriage, in other words, think their problem was tactical—“messaging,” not substance. They are probably right. In the days after the election, tens of thousands of people, gay and straight, took to the streets of cities and towns throughout the country in spontaneously organized protest. But the mood at these gatherings, by all accounts, was seldom angry; it was cheerful, determined, and hopeful. From 1998 to 2006, bans on same-sex marriage were put on the ballot in one state or another thirty times, and twenty-nine times the people voted for them. This year, in addition to California, Florida passed a ban; Arizona, which in 2006 had been the one exception, reversed itself and did the same; more cruelly, Arkansas approved a ballot measure depriving gay men and lesbians of the right to adopt children. But all this has about it the feel of a last stand.
Like a polluted swamp, anti-gay bigotry is likely to get thicker and more toxic as it dries up. Viciousness meets viscousness. “Look,” Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, said the other day (on the air, to Bill O’Reilly), “I think there is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us, is prepared to use violence. . . . I think that it is a very dangerous threat to anybody who believes in traditional religion. And I think if you believe in historic Christianity, you have to confront the fact.” For diversity’s sake, he added that “the historic version of Islam” and “the historic version of Judaism” are likewise menaced—which is natural, given that gay, secular, fascist values are “the opposite of what you’re taught in Sunday school.”
This sort of sludge may or may not prove to be of some slight utility in the 2012 Republican primaries, but it is, increasingly, history. A couple of days before the California vote, the San Francisco Chronicle’s John Wildermuth noticed a “No on Prop 8” sign on a front lawn. The lawn and the sign belonged to Steve Young, the football Hall of Famer and former 49er quarterback, and his wife, Barb. Steve Young is a graduate of Brigham Young University, which is named for his great-great-great-grandfather. The Youngs still belong to the Mormon Church. “We believe all families matter and we do not believe in discrimination,” Barb Young said. “Therefore, our family will vote against Prop 8.” It wasn’t enough this time. But the time is coming.
If history is any guide, the most violent reactions to the civil rights marches in the South in the 1960’s came at the end of the battle as Americans and Congress responded with revulsion to the hoses, truncheons, and Sheriff Clark. Perhaps the more people like Newt Gingrich and James Dobson speak out arrogantly in favor of continuing to deny equality to citizens, the more people like the Youngs will stand up and speak out against their bigotry.