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The Gathering Storm Over Gay Rights

Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (and a former pollster), agrees. "I think this is an aberration," he says. "But if Massachusetts goes our way, we are going to witness a backlash the likes of which we've never, never, never seen."

Just last month, New York Times columnist Frank Rich declared that opponents of gay rights were "on a collision course with history." His evidence included the blasé reaction to the recent Tony Awards broadcast featuring a prime-time kiss between the two male lovers who wrote Hairspray. Rich also cited the explosion of plays, films, and TV shows featuring gay characters. To him, this trend is "consistent with a juggernaut that's been building in tandem with the modern gay civil rights movement."

Illustration by Jonathan Barkat
Illustration by Jonathan Barkat

If only.

Yes, America is in the throes of a fascination with all things gay. Yes, the media are treating Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as if it were the Second Coming. Yes, homos are turning up in all sorts of unlikely places. This week, auditions will be held for "the first openly gay country music star," as if such things can be programmed—and perhaps they can. But anyone who regards pop culture as the tail that leads the horse of politics has a lesson to learn from Gallup.

Culture and politics do operate together, but not necessarily in tandem. Rather than reflecting a shift in acceptance, the new queer visibility may be fueling resentment. TV shows featuring well-heeled, happy homos feed the perception that gays are doing fine—so why should they qualify for "special" rights? Gays themselves are prone to see these spectacles as proof that the struggle has been won. But if millions watch Will & Grace, millions more are appalled by it; that's the nature of niche marketing. Nonstop media chatter about these shows gives the impression that everything on TV is gay. Add the Supreme Court's sodomy decision and the Canadian move toward same-sex marriage, and you've got a picture of radical change. This image may belie the fact that progress on gay rights is incremental at best, but it frightens the masses nonetheless.

Fundamentalists aren't the only ones upset. The rising prestige of homosexuals threatens a much more diverse population: those who feel anxious about their uncertain status. It was one thing to sympathize with gays when they were pariahs; it's quite another to embrace gays as equals and even potential competitors.

African Americans were once staunch supporters of gay rights, and most black leaders still are. It's no accident that the two black presidential candidates, Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun, are the strongest proponents of gay marriage in the Democratic pack. If there's a new wariness in the congregation, it may stem from the experience of seeing group after group rise while blacks are left behind.

The poor are less sanguine about gay rights than the prosperous. High school dropouts are more distressed by gay unions than those with college degrees. Every poll, including Gallup's, shows that support for same-sex marriage is higher among women than men. Women are looking up toward power, while men are looking nervously down. To guys under duress, the glut of gay shows is yet another insurrection—and gay marriage is a fucking coup d'état.

Cultural commentators don't spend much time in the harsher precincts of Bush's America. In their secure circles, gay rights is a testament to freedom, not a threat. The mainstream gay movement sees the world through this same rosy lens. Its middle-class focus keeps it from noticing the dissed and dispossessed, who tend to view gays as sinners with way too much power. This bitter perspective will seem familiar to students of Jewish history. Not that queers are headed for concentration camps, but unless the triumphal mood submits to a reality check, the current wave of resentment could become tidal. It's crucial not to confuse a pop trend with a juggernaut.

American history is rife with examples of progress rolled back. Blacks who rose during reconstruction were crushed by the Jim Crow laws that followed. Women who entered the workforce during the Second World War were redomesticated in the 1950s. There's no such thing as a one-way road to liberation. Yet the media prompt gay people to put on a happy face, and this upbeat image is compounded by the reluctance of gays to talk about their pain—it's considered wussy these days.

"Even our friends and families aren't aware of the challenges we must deal with," says Nadine Smith, co-chair of the Federation of Statewide LGBT Advocacy Organizations. "The reason is that we shield them from this knowledge. We have to be much more willing to talk about the frustration in our lives, and we've got to tell the truth about how the lack of legal protections impacts us in real, human ways."

The old gay-lib slogan is still true: We are everywhere. But the mainstream gay movement projects a refined white face, furthering the perception that it represents an elite. The right is careful to put people of color on talk shows; so must gays. We should be sending queer griots into black churches, celebrating the major role lesbians have played in the Latino struggle, telling the stories of homos growing up in trailers. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has taken an important step in this direction by committing itself to building a multiracial movement. But the populist impulse is hardly central to gay politics. There's no gay version of the fundamentalist network that reaches out to the working class—and no queer equivalent of Ralph Reed.

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