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The Gathering Storm Over Gay Rights

This is a moment of woe and wonder for supporters of gay rights. The Episcopalians elected their first openly gay bishop, braving a last-minute sex scandal and the threat of schism. The Massachusetts Supreme Court is about to rule on legalizing gay unions. The first LGBT high school is set to open in New York City. And Jay Leno got a makeover from the boys of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

But there are also signs of a serious backlash. On Wednesday, the president vowed to codify "one way or the other" the "sanctity of marriage" between a man and a woman. On Thursday, the Vatican launched a crusade against same-sex unions, equating gay parenting with doing violence to children. On Friday, a group of Latino ministers led by Ruben Diaz, the city's most homophobic politician, pledged to cut off public funding for the Harvey Milk School. And on Tuesday, Episcopalian dissidents denounced the election as a "cancer on the body of Christ." They are hoping higher Anglican authorities will reverse it, under a 1998 resolution declaring that "homosexual relations are incompatable with the church."

The most ominous news of all was last week's Gallup poll, commissioned by CNN and USA Today. Its numbers were so stunning that the surveyors ran a second poll, but the results were similar. For the first time in nearly a decade, support for key items on the gay rights agenda has declined.

In May, 60 percent of Gallup respondents thought gay sex should be legal, but by last week that number had shrunk to 48 percent. For the first time since 1997, a majority think being gay is not an "acceptable alternative lifestyle." And when it comes to civil unions, the trend towardacceptance has been reversed. Fifty-seven percent think gay couples should not have the same rights as married people, the highest number since Gallup first posed the question in 2000.

Nor is this opposition limited to the right. The biggest negative shift has occurred among moderates and even liberals. In May, 80 percent of liberals favored gay civil unions, if not full-blown marriage; in July, that number was down by 23 percent. Support for same-sex marriage rights has always been shaky among African Americans, but they have never thought sodomy should be a crime—until now. In the new Gallup poll, only 36 percent of blacks think gay sex should be legal, compared with 58 percent who thought so in May.

Do these new numbers signal a major shift? Leading gay activists think not. "What counts is the movie, not the snapshot," says Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry. "If you look at poll after poll over the past few years, it's clear that the long-term trend is toward acceptance of marriage equality." That's also what Human Rights Campaign, the national gay lobby, surmises from its own poll and another by the prestigious Pew Forum. But both these surveys were conducted weeks before Gallup's. Wolfson cites favorable polls in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California. Support for gay marriage is strongest on the coasts, but it's another story in the South and Midwest, where large majorities oppose allowing people of the same sex to wed.

The good news is that a majority of young people still support this cause. The bad news is that the elderly, the poor, the rural, and the religious do not. This broad opposition will be significant if state legislatures are asked to ratify the Federal Marriage Amendment. The president has yet to endorse it, but the measure already has 70 Republican (and six Democratic) sponsors in the House, and last week the Senate Republican Policy Committee urged its passage. There are other moves the GOP could make, such as stiffening the Defense of Marriage Act or voting to withhold federal funds from states that allow same-sex weddings.

Ethel Klein, president of EDK Associates, which analyzes polling data, thinks that whatever the White House is planning could happen soon. "There's always something about homosexuality a year before an election, so they can give something to their base," Klein says. "Then they move away from it as the election gets closer." Activists are girding for a swift reaction if the Massachusetts court rules for same-sex marriage. They are less worried about white Catholics, who are generally supportive of gay rights despite the pope's injunctions, than about Latinos and African Americans. Fundamentalists have been organizing in these communities. The public face of the marriage amendment campaign is Walter Fauntroy, a leading black politician, and its board of advisers includes at least six black ministers.

To Klein, the Gallup poll reflects the conflict many Americans feel between fairness and morality. It has surfaced now, with the sudden surge in gay rights. "People may be supportive in the abstract, but once things get shaken up, those who are weak in their approval begin to waver," Klein says. In 1992, she notes, there was growing acceptance of lesbians and gays serving in the military, but when Clinton made it look real, the polls showed a change. The same thing occurred in 1977, when Miami passed a gay rights ordinance, and Anita Bryant led a successful campaign to repeal it. But a new law was passed in 1998, and last year another repeal campaign failed. More than a decade after "Don't ask, don't tell," a former general and possible presidential candidate, Wesley Clark, favors ending the ban. Once people absorb change, they relax—or so activists with a sense of history believe. But Klein warns, "You'd have to be an idiot to ignore these numbers."

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."

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 Guyas 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.

Whatever their differences, fundamentalists work together. This cohesion has allowed them to direct their resources toward cultivating majorities, state by state. The gay movement, on the other hand, is proudly amorphous and famously schismatic. This culture may be changing. Nadine Smith's federation is dedicated to sharing information among local gay activists. On July 21 it met with national marriage-advocacy organizations, exploring something like a coordinated strategy. When major gay groups hold black-tie dinners to support the Rural Organizing Project, we will know that the movement is rising to the challenge ahead.

The fight over same-sex marriage may seem like a moment of truth for gay rights, but it's bigger than even that. We are moving toward a decisive juncture in the culture wars, with queers—those consummate creatures of modernism—directly in the line of fire.

"This campaign is going to be about much more than freedom to marry," says NGLTF's Matt Foreman. "It's going to be about the demonization of our people, and about legislating our second-class citizenship forever. When this battle is joined, the only way we will prevail is if everyone in the community unites. Whether people are for or against gay marriage, everyone has a piece of this fight. We have to understand the peril we're facing—and the promise."

So open your queer eyes.


Research: Matthew Phillp

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