At press time, the fat judges have yet to sing, so it’s still unclear who the next president will be. But the media consensus is that the man holding the Bible come January 20 will be George W. Bush. It seems appropriate to speculate about the impact of a presumptive Bush administration on those whose lives depend on redress from the government. Especially since we already know that Congress will remain in Republican hands.
Out in punditstan, the word is that Republicans will govern from the center, if only because they have no choice. But what ultimately matters in American politics is who won, not by how much. The current Senate split won’t last once Bush starts picking off Democrats for his “unity” cabinet. And Republicans will enhance their nine-seat House majority in the usual way: by counting on blue-dog Democrats. The notion that conservatives will be stopped by gridlock from carrying out their agenda is naive at best.
And unless the courts rule for Gore, there won’t be a Democratic president—not even a Great Satan like Bill Clinton—to veto legislation that gives away the surplus to the rich. When the fundamentalists come calling, you bet your beatitude that late-term abortion will become illegal and parental notification will be the law of the land.
All that is necessary for the Republicans to rule is that they do it charmingly. And the right is sure to oblige. The rabid tone of the Clinton years will be replaced with what The Nation calls “a stealth conservatism . . . that conceals a hardcore agenda.” Just as it’s hard to rage against sweet talk, it will be difficult to detect the injustice in this etiquette of mannerly oppression.
For that reason, among others, it’s instructive to consider what a Bush administration would mean for gay people. After all, the gay movement is the flash point of the conflict between liberalism and fundamentalism. In a larger sense, it’s a signpost of the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. Like the Jews—another pariah caste that came to freedom (and eventually annihilation) through the rise and fall of liberalism—gay people are canaries in the mine of modernity. Their fate is a harbinger of social reality.
So check out this greeting from Rich Tafel, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans: “We applaud President-elect Bush for becoming the first Republican President to actively reach out to gay and lesbian Americans.” Of course, this outreach occurred only after the most prolonged arm twisting. Bush met with gay Republicans during the campaign, but he also helped to exclude them from the Texas state Republican convention.
Unmentioned in press releases about this belated encounter was Bush’s actual record on gay rights. As governor, he acted to prevent gay adoptions, was instrumental in killing a measure adding gays to the state’s hate-crimes law, and voiced his support for sodomy laws. Bush would allow Tafel to be arrested for having sex in the state of Texas—even though he is willing to shake his hand.
This distinction between posture and policy is at the heart of the new stealth conservatism. It’s a strategy of courtesy in the service of control. As this ploy plays out, it will mean no legislation protecting lesbians and gays from discrimination. (Bush calls this “special rights.”) It will set “don’t ask, don’t tell” in stone. And it will jeopardize policies enacted by Clinton in circumvention of Congress. Will Bush retain the executive order that protects hundreds of thousands of gay employees in the federal workplace? Not likely if the right demands otherwise. When the government turns over social-service funds to the churches, will Bush assure that queer clients are treated fairly? Not likely if the reverends who run these programs object.
Befitting their position as canaries, gays are vulnerable to bigotry in a way that other groups are not. Federal courts have yet to find a constitutional right to be homosexual. So far, the Supreme Court has ruled only that gays cannot be excluded from the political process, but other decisions affirm the right to discriminate against queers, not to mention criminalize sodomy. The rights of gay people are revocable to an alarming degree, if the political will exists.
And if the last election is any gauge, in many states it does. Voters in Nebraska amended their constitution to forbid same-sex marriage (and even domestic partnerships). Voters in Maine rejected a simple antidiscrimination bill. And in progressive Vermont—the only state to pass a civil-union law—Republicans overthrew a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and nearly unseated the popular Democratic governor who had signed the law. Nothing in Bush’s history suggests that he will interfere with this antigay agenda as it advances. By simply doing nothing while maintaining a respectful attitude, he could preside over a serious retrenchment in gay rights.
No doubt this backlash would take place under the media’s radar (much as the last election’s losses for gay rights did). It would occur as America convinces itself that all gay people live like the characters in Will & Grace. And it would unfold while Tafel assures gay Republicans that, under a Bush administration, “We will go to work, love our families, buy homes, and build lives. . . . None of this will change.”
In a sense, Tafel is right. For queers who have achieved these emoluments of integration, Bush will not intrude. Assuming they do not run into the violence that is a risk for even well-fed members of a pariah caste, these good old gay boys will probably ride out the coming storm. The hard rain will fall on those who are already exposed to the elements. Just as poor women—and girls—will feel the brunt of laws restricting access to abortion, the true fury of homophobia will be felt outside the large cities, outside the middle class, outside of white maleness. This is why civil rights laws are necessary in the first place: not to sanction the already secure, but to create the same safety for all.
Yet the essence of stealth conservativism is to engender a world where status is destiny. Them that have get left alone. Them that need must bear the added burden of bigotry. And any sense of connection between the haves and have-nots—or between sexual freedom and social justice—seems symbolic at best.
This is the era we seem about to enter. It’s an auspicious moment for a gayocon like Andrew Sullivan, who opposes affirmative action and abortion rights, and who believes the gay movement should confine itself to civic rituals like marriage. Get fired or evicted for being queer and it’s not his problem. After gays have won the right to marry, Sullivan says, they should have a big party and call their movement off.
This is the harsh mercy of an activism that rests on self-interest. Welcome to the world Billie Holiday described in her bitter incantation: “God bless the child that’s got its own.”