Lesbian and gay groups were elated last week when the federal government announced that same-sex partners of victims in the 9-11 attack might qualify for benefits. It was a historic opening—yet the door was left swinging. Decisions on eligibility will be made on a case-by-case basis, taking state rules into account. In New York, there shouldn’t be a problem, but consider Peggy Neff’s situation. As the partner of a woman killed in the Pentagon bombing, she received a letter of condolence from the state of Virginia—along with the news that she was ineligible for survivor benefits.
Welcome to queer life: a cabaret of contradictions that play as progress. When the Voice asked several gay and lesbian groups to list the year’s most significant events, the answers read like Dickens’s description of the French Revolution: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
First the good news: Maryland became the 12th state to add sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination laws; gays came out ahead in four out of five ballot initiatives; the president was shamed out of making a secret anti-gay deal with the Salvation Army; Congress finally allowed Washington, D.C., to offer domestic-partner benefits to some city workers; the Netherlands became the first nation to grant full same-sex marriage rights; Paris and Berlin boast openly gay mayors. And yet . . .
An anti-gay pogrom rages in Egypt, where more than 50 men arrested at a Cairo club have been subjected to harrowing show trials on charges of immorality. The Boy Scouts’ war against queers goes on, as does the battle in mainstream Protestant denominations over fully accepting us into the fold. Our very nature has been called into question by a prominent psychiatrist who declared that some “highly motivated” homosexuals can change. The faith-based initiative that passed the House gives religious groups free rein to discriminate against us, while the law that would add sexual orientation to federal anti-bias statutes still languishes in Congress.
Meanwhile in the media, our hyper-visibility came accompanied by a vicious—and validated—backlash. Eminem won his Grammy in part because the same hip types who support our rights also enjoy hearing us bashed on the radio. The same studios that make gays prime-time icons excised homosexuality from the character played by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, no doubt because it might hurt his macho creds. The same public that believes we aren’t treated fairly harbors fantasies of us as emblems of evil. Consider this year’s spate of demonic outings, involving everyone from Hitler to Mohamed Atta. Why would John Walker join the Taliban? It must be because, when he was 16, his father reportedly moved in with an another man.
In the gay-life cabaret, one person’s freedom is another’s oppression. The movement’s success has produced a class of homosexual gentlemen who work and play in relative safety, but the queer poor remain at risk, especially as they navigate a social welfare system that refuses to recognize their existence. The censoring of AIDS prevention ads in the Bronx, simply because they acknowledged the reality of homosex among men who don’t consider themselves homosexual, was a glaring reminder of how wide the status gap between queers of different classes and cultures remains.
But even in major American institutions, bastions of sanctioned homophobia still stand. The military is the most notorious offender, but there is also the average American schoolhouse, where more than 2 million young people are subject to homophobic harassment, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. Anti-gay violence remains the third largest category of hate crimes. And a Kaiser Family Foundation study published last month shows that fully 97 percent of gay people feel vulnerable to discrimination. More than a quarter have experienced serious problems, mostly in housing, health care, and employment. Yet gay Republicans maintain that we are only “virtual victims” of bias, a stunning example of their refusal to see beyond the brunch table.
Last year, sociologist Mary Virginia Lee Badgett published convincing evidence that gays actually earn less than straights. But the stereotype of fey affluence makes the gay right’s spurious reasoning seem plausible to urbane heterosexuals. It corresponds to the gay life they see around them: a world that looks as primped and prosperous as a miniature village in a Christmas shop window. They never see the other side of the electric-train tracks.
What lies ahead in a year of hard times? A series of challenges made more formidable because they stem from the Bush administration’s policy of stealth homophobia. This strategy means stroking the elite by making a couple of gay appointments while promoting legislation with a hidden impact on many gay lives. Charitable choice is only the most dramatic of these threats: As currently constituted, it would make hundreds of thousands of queer workers and clients subject to discrimination. But consider the proposed welfare reform package, which would penalize single parents. As a recent report by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s policy institute makes clear, in the eyes of the law, all lesbian and gay parents are single. We can’t form families in the legal sense, so we can’t avoid penalties aimed at convincing parents to marry. It’s like being offered a place at the table without a plate.
These paradoxes make it all the more urgent for gays to reject the right, including gayocons who claim we don’t need anti-bias laws. As long as there is something to be gained—politically or psychically—from homophobia, we will need to seek legal redress. The personal is political for us, whether we like it or not. That makes it crucial to distinguish between our true allies and faux friends, and not just in government.
Once the war on terror loses its news value, the media will return to the subject of homosexuality with its usual morbid fascination. Next year’s hot queer issue may be the one suggested by the title of a Nightline series that got postponed in the aftermath of 9-11. It posed the trendy question of whether gay life was “a matter of choice.”
Sooner or later, we will find ourselves pressed to convey the truth about our identity, and it’s not easy to sum up in a sound bite. Homosexual desire is innate, but the decision to build a life around it is a choice. In this respect, gayness is much like a faith. Most of us are raised with a religious identity, but we decide whether to live by it or not. Just as the Constitution protects that choice, our struggle is to extend freedom to the crucial arena of gender and sexuality. That’s ultimately what our movement is about: the right to be gay and to express it. As the mayor of Berlin declared when he came out during his campaign: I’m gay und es ist gut so!—”and it’s good that way!”
This is precisely the paradox that haunts us: Gay is good—yet it’s not.