“A milestone,” crowed the Human Rights Campaign, America’s most prominent gay political group. Yet this major moment went by with hardly a note of official fanfare. Few bills whisk past the president’s desk as quietly as the Mychal Judge Act, signed on June 24 and announced by the White House in a one-sentence e-mail posted at night to attract the least possible attention. Nor does this landmark legislation ever mention the word gay. Imagine a civil rights law that doesn’t include the word race and you can see the significance of this omission. Ronald Reagan’s refusal to say AIDS inspired one of the most important political slogans of our time: “Silence = Death.” But these days, silence is taken as a sign of progress.
Not that the Mychal Judge Act, named for the chaplain who died at Ground Zero, is meaningless. It allows police and firefighters to designate a $250,000 death benefit to the survivors of their choice. If you look at the glass as half full, you can see a precedent, since this is the first time a same-sex partner can qualify for any federal benefit. But looking at the glass another way, Donald Manzullo, the anti-gay Illinois Republican who co-sponsored the law, describes it as “a bill of general application” that has nothing to do with what he would no doubt call special rights. After all, Father Mychal’s beneficiary is his sister.
Deniability is what it takes to pass even the most modest pro-gay legislation these days. Yet George Bush gets a gold star for signing a phantom civil rights act. What a cheap date HRC turns out to be. It falls for the grandest of romantic illusions: seeing a wedding in a wink.
Ever since the inauguration, homocons have touted W. as a gay-friendly president. But what has Bush actually done for us?
His most positive gesture is preserving policies and executive orders put in place by Bill Clinton. These protections against discrimination affect tens of thousands of gay federal workers. The Judge Act, worthy as it may be, applies only to the partners of cops, firefighters, and chaplains. Not many of these folks have same-sex spouses. What’s more, not even the lucky few covered by this law will be eligible for Social Security and other benefits that married survivors get. And the great majority of gay workers (those who haven’t hooked up with a firefighter or a cop) won’t see any change in their situation at all. What kind of milestone is that?
If anything, this faux flirtation highlights the difference between the left and right when it comes to gay rights. Liberals back legislation that will move the whole community toward freedom from discrimination. That’s what the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would accomplish. The right remains opposed to this bill—and as for the gay right, its attitude toward ENDA can be most charitably described as ambivalent. Though the Log Cabin Republicans claim to support this legislation, they’re engaged in an ongoing campaign to convince us that it isn’t really necessary. “I can tell you anecdotally that as I travel all over the country, I almost never hear from anyone who was fired because they were gay,” notes Log Cabin chief Rich Tafel.
Of course discrimination isn’t a burning issue in Tafel’s prosperous circle! But queers who are poor, black, too butch, or too femme are discriminated against all the time—and these people are the silent majority of our community. The heart of Bush’s domestic program will make life harder for many of them. His faith-based initiative would subsidize the sexual bigotry of religious institutions that offer social services. His school-voucher plan would funnel funds to churches that teach homophobia and refuse to hire gays. His pro-marriage welfare initiative would penalize gay parents, none of whom are considered married. These programs may not be explicitly anti-gay, but their effect shatters the contention that Bush is a friend to the friends of Dorothy.
Unlike HRC, fundamentalists know the difference between a Cracker Jack prize and the real thing. That’s why they’ve held their heavy fire on the Judge Act. There’s been just enough carping from mega-phobes like Lou Sheldon to create the illusion that Bush is standing up to his right flank on gay rights. But consider the deal he tried to make with the Salvation Army. It would have exempted faith-based charities from local gay rights laws. If The Washington Post hadn’t blown the whistle, this arrangement probably would have stood. Yet we’re urged to overlook such glaring evidence of Bush’s real intention. He will do the right thing only when he risks the least capital to get the greatest return.
It’s not hard to figure out why the Republicans are sending coy signals to the gay community. Homosexuals are one of those larger-than-life minorities: politically active, generous (giving some $18 million to the Democrats in the 2000 race), and located largely in key electoral states. Some 25 percent of gay voters went for Bush, a number far less significant than the Log Cabinites claim, since about 70 percent voted for Gore. But Republicans are convinced they can make inroads into this Democratic base by throwing a wishbone to the gay community while feeding an entire carcass to the right.
We live in a time when expectations are so low that it’s possible to confuse the pretense of tolerance with the will to change. All John Ashcroft has to do is permit a gay-pride forum at the Justice Department and his slate is wiped clean. Never mind the beliefs he brings to making judicial recommendations or his longtime opposition to gay rights. Indeed, Ashcroft opposed the Judge Act, warning that it would have “unintended and unfortunate results.” His unintended consequence is our equality.
Yet, to Chris Crane, who runs a syndicate of gay papers, Ashcroft “just isn’t the nightmare we were warned about, at least so far.” That’s true if you judge a threat solely by the noise it makes. As for Bush, Crain writes in the Washington Blade, “his brand of ‘compassionate conservatism’ at least appears to be generally sunny and benign, looking at sexual orientation through something like the ‘colorblind’ perspective that Ronald Reagan viewed race.” This is an all-too-apt comparison, since Reagan’s “colorblind” policies had a devastating effect on the poor. Bush’s benign neglect could have a similar impact on the least fortunate gay people, those who need civil rights protections most.
His program will pass, homophobia and all, if the Senate reverts to the Republicans next fall. On the other hand, if the Senate remains as it is and the House goes Democratic, ENDA will very likely appear on the president’s desk. Then we’ll see what substance there is to the sunshine.
The real question is why the gay community settles for so little when we can achieve so much—if only we keep our eyes on the difference between a wedding and a wink.
Richard Goldstein is the author of The Attack Queers: Liberal Society and the Gay Right (Verso).