One of the many pleasures of reading Alison Bechdel's epic cartoon series, Dykes to Watch Out For, was the little details lovingly drawn into the pictures. For example, the newspaper headlines she penned in to the strip characters' local newspaper, The Distress. Not long after Osama bin Laden had become a household name, Bechdel drew the headline "They hate us! They really hate us!" Presumably she was also alluding to Sally Field's embarrassing Oscar speech, but the message hit home. Americans had been suddenly, brutally reminded that there are people who really hate us, and what are we going to do about it?
You will be relieved to know that this post is not about Osama bin Laden, but rather, the people sometimes hyperbolically characterized as an "American Taliban." Please note that I regard "Taliban" as an unacceptable exaggeration. No American lawmaker, as far as I know, has yet suggested stoning homosexuals to death, but they are after us with their interpretation of the Bible, and we've all read Leviticus, right? If you want it, it's in there.
"Anti-gay bills" might make you think of Russia or Uganda, but I am talking about Kansas and Tennessee. To recap, the bill passed by the Kansas House, HB 2453, states that any person or religious entity with sincerely held religious beliefs would be able, without fear of legal consequences, to refuse to provide service to any same-sex couple or treat their marriage (or civil union) as valid.* The Tennesssee bill, HB 600/SB 632, "would bar local governments from instituting anti-discrimination policies that are stricter than the ones in force at the state level. Under state law, it is not illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation."**
Ever since "gay marriage" started being mooted as a real legal possibility in North America, I have shared many queer activists' skepticism about it. I absolutely support a person's freedom to marry, whether that person is Mildred Loving or you; and I am very happy for the many couples who are finally getting married, some after being partners for decades. What I've been skeptical about is the (often implied) belief that now that we are getting marriage, that will be it--there is no more room for discrimination. In Canada, there is some evidence that it has broadly worked out that way, legally if not in fact. In the U.S. it is a dangerous falsehood.
The most life-altering legal change in the past year, as I see it, has been the Supreme Court's ruling on DOMA. Among other things, this enables Americans for the very first time to sponsor their spouses of other nationalities to come to the U.S. It was not, however, necessary to make marriage central to this legal change. Other countries, like Canada and Great Britain, accept for immigration purposes partnerships that are not actually called marriage. As I have argued before, marriage is essential in the U.S. gay rights advance because it is so important in the U.S. generally.
With delight, we note that in more and more states, marriage is being won. While we are celebrating this, though, theocrats in the state legislatures are thrusting new segregation upon us. We know, but perhaps do not pay enough attention to the fact, that job discrimination and bullying of kids are still huge problems for LGBT Americans. Marriage does not help those people. The new wave of anti-gay laws will permit anyone to turn away same-sex couples if they do not religiously approve of us. It is taking us backwards.
Who are these people, who would bring back the twentieth century to gay Americans who have already survived it? Certainly not all, or even most, straight people, or Christians, let alone the majority of Americans. But those who do support these measures are powerful, and they can be found in many areas of public life. "The bill would apply to government employees, raising fears that even police officers could refuse to come to the assistance of gay couples, pleading religious differences."* Suddenly, it does not seem so far-fetched that such laws could cost gay people their lives. What do you think used to happen, and still does in places where we don't have the protection of the law?
I don't want to dampen happy couples' enthusiasm--I completely understand why couples in California and many other states started getting married as soon as they had the chance. But while all this was going on, the people who hate us--who really hate us--have been busy.
We'd better get busy ourselves. Wherever you live in the world, remember this: Tolerance of sexual difference is always the exception. It has never been the rule.