The other was about a simultaneous appearance of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who testified in the U.S. Senate against Brett Kavanaugh when he was nominated to the Supreme Court last year, and Professor Anita Hill, who testified in the Senate against Clarence Thomas when he was nominated to the Court in 1991.
It is not a coincidence that these observations are being made at the same time. While the diversity in the LGBTQ community—or what writer Kelley Eskridge, and I love this too, nicknames “quiltbag”—is a sign of growth and the many changes in wider society, the appearance of Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill together reflects a time warp in U.S. society. Because for all the differences between 2018, when Ford testified, and when Hill testified more than 25 years earlier, both Kavanaugh and Thomas were confirmed as justices. Both sit on the Supreme Court today.
It’s a funny thing, the Supreme Court. Hard to explain to people outside the U.S.A., how much power this unelected institution has over people’s everyday lives. The 2016 election was fought over many things, but surely one of the motivations that got such a high percentage of white evangelical Americans to the polls for Donald Tweeter was the kind of men they expected him to nominate to the Court. A Court that is now, in all probability, closer to reversing Roe v. Wade (the abortion decision) than it was during George Bush, Sr.’s presidency.
Even many Americans don't know that their gay and lesbian fellow citizens, our quiltbag community, do not and have never had equality under U.S. law. Laws about housing and employment discrimination do not protect us in almost half the states, and there is no protection at the federal level. This is one of the matters on which Tweeter’s Supreme Court is expected to rule, and his administration has already made it clear that they oppose our rights. The Court on which Thomas and Kavanaugh sit has the power to keep us second-class citizens in perpetuity.
Why is the Court, if possible, constituted to roll back more even than in 1991? Because of the vacancies filled by Tweeter, including the one that became vacant during Barack Obama’s presidency but was blocked from even being heard by the Republican Senate. This is powerful stuff.
Worldwide readers may also remember that it was the Supreme Court, that unelected body, that ultimately ruled in George Bush, Jr.’s favor in Bush v. Gore, making the loser of the 2000 popular vote the president of the United States. In that case, Bush was represented by Theodore Olson, and Gore by David Boies. Famously, Olson and Boies later teamed up in an unlikely partnership to challenge Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage. The case ran all the way to the Supreme Court and ultimately led, in 2014, to something many of us never expected: the legalization of same-sex marriage throughout the United States.
Let’s leave aside for today the fact that in 2014, the Court was constituted very differently; this type of wacko left-wing result is exactly what drove the Senate to block further Obama appointees, and Republican voters to give us the president and Court we have now. My interest is in lawyer Theodore Olson, the conservative who’d represented Bush, and why he advocated for marriage equality as a civil rights issue.
In the film The Case Against 8, Olson explained that as a conservative, he was a big supporter of marriage. Marriage is a conservative institution. The more gay and lesbian Americans are participating in marriage, as I see it, the more included we are in a conservative vision for American society.
And here's my point. While from one end of the telescope equal marriage seems to be a tremendous leap forward from just a generation ago, from the other end, it reflects how conservative U.S. society persistently tends to be. Compare the end of the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the U.S. armed forces. On the one hand, it gives us a new generation of out, proud veterans, like Pete Buttigieg, who is on the presidential campaign trail introducing his husband. Who saw that coming 25 years ago, including me?
On the other hand, the military, like marriage, is a conservative institution. Gay and lesbian activists in the 1980s and ’90s—the people who resisted the Reagan and Bush administrations, which we believed were letting thousands of Americans die of AIDS—did not prioritize marriage or the military. Many were deeply skeptical of the former, and regarded the latter as, primarily, the ongoing, violent misadventures of the U.S. in Latin America and the Middle East, conflicts we opposed.
My point is not, of course, that we shouldn’t honor veterans, or celebrate marriages. My point is that the range of people doing so is a much wider range than we would normally expect to agree. Most Americans loved Ronald Reagan. Is it really that surprising that three decades later, a substantial minority of them voted the way that they did?
A generation ago, no one expected that most of U.S. society would be supportive of us, whether that meant our relationships, the fight against AIDS, or opposition to the Gulf war. Most Americans strongly supported the U.S.’s military actions, and we can confidently expect them to support the next war, too. Wherever it is and no matter who orders it.
Our mistake has been to imagine that, because we are so much more “out” and widely recognized now, the broader progressive agenda has won. When I read old Dykes to Watch Out For comic strips, I am struck less by nostalgia for those pre-online days of lesbian bookstores and bars, and more by how much the struggle is the same. The wider U.S. society is still, largely, a conservative one, and we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s mired in some of the same issues, perhaps even worse in this loser of the popular vote's era than in the Bushes’.
In 1991, it was countercultural to oppose the war. It would be countercultural today. Somehow, quiltbag people have come to expect that the larger society should be in harmony with us. But just because young people don’t care whether someone sleeps with the same sex doesn’t mean that the culture isn’t still, broadly, against many things I deeply believe. In many ways and not just in one country, the culture is warlike, it’s misogynistic, it’s destructive of the planet Earth.
These points will not be agreed with by conservatives and nor would I expect them to be. Our mistake has been to expect some kind of consensus in society. When having same-sex relationships, in itself, ceased to be the most controversial issue, that did not mean we had succeeded in changing the culture.
We should not be surprised when our fellow Americans, perhaps relatives or people we grew up with, are perfectly happy for us to have a same-sex partner—or spouse—but then vote for an administration that opposes our rights, and a great many progressive causes, as well. For those voters, there is no cognitive dissonance. They are celebrating our marriages just like their own. (That’s what we said we wanted, right?) They are honoring gay and lesbian service members, because they honor service members. But as for broader questioning of those conservative institutions, of the militarization of our society and police, of resistance to even the most modest advances in Medicare, we can expect nothing like that from conservative voters. They have not become our allies. We have become theirs.
I look back at 1991, when Anita Hill accused now-Justice Thomas of sexual harassment, and at 2018, when Christine Blasey Ford accused now-Justice Kavanaugh of sexual assault. In many ways, the social context was very different. I don’t mean in any way to minimize the difference in response. The nationwide groundswell of women speaking up in solidarity with Ford looked very different from the pre-Internet America of 1991, when the Senate had only two women and its Judiciary Committee was made up of 100% white men. Back then, we watched the confirmation hearings (actually, I read about them in The New York Times) and wondered why an exclusively white male panel got to judge between two African-Americans, a woman and a man. Up to that point, I’m not sure I’d wondered about it before. I knew that, on paper, there was no reason women couldn’t hold any office in our government, but I was used to it not happening.
So a lot has changed in a generation, but let’s take a moment to note what hasn’t changed. Equal pay, for instance. Did young women growing up when I did seriously believe that by now, decades later, Western countries would still not be close to closing the pay gap between men and women? It may seem like we’re pretty far out, with our quiltbag diversity, but we don’t really need to convince younger people of the struggles we went through. To a remarkable degree, those struggles remain for them.
And the most important issue, not just for young people but (it should be) to all of us, is how to preserve the planet itself. Generations who are going to have to live with all the damage caused are understandably going to be aggrieved if their elders are preoccupied with pensions (which they will never receive), gender and sexuality (which they do not perceive as a big deal), and other issues that distract from the very life of the human race.
Young people do not have to know or remember what we went through because, to a shocking extent, they are still going through it. Equal pay! How basic is that? And as of 2016, it was still not possible to elect a woman to the presidency, even when she was opposed by the least qualified man ever to run.
Younger people may not know or care what Anita Hill went through, but they don’t have to. Because ultimately, the outcome of Hill’s and Ford’s testimonies was identical.
So no matter how you identify, eat a power bar or something. We have a long way to go.