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Gay Rights is a positive thing

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Anonymous Sender

Jun 24, 1994, 11:17:00 AM6/24/94
SOURCE: By Michael Sherry.
Michael Sherry is a professor of history at Northwestern University.


The sign in front of Evanston's Wheadon Methodist Church reads: "When
gays and lesbians get equal rights, everybody will want them." Those words
cleverly expose how, in the us-against-them politics of the 1990s, gay rights
are seen as an infringement on the rights of others-and ought to be seen
That is the enduring message of the Stonewall rebellion whose 25th
anniversary lesbians and gay men are celebrating this month. At New York's
Stonewall Inn, at the end of June 1969, gay men and women suddenly fought
back against a police raid of the sort that was routine in the 1960s. Far
from declining during America's modern and presumably tolerant history,
anti-gay witch hunts actually intensified in post-World War II America,
forcing gay people into a limelight they rarely courted, and into activism
that was in many ways a reluctant response to repression.
Like many such moments, this one had its gritty aspects and unforeseen
consequences. The Stonewall Inn was a tawdry dive controlled by organized
crime (only it had the muscle to challenge liquor laws and police practices
that made gay socializing illegal). Many patrons who fought back were young
working-class drag queens, people with little status and respectability to
lose. Street politics in the war-torn America of 1969 were often ugly, with
the iron fist of the police facing off against the rocks of enraged groups.
And few who threw the rocks in 1969 foresaw that a new gay activism would
Since then, the lesbian and gay movement has grown more complex, skillful
and-to a degree-successful. But its foes claim to fear that "special rights"
for gays will infringe on straight Americans' rights, as if what is
guaranteed one group involves something taken from another. Campaigning for
the U.S. Senate seat in Virginia, Oliver North is among the latest to take up
this argument. South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond-the foe of black civil
rights who bolted the Democratic Party in 1948 to head a segregationist,
third-party presidential ticket-has been running it up his flagpole for
That argument is hardly new. For decades, defenders of white supremacy
argued that racial equality would trample on their biblically ordained right
to discriminate against black people, on their property rights and on their
"states' rights." Similarly, foes of feminism maintained that if the Equal
Rights Amendment were passed, men's "rights" to rule families would be
They were not entirely wrong. Egalitarian measures do restrict certain
privileges and practices. And we often do measure our freedom in terms of
how others lack it-before the Civil War, black slavery literally defined
white freedom; in the Cold War, Soviet oppression defined American freedom.
But defining freedom in such negative ways makes for a lousy argument, at
bottom a crude defense of raw prejudice-of the right to hate not only in the
privacy of one's home or in the public arena of a stump speech, but in
employment, military service, housing and a host of other areas.
And the facile claim of homophobes-that they don't hate gays, they only
want to preserve their ways-is belied by the hatred they often display and by
their historical connection to vicious anti-black, anti-ethnic and
anti-female movements. Too many of them show that they hate me-after all,
"God hates fags," some of them argue-for me to believe a claim to the
contrary. Too many of them ignore how their leaders once opposed (or still
do) equal rights for other groups ("In the Christian home the woman is to be
submissive," the Rev. Jerry Falwell declared in 1980.). Too many of them
also ignore how other Christians view these matters differently, seeing the
Bible's few, vague admonitions against homosexuality as carrying no more
weight than its ban on eating pork-a ban, like many in the Bible, that
anti-gay Christians routinely ignore.
Foes respond to arguments like mine by asserting that gay people differ
from women or racial minorities because their condition is inherited, while
gay people "choose" what they are. But that is a silly claim, and not simply
because of unanswerable questions about how much and what kind of "choice" is
involved. We do, after all, protect the rights of other social groups whose
identity is "chosen"; Christians themselves fall under a host of
constitutional and legislative protections against discrimination. Surely
they don't argue that because their religious views are their "choice," they
deserve no legal protections.
Finally, homophobes sometimes claim that laws and actions protecting gay
people would constitute "special rights" because gay people already fall
under constitutional provisions that protect everyone. What a dishonest
claim! Courts routinely rule-though with more exceptions-that such provisions
don't apply to lesbians and gay men: that they can be fired, denied housing,
kept out of military service, barred from adopting children-and the list goes
on. If that weren't so, there would be no lesbian and gay movement like the
one we have now, and foes of gay rights wouldn't argue against possible legal
rulings extending constitutional protections to lesbians and gay men.
But beyond their specific attitudes toward gays, foes miss the point
about rights generally. The expansion of rights to once-scorned groups does
not in the long run deprive others of their rights. It enlarges freedom for
all and it propels forward the historical process of freedom's growth. It
may even enlarge freedom for foes of gay rights, who, more often than they
care to admit, keep discovering gay brothers and sisters, sons and daughters.
Perhaps when religious conservatives admit how often this happens-how
homosexuality knows no special moral, religious or political condition-even
they will want gay rights. Pretty soon "everybody will want them," which
won't be a bad thing at all.

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