Reflections on last week's discrimination against LGBTs at the polls | Steven Petrow | Indy Week
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Reflections on last week's discrimination against LGBTs at the polls 

Does the long arc of history bend toward justice?

By now we know the devastating news that occurred in polling stations across the nation last week. Specifically, I'm thinking of the ballot measures in California, Arkansas, Arizona and Florida that codified discrimination against couples of the same sex and, frankly, the entire LGBT community.

Take note that I did not say the "devastating news for gays and lesbians," because the stain of the defeat for marriage equality in California, the backward measure to prevent unmarried couples from adopting in Arizona, and The Sunshine State's approval of a blatantly mean-spirited constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage and civil unions taints all of us, regardless of sexual orientation.

Much of what we're been in reading in the news since Election Day consists of two themes. First, the LGBT community, appropriately, is in an uproar about these widespread defeats. The headlines capture that zeitgeist: "Thousands protest LDS [Mormon] stance on same-sex marriage" (Salt Lake Tribune), "Utah boycott urged after California vote" (Washington Post), and "Prop 8 protest at Mormon temple" (San Francisco Chronicle). Meanwhile, the ACLU, Lambda Legal and the National Center for Lesbian Rights have filed multiple lawsuits before the California Supreme Court seeking to invalidate Prop 8.

The other major theme is summed up perfectly in a post-election New York Times editorial, titled "Equality's winding path." After highlighting its "disappointment" with the LGBT-related election results, the Times' editorial board continued: "We do not view these results as reasons for despair. Struggles over civil rights never follow a straight trajectory, and the ugly outcome of these ballot fights should not obscure the building momentum for full equality for gay people, including acceptance of marriage between gay men and women."

Sorry to disagree with the esteemed Times, but I am in despair and I am angry. And I am not alone.

How many times this past week have we read—in regard to Barack Obama's historic victory, or in reference to the passage of the anti-gay measures—that "the long arc of history bends towards justice," which is meant to help us put events in their proper perspective. This always sounds patronizing to me, like, "There, there, young fellow. Everything will be just fine. You just wait."

A few days ago, our national poet Maya Angelou beautifully buttressed this idea on CBS News, reading from one of her seminal works, "Rise," to an audience in the millions:

"You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies, you may trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I'll rise. Out of the huts of history's shame I rise up from a past rooted in pain I rise. I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide, welling and swelling I bear in the tide. Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise into daybreak miraculously clear I rise. Bringing the hopes that my ancestors gave, I am the hope and the dream of the slave. And so, we all rise."

Amen, as far as the African-American struggle goes. But how much easier it is to see the arc of history when you have the prize in hand.

While less eloquent than Angelou, one LGBT group made the same "long road" argument in an e-mail blast to its supporters: "The path to equality is not a straight road, so to speak. We advance, and then we go backwards. So the question to ask is: Overall are we moving forward? The answer ... is a resounding yes."

I do not share that perspective. I cannot view the big picture when I see today's hatred of lesbians and gays expressed and then codified in state after state.

We are being counseled, from within and from outside our community, to be patient, to savor the small victories, like the election of Jared Polis, who will become the third openly gay member of Congress, and the defeat of Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave, the author of the federal Marriage Amendment. We are also being asked to remember some of our breathtaking victories of late, including the Connecticut Supreme Court's recent decision to allow same-sex marriage and the defeat last week in that state to call for a Constitutional Convention to overturn that very decision.

I am mindful of all that, but even in middle age, I find all this talk of patience and "the winding path of equality" bitter pills to swallow. Yes, so much was rightly made this past week of the great distance we have come by electing an African-American to the White House, specifically of the roadblocks and setbacks along the way: the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 40 years ago this spring; the 1963 bombing of the Birmingham church, resulting in the deaths of four little girls; and the small-town terrors and cross-burnings by the KKK over the decades.

Yet I have read not a word in the mainstream media this week about the murder, 30 years ago this month, of the gay civil rights leader of our time, Harvey Milk (except perhaps as part of a promotion for Gus Van Sant's new film, Milk); or the slaughter of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, 10 years ago this fall, outside of Laramie, Wyo.; nor the point-blank shooting murder of Lawrence "Larry" King in a Ventura County, Calif., junior high last year, by a fellow eighth grader, because of the young man's sexual orientation.

I have not read a word in the national press about the Miami Beach condo association that recently turned away a gay family because of their sexual orientation; nor about last month's protest at a Louisville, Ky., McDonald's after an employee repeated called five visitors "faggots"; nor about the fact that the murderer of 20-year- old Sean Kennedy in Greenville, S.C., in 2007 got a meager 30 months' prison time for killing Kennedy because he was gay.

All these heinous crimes are not acts against simply the LGBT community: They are crimes that should exact pain, despair and anger in every heart—no matter straight or gay. These are crimes that stain our entire fabric of life, not just one community.

So, yes, the LGBT community has risen in arms, but this is not solely a gay rights struggle, as the black civil rights movement was not simply a black issue. Where are you—and your mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and children—in this fight? And, to my fellow LGBT friends, where are ours? How do we bring them into this fight?

When I was 15 years old in 1973, my mother took me to the Nixon counter-inaugural in Washington, D.C., sporting a button that read "Another Mother for Peace," a loosely knit group of anti-war mothers from coast to coast. Remember, it was only when the mothers (and fathers) of this country turned against the war that Nixon changed course on his Vietnam policies. It wasn't enough that students, leftists and disaffected others had taken to the streets.

The same is true today. Until our families, friends and colleagues embrace same-sex equality in greater numbers, we will not see victory at the polls. Perhaps it's time for a new button, one that reads "Another mother for LGBT rights." Or "One more dad for marriage equality." As for patience, please don't talk to me about that. I simply can't do that to the memory of Harvey Milk. We still have too much distance to travel for me to take the long view.

A protest about Prop 8 is planned for Saturday, Nov. 15, at 1:30 p.m. at the State Capitol, 1 E. Edenton St., in Raleigh 46 E. Lane St., Halifax Mall (between Wilmington and Salisbury streets, behind the N.C. Legislative Building), downtown Raleigh. See jointheimpact.com for details.

Steven Petrow is a former president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and a contributor to the Huffington Post.

  • Sorry to disagree with the esteemed Times, but I am in despair and I am angry. And I am not alone.

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