Sunday, March 16, 2014

Things change, don’t then do

The video above, part of an episode of the classic TV show Maude, aired on December 3, 1977 during the last season of the show. “The Gay Bar” deals with the opening of a gay bar in their town, Tuckahoe, New York. Liberal icon Maude isn’t at all upset by it, of course, but her conservative foil Arthur Harmon wants it closed down.

This was the way things were in 1977. It was still socially acceptable to be anti-gay, however, things were starting to turn and those who were loudly, blindly anti-gay were often seen as characters who deserved to be ridiculed.

A few years later, the AIDS epidemic changed everything. The level of official oppression of LGBT people increased, and anti-gay people weren’t ridiculed by the mainstream—they again were the mainstream.

I’ve heard a lot of people say, “Imagine how much further along we’d be if AIDS had never happened!” I’m not one of those people, at least, not totally.

To be sure, if AIDS had never happened, gay people would have had an easier time with social and political progress, but I’m not convinced that we’d necessarily be any farther along the road to social and legal equality than we are now. Crisis creates urgency, which unleashes strength of purpose and determination and energy that is usually lacking when there’s no urgency.

I realise that I may very well think this because of the way history has unfolded. African Americans didn’t move from slavery to full and equal citizens (to the extent they’ve achieved that…) without struggle. Similarly, governments didn’t jump from oppressing and criminalising gay people to allowing us to marry.

Yes, societies DO evolve given time: Western societies no longer accept the idea that women are property or subservient in all matters to their fathers and then their husbands. We don’t accept the idea that one human can own another. But none of this happened just because society woke up one day and decided to change. Instead, people demanded change, preached it, lived it—and too often suffered for it.

So, if we want society to change and evolve, sometimes it needs a little shove. Women around the world demanded the right to vote for decades before they actually won it. African Americans demanded equality for decades—around two century’s worth, actually—before laws started to change. Women, and then LGBT people, pushed for equality, building on all these earlier struggles and using many of the same tactics.

And then AIDS came along. Our adversaries became emboldened, seeing an opportunity to turn back the clock and re-institutionalise oppression of LGBT people. They had a lot of successes—at first.

But then we started fighting back. At first, we were fighting for our very lives, and the lives of our friends and family, but then again for our civil and human rights. We were determined to prevent losing the gains we’d achieved, and we eventually prevailed.

As the hysteria of the early AIDS years subsided, we were there, pushing for progress. By the 1990s, things were again moving forward. I believe that a large part of the successes we had at that time is directly attributable to the urgent organising we needed to do because of the anti-gay hysteria of the early AIDS years. But as the urgency faded, so did the energy—and the progress slowed.

In 1993, it looked like Hawaii was about to legalise marriage for same-gender couples. Our rightwing adversaries again organised against us, building their activism (and extensive fundraising) on stopping marriage equality. This lead to the infamous Defense [sic] of Marriage Act (1996). Within a decade, Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman saw an opportunity to exploit this rightwing fervour as a way to increase votes for Republicans.

As with the rightwing political reaction to AIDS, we were caught off guard by the rightwing’s juggernaut to stop marriage equality. They focused on state battles because they knew it would be much harder for our side to fight effectively in battles all over the country, but it was also a logical move for them, since a Constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality was dead—thanks to the Defense [sic] of Marriage Act they’d fought for. A state-by-state campaign also gave them more opportunities to raise money, of course.

The anti-gay rightwing activists had an unbroken string of victories in referenda between 2000 and 2009, but that year was their final victory (North Carolina’s 2012 referendum is irrelevant, since only about a third of voters bothered to vote in the referendum; guaranteeing a low turnout by holding the referendum on a weird date was part of anti-gay politicians’ strategy to ensure it would pass).

There’s no doubt that the anti-gay industry held off equality for LGBT Americans for about a decade—two, if you count the politics of the AIDS years. They were strong, organised, extremely well-funded—and not very nice people. Increasingly it became clear that the radical right was motivated by anti-gay animus. That’s when they began to lose.

Apart from the aberration of North Carolina, the anti-gay industry hasn’t had a single victory since 2009. They even lost in the Indiana legislature, which the spokesbigot for one leading anti-gay hate group arrogantly asserted was a sure victory for them. They’re now also losing every court challenge. Even their new tactic of hiding their anti-gay animus in a cloak of religious respectability (as in Arizona) hasn’t worked, instead unleashing strong opposition from all sides—left AND right.

All of which shows how far the US has come: It’s much less socially acceptable to be anti-gay than it was in 1977. In 2014, the only ones who are anti-gay activists are also political extremists, and no one likes or admires them.

I’m sure that social progress can happen without the urgency that a crisis creates, but I also think that sometimes a crisis can galvanise “the good guys” and unleash new energy that, ultimately, forces things to move forward faster than would have happened without a crisis. History has shown that as crises wain, we become complacent, and again become vulnerable to issues our adversaries creatively exploit against us. However, we’re getting closer and closer to achieving legal equality for LGBT people, which gives our far-rightwing adversaries very little room to attack us. That is a very good thing, indeed.

All of which may sound as if I’m giving some sort of backhanded credit to the anti-gay industry that cost us so much time and money. I definitely am not. I don’t know that I’ll ever forgive them for what they’ve done, though I’ll certainly forget (unlike them—they’ll wallow forever in their defeat and bitterness).

I’d so much rather that these crises had never happened: We lost far too many good people to AIDS. Fighting the rightwing’s exploitation of the disease for their political and financial gain only made things worse.

What we have also seen in all this is that the rightwing clearly didn’t learn anything from the political wars they waged against us—but we did. We’re never going back, no matter what the Arthur Harmons of the world may think.

The excerpt in the video above is part one of three. Part two is the main part of the episode, and part three, which is very short, contains the final joke of the episode. The links go to YouTube. This post was inspired by a friend's post today on Facebook, and another friend's comment on it.


Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

I've always thought it was terrible that only season 1 of Maude has ever been released on DVD, and that was many years ago.

You've mentioned the parallels with black civil rights before, and I agree with you. I wonder if there isn't another parallel to AIDS, though, one that rose suddenly and faded away: The whole "Welfare Queen" meme that Reagan used. Where your parallel is stronger, though, is that by being "tough on crime" politicians could roll back civil rights protections for black people without being obvious about it, in the same way that politicians could roll back civil rights protections for gay people by claiming it was for "public health".

Hm, now I feel a need to dig some more and find out what legislative effects the "Welfare Queen" meme had…

rogerogreen said...

I really liked Maude, and Bea Arthur in it.
As always, I think the parallels with black civil rights is applicable. And it occurs to me that black people's "AIDS", as it were, is crime, even though much of the criminalization was created by the power structure (see the disparate sentencing for crack and power cocaine for most of the last 30 years, e.g.)