On October 7, 1998, I was 13 days away from celebrating my eighth birthday. Matthew Shepard was six days from dying of massive head injuries incurred after two men in Laramie, Wyoming robbed, pistol-whipped, and tortured him to death for being gay.
The reason I bring this up is not necessarily to draw attention to what happened in Laramie, but what happened after. Shepard’s parents founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation, whose crowning achievement was the 2009 bill, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded the 1969 U.S. hate crime legislation to include motivations for crime based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability. One’s views on hate crime laws notwithstanding, I consider this a turning point in the gay rights movement. Matthew Shepard was 21 at the time of his death. I am now 21 years old, and I live in a country that, for the most part, affords some legal protection for minorities. When I was on the cusp of adolescence, in a world that knew William Jefferson Clinton as a devoted husband, and Osama bin Laden as a glorified thug, that was not the case.
I think in many ways, the social landscape of acceptance is changing, too. Recently, President Obama credited his daughters for changing his perspective on gay marriage. Obama said, “[Malia and Sasha] have friends whose parents are same-sex couples… it wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently. It doesn’t make sense to them.” This idea of inequality not “making sense” resonates with me, but it would not with my grandparents, who might find the opposite just as nonsensical. There is a disconnect here between the generations. I think as the “Internet” generation reaches political maturity, this hatred engendered by ignorance, fear, or just a lack of curiosity will deteriorate. I have found that it is fairly difficult to cling to any dogma when you have a whole world of knowledge at your fingertips. I’ll hearken to a favorite quote from my dear Mr. Jefferson, “For we here are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Even five or six years ago, the percentage of Americans who supported gay marriage were in the minority. Civil unions were heralded as “good enough.” Even among liberals, coming out in support of gay marriage was considered political suicide, lest you alienate your constituents in the center of the aisle. Not so anymore. The frontier of equal rights has extended beyond mere physical protection. I think it has extended beyond the realm of marriage, which, in my opinion, is a largely obsolete institution. To me, the gay rights movement isn’t about the right to marry whomever you please. It is about the right to be viewed equally in the eyes of the law, regardless of one’s sexual orientation.
To recap: I think we have made major strides to move from warding off violence toward individuals to taking an active stance, a more generally accepted stance, in pursuing equal rights for all Americans. For this, I am filled with pride. Yet shame also encroaches on my conscience for indulging my idleness; I had nothing to do with this progress, on account of either laziness or cowardice. Furthermore, we have not succeeded; there is no occasion for which to hang our “mission accomplished” banner, and, if the lingering undercurrent of racism and sexism, both institutional and individual, in our country is any indicator, we have a much longer path to tread than previously anticipated.
In some respects, I might characterize the backlash against businesses that promulgate bigoted views as sensationalist, and perhaps missing the point. In a perfect world, gay rights advocates would not have to manipulate Chick-fil-A to ideological submission via market mechanisms; they could use logic and reason to advance their cause. If, tomorrow, Chick-fil-A announced it was donating millions of dollars to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, everybody would know it was a cheap marketing ploy, and not reflective of a true change in heart of the leadership of the company. Besides, who cares what Chick-fil-A thinks? If their sandwiches weren’t so delicious, nobody would consider it a great sacrifice to boycott their product.
But the notion that drives me nuts is that which states that Chick-fil-A is not morally culpable because its leadership is simply “exercising their first amendment rights.” The last time I checked, the first amendment ensured freedom to say or publish whatever you want, irrespective of how stupid it is. Just because the authorities cannot arrest you for making a statement does not give your opinion credence. So, I reject the idea that Chick-fil-A is somehow heroic because it has the right to say that homosexuality is wrong.
Still more troubling is the congratulations bestowed upon the company’s leadership for “standing up for their beliefs.” Since when is “standing up for your beliefs” good enough? If your beliefs are inherently wrong and detrimental to our society, I propose you sit down. The debater in me retorts, “No! Bring me your racists, your bigots, your Nazis!” I have publicly argued that I would have invited Adolf Hitler to my college debating society just to tear him down a notch. But at a certain point, I’m not so sure you can reverse hatred with logic, and least of all, rhetoric. Even in this blog post, I am likely catering to people who already agree with me.
Which brings us to an argument I had two years ago in a friend’s car, listening to old Bruce Springsteen CDs, driving home from Old Ellicott City in the rain, after my own car had gotten into a fight with a lamppost that just came out of nowhere.
“I don’t get why it’s such a big deal for celebrities to ‘come out’ publicly,” I said. “Sexuality is personal. Besides, I never had to ‘come out’ to my friends as straight. If we’re talking about equality, why should gay people have to advertise that they’re gay?”
How quickly I was corrected. In a perfect world, I might be right, and the sentiment was definitely sincere. But, Jeff explained, aside from potential psychological benefits, “coming out” does a great deal to reduce the “other” aspect of the LGBT community. It’s much harder, he said, to hate a group of people when your brother, your daughter, or your neighbor belongs to it. Often, confronting homophobic people with gay people they love and respect can incite a reevaluation of their views. Like Obama said: it wouldn’t dawn on his daughters to consider their friends’ parents in a different light.
Anderson Cooper, also known as America’s Secret Boyfriend, echoed the sentiment when he came out, at long last, to Andrew Sullivan in an email: “In a perfect world, I don’t think it’s anyone else’s business, but I do think there is a value in standing up and being counted. I’m not an activist, but I am a human being and I don’t give that up by being a journalist.”
I’m not an activist, but I am a human being.”–Anderson Cooper
Normally, I shirk activism. A born contrarian, I can exhaust a debate on a contentious issue in my head and arrive at a stalemate. The natural extension of this train of thought, with regards to activism, is: why would I devote time and energy to one side of an issue when I can give you 50 reasons why the other side’s points are valid? It seems like the older I get, and the more I learn, the more nuances I unearth in any given topic, and the less certain I am of the correct stance. Sometimes I question whether the “correct stance” is even attainable. And, if it were, I would have to take into consideration the efficacy of promoting that stance. After all, there are some who would argue that, for various reasons that I don’t have time to explore, U.S. intervention in global genocide—a tragedy that I think most people would unilaterally agree is indefensible—can be more detrimental in the long run.
Yet, I would agree with Mr. Cooper—on the issues where I am 99% certain of the “correct stance,” perhaps it is valuable to stand up and be counted. Especially in a time when people collect accolades for standing up for their beliefs, I think it is important to stand up for what is right, acknowledging the distinction between the two. And while one blog post or essay is a measly tribute to a movement that is far greater and far more deserving, maybe if 100 or 1,000 people eschewed their lazy “somebody else will do it” attitudes, we could make progress.
This is not the last you will hear from me.