Freedom Worth Defending
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Freedom Worth Defending:
gay politics after September 11

by Richard J. Rosendall
Originally published on January 7, 2002 in Liberty Education Forum

The events of September 11 did not substantially change gay politics. That terrible day was merely a lightning flash that put our politics in perspective and clarified pre-existing trends. The inclusive coverage of the gay victims and heroes of the terrorist attacks, and the widespread denunciations of attempts by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to blame gays and others for causing God to "lift the veil of protection" on America, showed how far gay people have come in this society. From Father Mychal Judge of the New York City Fire Department to Mark Bingham on United Flight 93, gay people were included from the beginning in reportage and commentary on the victims of the attacks and on our response as a nation.

Overwhelming support for the war effort arose without the need for exhortation. Our nation is strong and good precisely because of our vigorous and free marketplace of ideas. We can win the war, and are winning it, without sacrificing the public square which the war after all is defending. And we can deal with policy differences without caricaturing one another. The gay movement has always had many threads, including political, social, cultural, religious, and entrepreneurial. Each to his own taste, as the saying goes. There are plenty of stations on the dial, plenty of venues offering a rich selection of choices. Our diversity is our strength; there is no need to impose a single program on everyone. The gay movement, like the American community as a whole, is not monolithic.

While I agree with Rich Tafel on the importance of fighting for gay partner benefits and gays in the military, it is not clear why these are more relevant to the average gay person than other issues or why he thinks that they aren't already being addressed. Why should private-sector employment discrimination be more acceptable than military employment discrimination? Concerning the op-ed by Judy Gerber against gays serving in the "war machine," one has only to look at all our brothers and sisters fighting to serve openly in the military, and at the shrine to Mark Bingham that arose in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood, to see how irrelevant her grossly naive perspective is to most gay people. Like the "War Is Not the Answer" banner hanging from a Quaker building across from the still-closed Hart Senate Office Building, Gerber has a refutation staring her in the face. Gays continue answering their nation's call to serve, and it is the homophobes in the military establishment who harm our national readiness by excluding us.

The marriage fight of the past several years is not the result of a top-down decision by "gay central," but of lawsuits and advocacy by gay couples who asserted their equal marriage rights. This led to setbacks like the Defense of Marriage Act, but equality for gay families is now a subject of serious national discussion, and we have already won civil unions in Vermont. If HRC's legislative priorities of employment discrimination and hate crimes seem questionable, there are plenty of other groups working on other things. Tafel is free to try his quiet and respectful approach to persuading the Red Cross to change its blood-donation policy; but when, as he puts it, "heterosexuals with multiple partners are not screened out in the same way as a gay man who has had sex once since 1977," I consider it my patriotic duty NOT to be quiet about it.

One can support the war effort without stifling all criticism; indeed, as Tafel's example of the Japanese-American internment camps in World War II illustrates, our leaders should not be given a blank check even in wartime. As can be seen by the criticism Attorney General Ashcroft has received from William Safire and Rep. Bob Barr for his cavalier treatment of constitutional due process, civil liberties concerns do not break down along partisan lines. When terrorist suspect Zacarias Moussaoui was indicted in U.S. District Court in Virginia, Senator Joseph Lieberman explicitly called for denying the man due process. On the other hand, Sen. Edward Kennedy cited the decision not to try Moussaoui in a military tribunal as "enormously significant" and an encouraging sign from the administration.

Even traditional leftists have not all responded to the war as one might expect. While there are anti-American voices like Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal, there are also voices like Christopher Hitchens, who defends the war in the pages of The Nation. Even the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) is singing a different tune. NGLTF Executive Director Lorri Jean issued a statement against anti-Muslim bigotry, but there has been nothing like NGLTF's formal opposition to the Persian Gulf War of a decade ago. One might expect the recently issued report by the NGLTF Policy Institute, "Leaving Our Children Behind," which criticizes welfare-reform policies advocated by Bush Administration appointees, to be just another flimsy raft of leftist rhetoric. In fact, it appears to be a well-researched examination of specific proposals that would discriminate against gay families.

Anti-gay discrimination does have real victims, and those who point this out and work to combat it are not thereby grounding their entire life and world-view in victimhood. If we did not have the maturity and resolve that Tafel advocates, our movement would not have made such incredible strides in the past forty years. The highest form of patriotism is to love your country enough to challenge it, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., to "live out the true meaning of its creed."

For forty years, for example, the father of the gay rights movement in Washington, DC, Franklin Kameny, has couched his advocacy in an embrace of foundational American principles celebrating life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and claiming them as the birthright of gay people. There are activists in statehouses all over the country who use similar themes. Kameny, with whom I have worked for many years in DC's Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, looks back on 2001 as a year of significant progress for gays. He cites pro-gay victories in voter initiatives in Michigan and Florida, the enactment of pro-gay legislation in California, the defeat of an anti-gay referendum in Maryland, the demise of some anti-sodomy laws, and the decision by the U.S. Congress to permit the District of Columbia to implement its 1992 domestic partnership law. A World War II combat veteran, he fought against the military's anti-gay policies for decades before the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network was formed. He advocated equal marriage rights for gay people three decades ago.

Summarizing the entire gay movement with phrases like "the paradigm of victimization" trivializes a complex and diverse movement. I too oppose the excesses of identity politics, but gay people have only identified with their sexual orientation more than their straight siblings do because people discriminate against them on that basis. The very act of organizing a group of gay Republicans embraces gay identity and the fight for full enfranchisement in the American dream, as does the joint letter from Log Cabin Republicans and National Stonewall Democrats calling for equal treatment of the surviving partners of gay victims of September 11.

Partisan rhetoric often conceals how much we have in common. For years, NGLTF entitled its efforts to repeal state sodomy laws as the Privacy Project, explicitly framing the issue in a bedrock conservative value. Increasing numbers of conservative Christians are talking about the damage that conflating church and state has done to their ministries. Not only did Democratic Congressman Barney Frank work with Republican colleague Jim Kolbe to defeat the anti-gay Hefley Amendment in August 1998, as Democratic floor manager he made prominent use of conservative Republicans Dana Rohrabacher and Tom Bliley. When the FY 1996 Defense Authorization bill was passed with the Dornan amendment requiring the discharge of HIV-positive servicemembers, Senator John McCain played a key role in repealing the provision.

To be sure, cooperation has its limits. The gay Muslim group Al-Fatiha, with which Tafel decently urges us to demonstrate solidarity, took a blame-America-first position on the war in Afghanistan. With our recent victory, Al-Fatiha founder Faisal Alam expresses cautious optimism for improvement there, while failing to note how the opportunity for improvement came about. He claims that American treatment of gays is comparable to that in Islamic countries -- though he chooses to enjoy American freedoms and not the repressions in his parents' native Pakistan, he still pretends not to know the difference. He charged the Washington Blade with "Islamophobia and racism" for its factual reportage. While he rightly decries anti-Muslim hate crimes, he ignores the fact that leaders from President Bush on down have also decried them. Alam's attempt at moral equivalency poorly disguises his preference for appeasing fundamentalist Islam instead of challenging it. In an interview in Washington's Metro Weekly, he even worried that he was leading his people into hell.

Deference to oppressors is no basis for activism. Persuasion is important, but cannot even begin without self respect. Power is not an external commodity to be granted by others -- we achieve it by exercising it, through informed engagement in the public sphere. This perspective is fundamentally at odds with one grounded in victimhood. We are not merely vessels of rights, but citizens responsible for the lives we live and the kind of society we live in.

The cataclysmic events of September 11 did not change our nation's values, but tested them. Now as before, our community is as diverse and contentious as the society of which we are a part. The least we can do is to make an effort to restrain our polemics, to consider another perspective, to measure our claims against the evidence, and to keep open our lines of communication. The recent joint letter by gay Democrats and Republicans is a welcome example of this, as is the outreach by the Liberty Education Forum. If the most vital thing that we do as advocates is to stand up for what we believe, the wisest is to subject our beliefs to challenge. I have a memory of the first Gay Activists Alliance meeting that I attended two decades ago (back before we added the "L" word): Frank Kameny cheerfully accepted correction on some point from a colleague with the words, "I have no stake in maintaining error." If we have the grace to match our activist passion and commitment with that humble capacity to continue learning, we and our community will be the better for it.

Copyright 2002 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.