By Congressman Barney Frank
Exclusive to Between The Lines
While serving as an ambulance driver during the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell was shot in the neck. When people congratulated him on his good luck at having recovered from this, he very sensibly replied that he believed that people who had never been shot in the neck in the first place were even luckier than he.
That is an appropriate thing to keep in mind when we discuss the history of the fight of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people against the prejudice that has blighted so many lives. But no one should expect us to be grateful for this fact: people who were never subjected to a vicious prejudice in the first place are the ones who should be grateful, not those of us who have fought hard to diminish prejudice but still encounter it.
When I said above that we had made this progress in forty years, I was referring to the political history of GLBT people in this country. Obviously there are personal and cultural aspects to our lives and the history of those extend much further back. But few political movements in America have a more clear-cut starting point than our fight against sexual orientation and gender identification prejudice. I know this personally. Beginning in January 1968, I served as the Executive Assistant to the Mayor of Boston, with a particular responsibility for dealing with issues that were important to liberals. I worked hard on the rights of women, on racial equality, on the rights of workers, (for example we supported Cesar Chavez’s boycotts) and on the then nascent environmental movement. One area where I did no political work was in the fight against homophobia, obviously, not because I was unsympathetic or uninterested, but because simply there was no such effort being waged in Boston, or indeed anywhere else in America.
The Stonewall resistance in 1969 clearly triggered a movement in which GLBT people, having participated in the movements against inequality regarding race and gender, finally said what about us. Having left Boston for Washington for one year from June of 1971 to June of 1972, I returned – as a candidate for State Representative – to find a new but vigorous political movement of gay men and lesbians that had not existed when I left.
While I did not personally publicly acknowledge being gay until May of 1987, I did join the fight in 1972 and in December of that year, having been elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, I filed for the first time in Massachusetts history what were then called gay rights bills as a legislator who strongly supported them, and not simply as an automatic pass through of a constituent request.
The short summary of my view is that if you had asked me at any point in the past thirty-four years when I first got engaged in our fight to predict what the state of our rights would have three years down the road, I would have been too pessimistic.
I realize that many GLBT activists today feel beleaguered by the flood of anti-marriage amendments that have sadly passed in a number of states, and to them speaking of progress may seem illusory. But that is the paradox of being involved in a movement committed to profound social change: by definition, at any given moment we will be engaged in an uphill fight. It is our job to change deeply held feelings – although I must say that one of the happy discoveries we have made in my view is that these prejudices were not nearly as deeply held as many people thought. But it is one thing to change opinion in general; it is another to persuade members of a majority who do not feel the pain of the victims of discrimination that longstanding social practices should be changed in accordance with that sentiment. The bad fact that change has not come nearly quickly enough, and that prejudice still blights the lives of many, shouldn’t blind us to the other fact — that progress has come. The reason is not, as I said above, so that we can be grateful to a society that is less biased against us than it used to be, but rather because assessing whether or not one has made progress, and in particular understanding how that progress was made, is essential for figuring out the strategy best used going forward. The best way to measure progress is to look back to 1962, when John Kennedy asked the Congress of the United States to toughen that part of American immigration law that aimed at excluding all gay men and lesbians from coming to the United States even as tourists. The language in the law that did that was old-fashioned, and to avoid being offensively explicit, it called for us to be excluded on the grounds that we were people “of a psychopathic personality.” Fearful that the liberal Warren court might not hold this as a strong enough barrier against us, John Kennedy asked the Congress to add language more strictly referring to sexual deviance. After his tragic murder, Lyndon Johnson took up where he left off and in 1965, persuaded an extraordinarily liberal Congress – one elected in reaction to Barry Goldwater’s candidacy – to add the language to reinforce the national ban against any gay or lesbian people coming to the country. It turned out, by the way, that that wasn’t necessary, because even the Warren court in the sixties was not prepared to do anything on our behalf and ruled that the old language was perfectly acceptable in keeping us out.
Note that this was only four years before Stonewall. I have checked the Congressional Record for that period, and found not one Member of Congress objecting when an immigration bill generally supported by liberals went though which toughened the anti-LGBT prohibition. And nowhere in America were there any laws or court rulings that protected any of us against discrimination of any sort.
Today, not only has that immigration provision been completely repealed, but GLBT people from foreign countries who can show that they were being persecuted in their homelands because of their sexual orientation or gender identification have received asylum in the US, because under Bill Clinton the Justice Department officially recognized such persecution as a serious violation of human rights. While we still lack a national law protecting us against job discrimination, there are a large number of states that have such legal protections.
Most importantly, there’s been a fundamental change in attitude. In 1973 when the Massachusetts House first debated gay rights legislation that I had introduced, our opponents were fairly explicit in explaining their opposition: I’m not gonna hire any fag or any lesbian to work for me, Members would say. That is, when we first began our fight in the political arena, our opponents made no effort to hide their homophobia.
Frustratingly, today, we still face opponents who are opposed to our being treated equally, with focus now on marriage rights, although with Republican rule, we have not yet been able to adopt anti-discrimination legislation at the national level either. But in a very encouraging if aggravating way, few of our opponents today admit their bigotry. Instead those who take the lead in opposing us couch their arguments in phrases that – misleadingly – suggest that they do not feel that we should be treated unfairly, but rather claim that there is not need for the protections we ask for, or that enacting them would disorient society. Unfortunately, a large number of people who do not share the prejudices but do not understand the reality of living with discrimination are persuaded by some of these social impact arguments. In fact, we are in a chicken and egg situation in many of these cases. Until we are able to achieve same-sex marriage, for example, a lot of people who are not prejudiced against us are wary of supporting it because they have been told by so many “respect leaders” that it will have negative consequences. It is only when we have been able to implement the reality that we are able to defeat the prejudices, but it is the prejudice that often prevents us from implementing the reality. That, by the way, is the justification in democratic terms for having the courts order an end to discrimination in various areas, including marriage. In fact, if the voters of a particular state remain opposed to some court decision, they will almost always be able to overturn it. What a court does – what it has done in Massachusetts – is to give you a head start by allowing us to implement the reality of an anti-discrimination measure and then show people that there are no negative social consequences. That is exactly what has happened in Massachusetts, so that a legislative majority that would have opposed us four years ago is now strongly on our side.
The key question is how our gains have been made. Early in our years as a political movement there was a debate about direct activism versus the political process. I believe the most important point to take away from a survey of our history is that it has been through the political process, and it is through the political process that we should do this in the future.
If it were the case that a majority of Americans really did hate us, the political process would not work very well. But I believe that we have done something very important over the past thirty-five years, essentially by millions of us deciding to be honest about who we are. I refer of course to the process of coming out.
As we have been honest about who we are, and our friends and relatives have learned that among the people that they were brought up to despise are their friends, relatives, teachers, students, clients, bosses, teammates, doctors, patients, auto mechanics, police officers, entertainers, etc., etc., they have realized that it was the prejudice that was flawed, and not the victims. What the process of our coming out has done is to give the average American permission to act on his or her own lack of homophobia. We have helped Americans understand that they weren’t really homophobic, they just thought they were supposed to be.
Given that, the political strategy we should follow is that of people who are confident that ultimately the majority is on our side, even if that does not always manifest itself on a specific issue. This means much less emphasis on direct action, sit-ins, noisy demonstrations etc., which often alienate more than they persuade. Again, if we were a minority that was widely hated, we might have no choice but to try these sorts of tactics, although even then I would have been discouraged about their chances for success. But I believe that if you look at those victories we have won in getting legislatures to enact anti-discrimination laws, in adopting some anti-discrimination policies at the federal level, although not enough, and most of all in changing attitudes so that so many of us are now free to live our lives openly and honestly without the awful choice of either accepting a diminution in our capacity to earn money and advance in the world, or alternatively live in a self-imposed closet of implicit shame, the answer is that we have done them by first working successfully to dispel homophobia, and secondly by taking advantage of the political process to legislate against it.
There are those who argue that relying on the political process somehow implies a lack of militancy on behalf of our rights. They are wrong. The most successfully militant organizations in America – think of the National Rifle Association – do not hold demonstrations or form picket lines. Instead they focus intensely on getting their people to vote. We have made some strides here, but we still do less than we should in mobilizing politically. The time has come for all of us to make sure that we vote militantly – at every possible opportunity, at every primary and election, for those who support our rights and against those who do not. In addition, I think we have earned the right to go to our friends and relatives and point out to them that it is inconsistent to tell us that they love us, and then support people who run for political office who would deny us basic rights and make our lives less than they should be.
There is one obstacle to our doing this effectively – the cultural reluctance to be deemed a partisan. Independence is a good quality in most cases and in the right kind of political system, political independence – as between the parties – would be very desirable. But where LGBT rights are concerned, the overwhelming fact in American politics is that while the two parties started virtually evenly on this issue – both were terrible, and both then made moderate gains – today one of the most glaring differences between the parties is their attitude to GLBT rights.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford were somewhat close on this issue. Since that time, the country has gotten much better on our issues, as I have noted. Politically, the Republicans have significantly lagged the country – the right-wing takeover of the Republican Party has resulted in their being significantly laggard on GLBT rights. The Democrats, on the other hand, while far from perfect, have been better than the country and in consequence, the difference between the two parties is a vast one. On votes in Congress, the Democrats are overwhelming better than Republicans. And this is not simply a result of Democrats coming from areas that are more supportive. When Democratic Senators replace Republican Senators – obviously in the identical constituency – the pro-GLBT vote inevitably goes up a substantial amount. The reverse is true when a Republican replaces a Democrat. Similarly, if you look at those Congressional districts that have changed hands, in virtually every case the Democratic incumbent has had a better record than the Republican. Indeed, in the current Congressional election season, I do not know of a single race for the House or the Senate at the national level where the Republican is better than the Democrat. There are some where both are terrible, and a handful – not more than three or four – where the Republican is arguably as good as his or her Democratic opponent. But in the great majority of cases, the Democrat is far better. This does not mean blind allegiance to the Democrats. I agree that if you focus on politics from the standpoint of advancing GLBT rights, it is a betrayal of that commitment to start from a partisan premise. But if an objective analysis of what is at issue leads you – as it inevitably will – to a partisan conclusion, it is also a betrayal to shrink from that conclusion. The appropriate response for us I believe – which is why I have been such a strong supporter of the Stonewall Democrats which I helped found – is to engage constantly in the dual role of pushing the Democrats to be even better than they are, knowing that being better than the Republicans with their terrible record is not enough; and also persuading LGBT voters to pick that candidate who is better on our issues, which in ninety-eight percent of the cases will be the Democrat. When there is an exception – as there arguably was in a recent Philadelphia mayoral election – then people should act accordingly, but the fear of appearing partisan should not deter people from supporting the party that has been so much better on our issues.
Thirty-seven years after Stonewall, there is still more legally-sanctioned prejudice in American than there should be, but there is also a good deal less than there used to be, and I believe that if we continue to make progress at the rate that we have seen in the past, we who are now active will live to see its effective end. But it won’t happen automatically. We need to build on our strengths and demand that we be treated fully equally before the law by our fellow citizens. In summary, I think we outnumber those who oppose us every day of the year in America except sometimes on Election Day. We have the power to change that, and if we do change that, we will make even more profound change as well.