The following piece was originally published as "An American Agenda, A Gay Agenda" on IntellectualCapital.com, August 12, 1999.
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: A Gay Agenda
by Adele M. Stan
It was a brutally frigid, windy night in 1996 when, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, I stood in the midst of a festival of hatred in Des Moines's First Federated Church at a rally ostensibly called to uphold the sanctity of marriage. The rally had been produced by a fellow named Bill Horn, an itinerant medicine-show man whose signature potion was no mere snake oil, but venom distilled. Horn had made his name producing and distributing a virulent piece of video propaganda called "The Gay Agenda," of which, rumor held, he sold copies out of the back of his truck in the off-season, in between gigs as an outside agitator in the service of the right's lesser bosses.
But this was Horn's night to shine. Nearly all the contenders for the Republican Presidential nomination (Bob Dole found something else to do that night) were lined up to address the snarling church-goers, and after each man spoke, he was handed a magic marker with which to sign a giant placard printed with pledge to fight any and all attempts to legalize marriage between two people of the same sex. But Horn's biggest coup that night was his keynote speaker: Charlton Heston, late of Cecil B. DeMille epics and currently president of the National Rifle Association. Upon assuming the pulpit, Heston promptly claimed to have created the evening's harsh meteorological conditions--not only confusing himself with a movie role he had played (Moses), but confusing Moses with his maker (a.k.a. God)--before launching into a tirade against those who would seek to sully the sacred institution of marriage by pledging their lives and worldly goods to each other. (Huh?)
None of it made a whole lot of sense, but it was quite a spectacle, there in the First Federated Church, which is really more of a television studio than a sanctuary, what with its three giant TV screens and video lighting and control-room windows in the walls up near the ceiling. And it made for pretty good amateur television; I know because I watched it again on C-SPAN once I got back to my motel room.
Unfortunately for the gay rights movement, there will likely be no such spectacles this time around in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. The G.O.P. learned its lesson the hard way, through a humiliating defeat at the polls, so this time the right will have to exact its pound of flesh from the party of Lincoln in a far less public way. And therein lies the danger for those who seek equal rights for gay people.
The truth is, poll after poll finds that, among the general public, few people really oppose giving lesbian and gay people equal rights. But neither do they feel passionate enough about the rights of lesbians and gays to insist that those rights be conferred. "Out" and vocal gay people often hail from backgrounds of affluence; they don't give off the appearance of an oppressed minority. Lesbians and gays are now an accepted part of our popular culture; "Will and Grace," a television show with a gay man as a lead character, was one of last season's few hits.
Yet, in terms of their legal standing, little has changed for gay men and lesbians since those dark days before Ellen came out and Melissa Etheridge said, "Yes, I am." In 39 of the 50 states, a gay person can be fired from any job simply for being gay. Although reports of anti-gay violence have risen substantially since 1991, less than half of the states have anti-hate crime statutes on the books that cover violence against lesbians and gays. Even in the wake of the torture and murder of Matthew Shephard, a gay college student allegedly targeted because of his sexual orientation, federal hate crimes legislation drafted to define such violence as a bias crime languishes in the Congress. Attempts to rectify gay vulnerability to discrimination in the workplace or to prosecute anti-gay predators as such are invariably met by cries of "no special rights for homosexuals" by right-wing Congressmen and preachers.
In 1996, just two months before the presidential election, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was passed into law. DOMA would permit any state or the federal government to deny recognition of gay marriages performed in a state that sanctions them. Since, as of yet, no state has legalized gay marriage, the bill remains moot. It is widely viewed among scholars as unconstitutional, though that will depend on who's on the Supreme Court when it's finally challenged. And the next president of the United States may get to choose as many as three justices.
The pound of flesh
When the leaders of the right were acting out in public against lesbians and gays, it played badly for them in the eyes of the proletariat, thereby offering some measure of protection to gay rights activists, who couldn't help but appear to be models of reason by comparison. But in this election cycle, the real power players on the right are playing it much more coolly. Pat Robertson, ever the pragmatist, has already thrown in behind George W. Bush, the Republican front-runner, despite the latter's mealy-mouthed rhetoric about compassionate conservatism and his aversion to discussing the right's hot-button issues, such as homosexuality and abortion. So, too, have the rabid righties in Congress lined up behind Poppy's prodigal son. Should this Texas star make it to the Oval Office, it would be naive to think he'll owe nothing to his homophobic sponsors.
Even among the purists, a new tack has been taken. Instead of outright condemnation of gay and lesbian partnerships, a great deal of money is being spent to advertise a movement of "ex-gays"--people who, once they realize that their homosexual activities cast them outside the Kingdom of God, are able to live heterosexual lives through the power of prayer. The message is an old one: homosexuality equals sin. But because it is delivered with a tone of condescending compassion and the promise of redemption through heterosexuality, it is far more dangerous than the fire and brimstone of yore.
Basic human rights
Today, with so many out of the closet and arguing for the basic human rights they've yet to win, the lesbian and the gay man are more vulnerable than ever. Their fate in our society hangs on the outcome of the millennial elections for Congress and the presidency. Let's hope we choose well. Let's pray we choose nothing less than the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans.