Recent legislative actions aimed against gay people, such as Arizona’s failed attempt to allow businesses select discrimination or Uganda’s draconian anti-homosexuality law, might imply that gay rights are under siege as never before. But that perspective is wrong. Gay rights are gaining traction throughout the world, albeit at different speeds. These recent measures – absurd in Arizona’s case, and tragic in Uganda’s – are desperate attempts by the fearful to delay the inevitable.
Human values change, but not all at once, everywhere. More than 150 years after abolishing slavery, American society is still stacked against many African-Americans. People convinced of Negro inferiority managed to thwart Reconstruction, embrace Jim Crow, fight desegregation, deny votes, and combat Affirmative Action. The process of full citizenship for Blacks has been too slow, yet progress has been real. A similar arc follows the rights of women, children, and immigrants. Whenever the status quo perceives an emerging group as a threat, their tactics are predictable. First, deny the minority’s existence. If they still make trouble, isolate and impoverish them into second-class citizens. Only resort to legislation when a group grows too strong to ignore. Legislation, even discriminatory, bestows acknowledgement, and acknowledgment is the precursor to acceptance.
The path toward gay rights is similar to that of other minorities, but differs because, unique among minority groups, we can be hard to see. Blacks, women, Hispanics are identifiable on sight. But gays can look like anyone; our neighbors, our children, even our brothers. It’s easy to hate the ‘other’ we never bother to know. It’s more complicated to denounce someone who could be our mirror image. For every heartwarming tale of a family transformed by embracing their gay child, there’s a tragic story of parents who abuse and abandon their own because their hatred transcends even blood.
Society’s attitudes about gays reflect our evolving cultural norms. One hundred years ago, while traditional minorities clawed for recognition – Blacks were lynched, women campaigned for the vote, Chinese immigrants were excluded from the United States – homosexuality was a simply a behavior. The 1968 Stonewall Riot marks the date when gays chose to proclaim ourselves rather than hide; we became an identifiable group. Since then, every gay person creates a unique dance between his sexual identity and the rest of her world. My own process is representative. I grew up Catholic in the 1960’s, ignorant of Stonewall; attended college in the 1970’s, where my male fantasies were treated as a psychiatric disorder; married a woman and sired two children through the 1980’s, only to have my fantasy of nuclear family crumble in the 1990’s when the world had changed so much I could not longer pretend gay men were bikers or pansies I could disdain. Gay men were everywhere; in mainstream advertisements and movies, they wore business suits, they looked like me. Divorce felt like a great failure, but proved to be a necessary step toward a healthy identity. I loved being married and never thought it could happen again. But in the 2010’s American society is evolving so fast that possibility exists for me again.
Once our attitudes change and we condone what was previously verbotim, we grow inpatient for the rest of the world to catch up. We are angry at Arizona’s mean-spiritedness, and pleased when influences well beyond the gay community bring their weight to squash such bigotry. We are heartbroken by the yoke our Ugandan brothers must bear to be human as God created them. We are conflicted by the morally correct stance to deny Uganda foreign aid as leverage for President Museveni to rescind his hateful legislation, because lost aid will deprive needy Ugandans. Once we embrace that gays are entitled to the same rights and responsibilities of every other citizen, and believe that the world will benefit from that acceptance, we have no patience for more discrimination, more punishment, more death.
But change does not always occur as fast as we’d like. Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 is an ugly view of the world. It’s a setback for gay rights. But its very existence is a positive portend. Before this law, gays in Uganda were like gays in this country fifty years ago – invisible. Now, the world’s spotlight is upon them. We empathize with their plight and condemn their egregious government. They have been acknowledged. I believe that in time, they will be accepted.