In the midst of all the noise about the reelection of a centrist Democratic president and a razor-thin control of one house of Congress, don’t miss the real game change in American society: in Maryland, the voters validated their legislators’ decision to authorize marriage between people of the same sex, and in Maine, the voters enacted same-sex marriage all on their own, a 180 from only three years ago, when they struck it down (to say nothing of the direct, popular statewide election of an out gay senator, Tammy Baldwin). It’s a major victory, but not just for the gay revolution. That step has also opened an opportunity for non-gay women and other minorities who still bear the brunt of American inequality.
Just like their opponents believe, the gay movement has a secret weapon, and that is its moral argument. Movement founder Franklin Kameny put it on a button four decades ago: “Gay is Good.” Where other movements claimed formal equality based on their resemblance to the white men who ruled the society, gay activists instead asserted that gay people were going to have sex—a very central aspect of human identity—differently from the heterosexual majority but that they deserved equality anyway. Equally important, they were going to express their sexual affinity in public: one of the first big activities after the Stonewall uprising was the establishment of gay dances. Gay liberation’s participants didn’t want to act like the rulers; they wanted the establishment to give them their rights without having to join it.
The gay revolution wasn’t more virtuous than the others: but they had to make this claim because they simply had no choice. If other civil-rights movements were able to claim that their members were just like the dominant majority, except for the superficial difference of skin color—the gay minority was clearly different in more significant ways. They willingly engaged in acts different from the acts of the heterosexual majority, and as a result they had the harder task of convincing the public that they were worthy. And therein lies all the difference.
As a result of this difference, other civil-rights movements spent a lot of their energy convincing the white male rulers to let them in. It was probably the only route they could take at the beginning of social change. Women in suits and ties in the workplace, African-Americans insisting that it wasn’t the trivial color of your skin, it was “the content of your character.”
But it was a trap. As legal scholar Kenji Yoshino has brilliantly described in his path-breaking book Covering, the establishment extracts a price from the groups it’s willing to accept—a soul-destroying mimicry of every white, male, heterosexual behavior. The suits and ties are the least of it: women trying to climb the corporate ladder are suffocating, caught between the demand that they behave in unthreatening, conventionally female ways (makeup, diet) and also just like men (no pictures of children on the desk, no time off for a sick kid). In the 2012 case Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, the Supreme Court ruled that a gender-neutral family-leave policy was beyond the scope of the Constitution’s requirement of equal protection of the laws. Children and families remain culturally the province of women, rather than the women’s unique contribution to the well-being of the whole society.
(It is not a coincidence that the forces of the right have preempted the “content of your character” slogan in their attempt to dismantle the last remnants of affirmative action. If everyone has the same character, what’s the point to affirmative action? As Justice Roberts devilishly put it, striking down a racial preference on behalf of the white plaintiffs in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, “the way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” No history, no sociology, no cultural literacy in that slogan; just the loud click of the closing of the trap of sameness.)
True, the gay strategy of moral assertiveness took a long time, and the movement did not succeed only because of the moral strategy: like the racial and feminist movements, the gay movement benefited from the Supreme Court protecting their voting rights and decriminalizing their sex lives. But from the TV program Will & Grace to the espousal of their cause by the iconic conservative lawyer Ted Olson, the movement is about persuading ordinary Americans that gay is good, not just something to be tolerated.
In a society where different people have the right to equal value, Maryland and Maine are not the end. The Supreme Court is not going to change its jurisprudence tomorrow, even in face of the big victory for the virtue of difference. But the triumph of the gay-is-good strategy in this most hostile of environments for difference can serve as the beginning of a virtuous cycle. A public university wouldn’t allow the “neutral” operation of its admissions policies to perpetuate an overwhelmingly white ruling class. The equality provisions of the 14th Amendment enable Congress to consider the family to rest on everyone’s shoulders, not just the woman’s.
Minorities can stop covering and claim a place in American society despite—or even because of—their difference. Immigrants can claim the virtues of their different languages—colorful, expressive, carrying a long history of rich culture. Instead of a race to eradicate their mother tongues to melt into the pot, the whole society would benefit from the appeal of adding other languages to the English of the prior arrivals. Instead of demonizing African-American women for refusing to enter into unequal, disempowering marriages in order to create families, they would be credited for being the first Lena Dunhams. When people are good, even though they’re different, a world of possibilities opens up.
Just as the gay revolution benefited from the movements that went before, now, too, those movements can move up again, fueled by the victory gays won.