With the smoke still rising from the fallen twin towers of the World Trade Center, it seemed like an opportune time to throw some faggots on the fire. Or so thought Jerry Falwell, when, on Pat Robertson's 700 Club program, he proclaimed that God permitted the terrorist attacks because He was pissed off at those who have "tried to secularize America"– civil libertarians, abortionists, pagans and, his favorite bêtes noires, gays and lesbians.
Falwell's demagoguery, though disgusting, was predictable. But then something surprising happened. The rabid reverend was immediately engulfed by a tidal wave of denunciation, from virtually every segment of society outside the insular world of American fundamentalism. Not only mainstream and liberal voices weighed in; even fellow conservative Rush Limbaugh and the National Review and Weekly Standard added their reproaches.
Falwell wasn't the only right-winger to use the WTC catastrophe to bash gays. Groups like the Traditional Values Coalition and The Family Research Council have deplored as "antifamily" efforts to provide benefits to gay partners of people killed in the towers on September 11. The Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition commented that "this is just another example of how the gay agenda is seeking to overturn the one man, one woman relationship from center stage in America." But their meanspiritedness was rejected by public officials such as New York Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer and the state's Republican governor, George Pataki, all of whom have supported such assistance.
You could say that the distaste for Falwell's rant was one sign of a post-September 11 truce–at least momentarily–in the culture wars that had raged until the Islamist faith-based initiative brought us all together in one big patriotic group hug. I prefer to think that three decades of struggle since the Stonewall uprising have given gays and lesbians social visibility and, to a lesser degree, political clout, such that brazen appeals to bigotry don't go down as smoothly as they used to.
The homophobic rhetoric from America's Taliban and the general repudiation of same make a neat metaphor for the current status of gays and lesbians, and they illustrate one of the key arguments of Suzanna Danuta Walters in All the Rage. So many years after Stonewall, homophobes still attack homosexuals, often scapegoating them for the purported decadence of society. But the greater public profile of gay people has changed in the interim, along with the context in which such attacks are made. Not so long ago, few outside the gay community or liberal activist circles would have denounced Falwell, and certainly not his comrades on the right.
Walters, a sociologist and member of the Research Advisory Board of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), sees both opportunities and dangers in the new, heightened visibility of gay people. "Visibility is, of course, necessary for equality. It is part of the trajectory of any movement for inclusion and social change…. There is nothing worse than to live in a society in which the traces of your own existence have been erased or squeezed into a narrow and humiliating set of stereotypes." But, she cautions, "visibility does not erase stereotypes nor guarantee liberation."
Walters asks, "If the problem once was perceived as invisibility itself, then how is the problem defined in an era of increased visibility? If the closet was the defining metaphor for gay life in earlier eras, then what do we make of the swinging door that is gay life in the nineties and beyond?"