In the early 1980s, soon after the right-wing grassroots movement gave us a Reagan presidency, I announced that I would be boycotting my straight friends’ weddings. The response was what I had expected: derisive laughter. I tried to make my argument personal. I explained that since I couldn’t legally marry the man I had been with for more than ten years (The Nation‘s chief political writer at the time, Andrew Kopkind), they should, in solidarity, not participate in or benefit from a legal contract denied to us. It was plain discrimination.
At the time my boycott seemed to be failing. My straight friends continued to go to weddings and, worse, have some of their own. As the right wing grew in strength and numbers, I grew belligerent. These are progressive people, I thought; they should know better. I threatened to disrupt their weddings with brassy protest. That usually stopped the laughing.
As my position became clearer (and louder), my straight friends got more nervous. Some actually postponed their weddings. One close friend eloped, accompanied by a coffle of straight buddies, hiding the fact of his marriage from me. Straight people would tell me, “Well, we actually hate the idea of marriage, but we had to do it for the health insurance.”
What my straight friends refused to understand was that my fight was also a fight against the right. I got tired of hearing straight progressives call the struggle for my civil rights “identity politics” when the truth was that their own identity as members of the heterosexual majority was being mustered and manipulated to drive American politics to the right. Willy-nilly, my progressive straight friends, silent beneficiaries of discrimination, were accomplices. Of course, straight people don’t like to think of heterosexuality as an identity. But couldn’t they see what was happening across the country? When Ronald Reagan held his arm aloft with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Reagan, a divorced man, hadn’t suddenly got religion; he was consolidating Republican power and making his handlers from GE a mint.
So my straight progressive married friends demonstrated against the contras while I did my “identity politics” with my gay and lesbian allies. The straight progressives could not see that the contra war was intimately linked to the culture war; that the culture war was what was drawing the foot soldiers whose votes and organizational zeal emboldened the right to do pretty much whatever it wanted anywhere in the world; and that so long as straight progressives were afraid to stand up against the real political dynamics that fed this growing monster in America, they would continue to lose.
The right wing wasn’t afraid of the gays; it loved them. From Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” crusade in the 1970s to Jerry Falwell’s “love the sinner, hate the sin” attacks in the 1980s, it saw millions of dollars and millions of votes flowing to this new Republican coalition. By 1994 Congressman Newt Gingrich, a man who left his cancer-stricken wife to wed a younger woman, finally brought a minority party that was unable to win more than six states in 1964 to the pinnacle of power. It was “identity politics” (the calculated appeal to fear of homosexuals, fear of women’s emancipation, fear of blacks, period) that gave the Republicans their electoral victories and put Bush I and II into the White House. While the GE types may have had domination of the world’s economic resources as their primary agenda item, they knew that to gain control of the government and its military, they needed the right-wing Christian fundamentalists. They were into “identity politics” in a big way.