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.
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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.
The little church ladies who gave their money and their votes to one right-wing candidate after another were not likely to be moved by pleas on behalf of the Enrons of the world. But tell them homosexuals were planning to steal their children with their proselytizing “lifestyle” and same-sex marriage ceremonies, and the checkbooks flew open.
Twenty years after my little boycott, some of my straight friends have finally begun to come to their senses about the right wing in America. Here in Vermont, after the state supreme court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage rights and Governor Howard Dean signed the civil union bill in 2000, right-wingers were inspired to try to take over one of the few state governments they had not yet monopolized. Did they care about gays getting married? Not really. The religious zealots were undoubtedly sincere in their loathing, but as on the national stage, the real powers behind the effort to “take back Vermont” were Republicans furious that progressives had made significant advances in all areas of state government. They really wanted to roll back environmental laws like Act 250, which had slowed down developers’ dreams of paving over the state in asphalt, or repeal educational reforms like Act 60, which for the first time made rich ski towns pay into poor towns’ school budgets. The right wing figured that the victory for civil unions presented a ripe opportunity to accomplish these things. But lo and behold, who was in there fighting for civil unions and against the right wing? My straight progressive married friends. And they won.
In 2000 in Vermont, for the first time, they saw what that Reagan/Falwell coalition was really about. They realized that “their” issues and “gay” issues were all of a piece where the right was concerned–and that, therefore, a solid strategy for countering the right wing’s opportunistic coalition required bold support for the “identity politics agenda.” The right wing withered in Vermont after its enormous defeat.
That lesson is now spreading across the country, as more and more heterosexuals stand up for gay marriage. Whether it’s Mayor Gavin Newsom in San Francisco or Mayor Jason West in New Paltz, New York, now possibly facing jail for marrying gays, they realize that a victory for gay and lesbian rights is a defeat for the right wing. Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, straight progressives are organizing a massive campaign against the reactionary effort to overturn the state supreme court’s decision that gay people have the same rights as straight people when it comes to marriage. The spectacle of hundreds of gay people marrying in Massachusetts this summer will obviously increase the fundraising from the church ladies. However, if reactionaries are stopped short, as they were in Vermont, that will be a major setback for the cultural right. Without victories, those church ladies will ultimately close their checkbooks, and Cheney, Rove, Bush and their corporate elite friends will have to come up with a new electoral strategy.
My straight progressive friends, who did not boycott my civil union with my partner, David, last summer in Vermont, have a new recipe for defeating the right wing in America.