Via Flickr/Ted Eytan

activism

Photo by Via Flickr/Ted Eytan

Civil Rights Must Be Demanded, Not Requested


We have a fascist in the White House, a SCOTUS chipping away at our liberties, and a nation ready to explode. This is definitely not the time for civility.



Even in the time-warped temporal taffy that passes for reality lately, it’s stunning to realize that it was less than two weeks that serial liar and professional bully Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked, quietly and politely, to leave the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia. Within a few short days of L’affaire de la Poule Rouge, the Supreme Court released a parade of 5-4 decisions upholding Trump’s Muslim ban, gutting public employee unions, striking down a California law requiring “crisis pregnancy centers” to tell the truth about abortion options, approving minority-vote-suppressing gerrymandering in Texas, and tossing the Washington ruling against a florist who refused to provide flowers for a gay wedding. Astonishingly (or predictably, depending on your level of cynicism), even in the face of this full-frontal legal assault on women, minorities, and the LGBT community, many on the left thought our collective focus should be on manners. Not, mind you, on the manners of the president, who once again this week referred to a sitting United States senator (Senator Elizabeth Warren) by a racist slur, and lobbed attacks at Congresswoman Maxine Waters, mocking the death threats she’s faced thanks to his loyal supporters. The polite police aren’t focused on the Trump administration, which continues to hold toddlers in chain-link pens with concrete floors. Not on the manners of Sanders herself, for whom insulting and belittling journalists is all in a day’s work, and not on the manners of the protestors who showed up at the Red Hen to fling feces and wave signs that said “LGBT: Let God Burn Them.”   

No, these liberals think we should mind our own manners, and refrain from upsetting members of this odious administration as they go about their private lives, dining on food cooked by the immigrants they seek to deport, and served by gay waiters to whom they fight to deny wedding cakes.

Putting aside the false premise that politely asking someone to leave a restaurant reflects a lack of civility, and also putting aside the gaslighting nature of the objections from Trump supporters, who revel in their own constant and vicious breaches of decorum, we are left to wonder: What, exactly, are these people hoping to accomplish by insisting on “civility” in the face of abuse?  

Some, I suspect, feel like they themselves are able to dine where they wish, and the current circumstances don’t warrant denying that pleasure to others. This “golden rule” logic, while generally laudable as the basis for moral reasoning, is a terrible political strategy. Being polite to oppressors has never stopped them from oppressing. More to the point, the rights that we enjoy today weren’t obtained by asking nicely.

Younger folk, in particular, may not appreciate just how far we have come, how quickly. I’m 53. I can speak to this from the perspective of a gay man who has seen this country evolve on LGBT issues, and who can remember very well what it was like before same-sex marriage and queer representation in pop culture and anti-bullying campaigns. Because when I was growing up, there were almost no openly gay or trans characters on TV or in movies. When LGBT characters did appear, they were mannish softball coaches, swishy hairdressers, or murderers. Coverage of Pride events portrayed us as degenerates and freaks.

My elite private high school did not have any resources for LGBT students, did not acknowledge that it had any LGBT students, and didn’t do anything to support its LGBT students who were obviously in crisis, including myself (except for one time, the headmaster’s wife sat me down and told me I was the Antichrist or perhaps an agent of Satan and she wanted to see me expelled).

The president of the Ivy League university I attended told me that the university would add LGBT protections to its non-discrimination policy “over his dead body.”

In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that the State of Georgia did not violate Michael Hardwick’s Constitutional rights when it arrested him for having consensual gay sex in the privacy of his home with his boyfriend.

After I graduated from college, with honors, I learned that openly gay people were generally not welcome in New York’s business world. Finance, advertising, publishing—no one would even interview me.

Then, the AIDS crisis hit us. Thousands upon thousands of gay men died in New York alone, and no one would do anything. The press barely covered it. President Ronald Reagan wouldn’t mention it. Gay people and people with AIDS (PWAs) s were denied all sorts of services: haircuts, dentistry, funerals. Families who had disowned and shunned their gay sons swooped in when they died and evicted their grieving lovers from their homes. They stole their clothing and furniture. Unless you had receipts in your name, you had no recourse, because our relationships had no recognition at all. Less than none.

Thankfully, this is not the world we live in today. The headmaster of my former high school is a gay African-American man. My college, and essentially all colleges, prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, as do many cities and states across the country. Pride celebrations are overrun by corporate sponsors, many of them in the Fortune 500. Positive portrayals of LGBT folk in movies and TV are … okay, there’s still some work to do there. But it’s a hell of a lot better than nothing.

If you are one of those younger LGBT folk, and you think that the situation now is generally preferable to the situation in the past—that is, if you enjoy having rights, and a modicum of societal acceptance and visibility, and generally being able to live your life in the open—please understand that my generation, and the generations before, had to fight tooth and fucking nail for every single one of those things. We had marches and protests and die-ins and screamed and shouted and fought. We donated our hard-earned money and time to LGBT causes again and again and again, hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps billions. Many devoted their entire lives and careers to these causes.

As a result of our activism, this generation is protected, far more than we ever were, from the grim reality that many of our fellow citizens actively wish us dead. They still do, though. When Betsy DeVos rolls back anti-bullying efforts, and makes little trans girls use the boys’ room, she is killing LGBT kids. When evangelicals fight for conversion therapy, they are killing LGBT kids. When the GOP says that businesses should not have to serve us, they also mean that they should not have to hire us, or rent us apartments, or give us emergency care when we lie dying in the street.

You may think that we’ve come too far to backslide. You would be objectively wrong. There’s a massive wave of anti-LGBT legislation across the country. They are actively working to take away every single thing we’ve gained.

So, when people say that the gay servers at a Virginia restaurant should not have told their boss to ask Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave—Sanders, the dishonest mouthpiece of a president who is appointing federal judges to the bench who literally support re-criminalizing gay sex, who keeps trying to kick trans people out of the military, whose party platform calls for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, who refuses to issue a proclamation for LBGT pride month—please, rethink that position. The freedom this generation knows is going to slip right through all of our fingers if we all aren’t fighting for it. Being nice never got us one fucking thing.

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