When asked the most effective tool for implementing LGBT rights — what the LGBT and allied community has working in its favor more than any other variable — Colorado State Senator Pat Steadman put it simply with one word: “Time.”
“As time goes on, things are going to change,” he said. “The older generations are going to be gone, and younger people are more open and have less hang-ups about sexuality.”
It’s something many advocates express — a feeling so pervasive and deep that it weaves its way as a given into everything we assume about the future. Between the dramatic shifts in media representations of LGBT people, the increasing public outcry against high-profile anti-LGBT statements, the gradual expansion of marriage equality in more and more states and the recent Supreme Court decisions abolishing DOMA and Prop. 8, young people today are growing up in a gay-friendly world that would’ve been unimaginable generations ago. This group of pro-gay millennials — who show overwhelming support for marriage equality and LGBT rights in polls — will continue to expand their proportion among the country’s voters and will eventually become its leaders, to presumably enact the laws and policies that today’s LGBT advocates refer to as full equality.
Beyond the finish line
It’s easy to envision a coming time when same-sex couples enjoy universal marriage equality, along with universal recognition under the law of being every bit as loving and competent as opposite-sex parents. Transgender persons will no longer be denied the right to serve openly in the military, and will be protected, with their lesbian and gay brethren, from overt employment discrimination under national and state law.
What will this world look like at eye-level? Will these milestones for the modern LGBT rights movement also be the movement’s end? Will advocacy groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation become obsolete? Or will we find — as many other marginalized groups in U.S. history have discovered after long-fought victories in equality — that discrimination can continue in forms that are more discreet?
“In this hypothetical, if every piece of gay rights legislation is passed, then gay people are going to care about income inequality and climate change and affordable access to healthcare and education, and there won’t be any issues that have an ‘LGBT’ in front of them,” Steadman said. “There will still be bias, though. Legislation can do a lot, but there is still the need to change hearts and minds. Legislation is just one part of it.”
This social and cultural landscape is where otherwise-confident predictions about the future get cloudy.
More than four decades after the Civil Rights Act banned the open discrimination against blacks that had been the narrative-driving concern behind the Civil Rights Movement, Senator Barack Obama campaigned for president in a political landscape where race was indeed still an election issue. Shortly before he announced his campaign, a 2006 Gallup poll found just 58 percent of Americans thought the nation was “ready” for a black president, along with 61 percent who thought the country could elect a woman president and a meager 41 percent saying the nation could elect a Hispanic president. Then three and a half years after the 2008 election proved many of those skeptics wrong, a black teenage boy wearing a hoodie was shot and killed in Florida on a rainy February night, in an incident that was tragically unnecessary no matter the speculations of what transpired. That famous case divided the nation — not on the actual troubling circumstances of Trayvon Martin’s death — but by perspectives toward race, racism and tangential characterizations of the victim’s life and character. And when the president weighed in with compassion for the grieving family, his comments were immediately seized upon by his detractors as a political opportunity. Now at the beginning of 2014, it’s obvious that neither the decades-past end to open segregation nor the eventual ascension of a person of color to the nation’s highest political office made race a non-issue in the United States.
With each election cycle, it’s more common for political officeholders and candidates to be lesbian or gay — so much so that in Colorado, where eight current state legislators are openly lesbian or gay, Steadman in 2012 sought re-election to his central Denver state senate seat facing a gay Republican opponent. It was a first for Colorado, but hardly affected the outcome of the election, which Steadman easily won. In some districts, like central Denver, right-wing homophobia is becoming a thing of the past so quickly that we may not even have to wait for a new generation to change the politics — we can just find places where that change is already here.
But does it mean it’s painless now for LGBT people in those places to come out, or to transition? Will the evolution of public opinion toward willingness to judge LGBT people on merit put an end to the disproportional rates of suicide, substance abuse and homelessness impacting LGBT people? Perhaps these challenges will no longer be used, as they have been, as a political weapon to smear the character of ordinary lesbians and gays — but will the numbers, driven by visceral life experiences of partiality, rejection and judgment, actually change?
A period of denial
Last December, the Republican National Committee found themselves in hot water for a tweet: “Today we remember Rosa Parks bold stand and her role in ending racism.”
Many commentators quickly took issue with the implications of that statement — a larger number of Americans might blink a couple times and scratch their heads trying to figure out how it would be controversial. While it’s been years since racial equality under the law has been a matter of serious political debate, pervasive insistences of we’re-not-racist-anymore are easily brought into question.
Scientific studies have shown that a racial bias can exist within even the most liberal mind, often unconsciously.
A “racist person” is often imagined through stereotypes: a Southern, lower-income, uneducated white male. In the same way, characterizations of “homophobia” often come the form of vocal religious figures who live in rural areas or suburbs — certainly no one would be labeled homophobic if they’ve set foot in a gay bar. But LGBT people know there can be challenges with friends, acquaintances and with mostly-accepting families who may have liberal political views toward LGBT people, but don’t necessarily always live those out.
In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, pop journalist Malcom Gladwell brings complex academic conversations on systematic privilege and oppression to simple numbers and scenarios — noting that racial bias is far more prevalent than KKK
“Our attitudes towards race and gender operate on two levels,” Gladwell wrote; “First of all, we have our conscious level. These are what we choose to believe…which we use to direct our behavior deliberately.”
“But the Implicit Association test measures something else, our attitude toward racism on an unconscious level” — citing a widely-regarded Harvard study that measures “the immediate, automatic associations that tumble out before we have had time to think. We do not deliberately choose our unconscious attitudes, and we may not even be aware of them.” The test, taken on a computer screen, sets up users to create associations between images, ideas or words, with quick and random-seeming decisions used to measure subconscious biases the person taking the test wouldn’t consciously admit.
Gladwell describes the results of his own Implicit Association Test as “a bit creepy,” finding that despite being a politically-liberal man who is, himself, half black, he found that he, too, had an unconscious bias that favored white people. In fact, researchers behind the IAT study found that while 80 percent of white people have a biased preference toward their own race, 40 percent of blacks have a similar, subtle, biased preference for whites. It indicates racism that is not explained by tribalism or self-promotion, but by unconscious cultural messages that value whiteness and devalue blackness regardless of who you are receiving them.
Comparing LGBT inequality to racial inequality can be a troubling prospect. It’s an analogy that has been misused in many cases to promote one community’s cause while undermining the other, and also imperfect simply because of very different experiences and histories. But it can foster insight — showing how the finish line isn’t really the end, and that stated beliefs are not the same as subtle attitudes.
In his book, Gladwell looks at a variety of unconscious biases throughout society — such as correlations between higher income and employment with things like being tall, even though no one would consciously argue that tall people are smarter or harder workers in hiring decisions.
Many LGBT advocacy groups are now putting pressure on President Obama to sign the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, legislation to ban employers from firing or overlooking LGBT employees based on their identity through the same avenues that racial discrimination is already banned. Yet studies like the IAT suggest unspoken biases that value white skin over being of color, or value some races more than others, could play a role in the employment and income disparities that go on despite anti-discrimination laws.
The challenge communities are left with is that you can’t outlaw thoughts that people often aren’t even aware they have.
The focus comes full circle
When the most visible portions of the LGBT community embraced the Gay Liberation Movement in the late 60s and 70s, the possibility that same-sex couples could someday legally marry was beyond the horizon — such a long-shot that it hardly warranted discussion. The focus was on liberation as one’s own community — for lesbians and gays to exist and thrive outside, and independent from, the mores and expectations of mainstream society. The focus was cultural, and if the current chapter in the movement truly leads to political victories that seem inevitable, a cultural focus is where it will return.
Mardi Moore, executive director of Out Boulder and former member of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said that legislation alone is not enough.
“The (National Education Association) did a study recently that showed a majority of school principles are less likely to intervene on a bullying situation if it involves an LGBT student,” Moore said. “Legislation is a start, but it doesn’t fix things. We repealed DOMA, but then two days later a gay guy was killed in Greenwich Village. So you might get the laws, but the culture doesn’t shift. And then you have people who are disconnected.”
While culture and laws don’t always move at the same pace, they do often move in the same direction, and there’s a case to make that culture regarding LGBT equality has been moving even more quickly than laws. Weeks before Obama came out in favor of same-sex marriage in 2012, it was Vice President Joe Biden on Meet the Press who said “I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.”
Will & Grace was, indeed, welcomed by many LGBT people when it first appeared in 1998 — but it and similar representations face some criticism as well. Some asked, are these mainstream representations of lesbian and gay people really helpful, or even accurate, to sexual minorities? And will they always be thought of as empowering and positive to the extent that they are today?
Last March, filmmaker Blake Pruitt performed a series of interviews with 20 young gay men in New York City (aptly titled 20MALEGAYNYC). Discussing issues like internalized homophobia, repulsion toward gay peers, and why gay stereotypes are holding back full equality — in one of the largest and most open and visible LGBT communities in the nation, New York City — the short film gives us a look into what the future for the gay community in other parts of the country could entail.
From the film:
Nico: I don’t understand why the gay community has chosen to embrace what hateful people outside of the community have decided to say about us.
Ken: When I see a ninety-pound boy in a tank-top screaming, I’m just like…what a ‘stereotypical gay guy’ has come to mean in our culture is totally derivative of straight culture.
Cole: If you go to a gay club today its the same horrible top 40 shit that you hear on the radio. And even the things we look for in a gay guys, it’s very ‘Justin Bieber,’ ‘One Direction,’ perfect pop-twink. I feel like you want to be accepted by society, so you try and be just like them, but we’re not — we’re just becoming this caricature of pop culture, and it’s kind of gross. Being gay has come to mean something more than your sexuality — it’s an identity that I don’t necessarily identify with.
Andrew: I like guys that are more masculine, or come across as straight. Straight-acting — like, not flamboyant. Even though I know I’m a bit flamboyant.
Nico: Masculine men tend to like masculine men. And feminine men tend to like masculine men.
Many commenters noted the irony of that these twenty-somethings embodied many of the stereotypes that they were criticizing; what’s so wrong with being “flamboyant?” Are gay people obligated to change something about themselves just because someone else decided to call it a negative stereotype? One writer commenting on the film quoted author Simon Peter Fuller, who said, “What angers us in another person is more often than not an unhealed aspect of ourselves. If we had already resolved that particular issue, we would not be irritated by its reflection back to us.”
There’s no shortage of differing opinions within the men in 20MALEGAYNYC, but the one common thread throughout the ten-minute film is a dissatisfaction with gay culture — which often affects self-esteem or results in a lack of friendships between gay men. A handful of interviewees acknowledged that they often see, or are seen by, other gay men as either an option for sex, or something to be disregarded.
Back to community
As Gladwell pointed out, subtle, often unconscious, negative opinions about a certain race, sexuality, or even height can have a tremendous impact on what actually happens in culture. A homophobic prejudice can exist within the most vocal advocate, or the most out-and-proud LGBT person. Tackling this problem with new legislation may have an impact, but may also be the proverbial hammer attempting to turn a screw.
The dilemma been lost on Mardi Moore. Looking to the future, Moore wondered what focusing more on legislation than culture does for the community.
“You can put laws into effect, but that doesn’t mean everyone is going to grant LGBT persons respect,” she said. “Healthcare has a huge disparity with it — I know of at least four or five people who have not gone in for a mammogram or pap smear because of fear of admitting they’re gay to a doctor – and they had insurance. There’s an internalized homophobia there. When I was first coming out, and coming to grips with my own sexuality, it was difficult to be around a male or female doctor in those situations.”
Steadman said part of the influence of time is that more LGBT people are out today than previous generations — all inviting new perspectives on issues by simply being who they are. Moore said that it’s not only enough to be out — that you must be out and also proud of being LGBT. Her remedy is more effort into local community-building, where education and resources can be used to improve the way LGBT people see themselves and each other, in addition to dealing with oppression from outside.
“I think that as a community we should give to a national organization, a state organization, and a local organization, because it takes all three,” she said. “People don’t always do that, they get wound up and think that their fifty dollars will be put best to use to change the laws, and don’t look toward the next step down. If the state, national and local communities get together, that’s how we win. That’s how we get to where we want to be.”
Out Front staff also contributed to this story.