Alongside Gains, Unhealed Homophobia Lurks
BY ANDY HUMM | Two years ago, a marriage equality bill was enacted in New York State — and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who had bulled it through in his unique way, was greeted at the pride march on Fifth Avenue by an explosion of joy bigger than any I had ever witnessed in participating in and covering this annual commemoration of the Stonewall Rebellion since 1974.
As a longtime activist, I was surprised by the sheer intensity of it. We have had much to celebrate in past decades — from our own courage in just stepping out publicly into the sunshine (a giddy feeling the first time you do it) to passage of our City’s Gay Rights Bill in 1986 to the coming out of allies, from our parents to celebrities. We could celebrate our very survival in 1996 when the advent of protease inhibitors turned the death sentence of AIDS into a most unwelcome, but a relatively manageable, condition — deliverance won as much by the intense activism of ACT UP as advancing science.
But the marriage win, also the product of decades of activism, seemed to be the ultimate validation for many in the crowd — a validation of not just our entitlement to equal rights, but of homosexual love itself. And while those marriages will not be accorded equal recognition until the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is repealed or struck down by the Supreme Court this month, the feeling of winning it in New York put the pride back in the pride march for many — even though thousands of same-sex couples in New York had gone elsewhere to get legally married and had virtually all the rights New York could give them already (including Edie Windsor and the late Thea Spyer, whose federal rights are in the balance in the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision).
There is much else that makes LGBT people proud this pride month.
Many are proud that the leading candidate for mayor of New York, Chelsea’s own Christine Quinn, is an out lesbian, and that no serious candidate for mayor would think of opposing basic LGBT rights. We have come so far that many proud LGBT activists such as Cynthia Nixon don’t feel obliged to support the out candidate. She’s with Bill de Blasio.
You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting somebody LGBT on Broadway, from the drag queen in “Kinky Boots” to Vanya in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” — not to mention on TV, from “Modern Family” to “America’s Got Talent.”
In the wake of President Obama’s coming around on same-sex marriage and the pending court cases, a majority of U.S. Senators came out for it.
Anyone who thinks we’re not making progress is not reading the papers — but in the midst of all these things to applaud, we are being reminded in no uncertain terms that not everyone is celebrating.
The starkest reminder is the current wave of anti-gay violence, some of it in Chelsea. People have come into neighborhoods where gay people (for the most part) feel safe, free and open — and used violence to show us we’re not.
This May’s murder, in Greenwich Village, of Mark Carson (an African American gay young man) got us away from our computers long enough to hit the streets and demonstrate our outrage at the wave of anti-gay violence. Thousands marched. Speakers proclaimed that we would not stand for it, only to have more of it happen in subsequent nights.
Government leaders are trying to be responsive. More police are supposed to be out there in the areas where these attacks have taken place. Schools are supposed to do emergency programs on hate crimes. But these are band aids.
We are not facing up to the fact that despite better laws and better poll numbers in terms of how most people view LGBT people, there are stubborn swaths of the population dedicated to the proposition that gay people are sick, evil, and need to be kept in our place.
Yes, most of those who perpetrate these hate crimes are young males, often acting out on their warped ideas of what it means to be a man, i.e., not someone who would share intimate love with another man.
The sister of the alleged perpetrator in the Mark Carson murder told the papers that a) her brother was not homophobic and had gay friends and family members and b) that he doesn’t even remember committing the crime, probably because he was hopped up on something. But the evidence is that whatever state of sobriety he was in, he was acting out all over the Village threatening people with a gun and anti-gay slurs. That kind of bigotry was never removed from the reptilian part of his brain that took over when he was acting out.
I can’t claim to know exactly where this alleged perpetrator’s bigotry came from. It is often reinforced in young male peer culture. But the messages also come from a big part of our society that has yet to embrace the principle that, as the late gay activist Franklin Kameny said, “Gay is Good.”
I’ve worked for decades trying to get our schools to integrate LGBT issues into curricula. I have failed with about five different chancellors. Gay issues are hot potatoes in schools due to the perception on the part of most teachers and administrators that raising them in an integrated fashion will somehow spark a backlash from parents.
While gay and lesbian teachers have had employment protections since even before the gay rights bill passed in 1986, few teachers are out to their colleagues, and almost none to their students. They feel they would lose control of their classrooms if students had the knowledge of who they were — and they feel administrators would not back them up if they did come out. They could be an enormous resource to their schools if they were out. But instead, the issue remains shrouded in silence at a time in the students’ young lives where they most need to be taught that there is nothing wrong with being gay.
Of course, there is something wrong with being gay. The major religions represented in our town — Catholic, Evangelical Christian, Orthodox Jewish, Muslim — all teach that homosexuality is sinful and evil and that people who practice it are headed for some form of hell. It sounds absolutely medieval, but that is the current state of enlightenment on gay issues in these faiths.
Do responsible leaders challenge this bigoted nonsense? No. They cater to it. The City gives millions of dollars in contracts to faith-based institutions affiliated with these anti-gay religions to provide social services that are supposed to be available to all New Yorkers.
The Mormon Church had to give up on its firmly held belief that black people were inferior and unworthy of leadership positions — and it did not do so until 1978. Though it was once a tenet of their faith, it was becoming too embarrassing for Mormons trying to do business in the modern world to cling to such crap.
Yet when it comes to condemning gay people (and keeping women from certain leadership posts for that matter), these religions are given a pass. It is not socially unacceptable to belong to an anti-gay religion, unless it is the Westboro Baptist Church that runs the God Hates Fags Ministry.
Yes, there are well-meaning Catholics, Jews and Muslims who personally disagree with their religious leaders on gay and women’s issues. Some have left over the recalcitrance of their leaders. But all of us need to challenge any group that puts into people’s heads the idea that gay people are, as the Catholic Church officially teaches, “intrinsically disordered” and that gay love is “evil.”
Where, after all, do you think the warped people who commit acts of violence against gay people get their ideas? Every time the issue of gay marriage comes up religious leaders — from Cardinal Dolan to Agudath Israel — are out there condemning it as a fraud and saying that it will lead to the destruction of the family. Them’s fighting words as far as I am concerned. They are no less than a blood libel against gay people that inspires violence.
You will not hear any of the candidates for mayor talking this way. Indeed, most of the candidates are fine with the destruction of the wall between church and state. They oppose a City policy that bars religious groups from using school buildings virtually free of charge from holding regular weekly worship there. This is one issue where Mayor Bloomberg (who has not always stood with us) and Speaker Quinn have taken a principled stand against this encroachment on the constitution — yet all but 11 Council Members voted for a resolution to change state law to allow this kind of municipal subsidized worship. The only reason now that these religious groups can meet in our schools — including right here in Chelsea — is because one federal judge keeps giving them injunctions to permit it (even though the first ten-year case on the issue ended with the U.S. Supreme Court refusing to hear an appeal of the City’s win on it).
The persistence, and thriving, of anti-gay religions isn’t the only cloud over full inclusion of LGBT people in society. From Bill Maher to Jay Leno, most of the late-night talk show comics still indulge in the casual bigotry of fag jokes. None of these men think of themselves as anti-gay, and several support gay rights. But when a cheap joke is needed, they are still too lazy to resist those at our expense.
There is also, we learned from a study that came out this month, a myth of gay affluence. It is easy to believe, walking around Chelsea, that a lot of gays and lesbians have hit the jackpot and have money to burn on the best apartments, restaurants and clothes. Many gay people even believe this myth — but the Williams Institute just reported, again, that there is a wealth gap between LGBT people and our non-gay counterparts that it is not being closed by the advances in our rights.
Poverty is a gay issue. It is not going to be resolved by achieving equal rights, no more than the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended African American poverty. We who claim to care about social justice have to recognize that it does not end with legal equality. We have an obligation to make this a fairer, full-employment society where all the wealth is not concentrated in the one percent.
And I have only been talking about the United States here. While Western Europe has gotten ahead of us on most LGBT issues, it has not been without incident there. France just opened marriage to same-sex couples, but it was met with massive anti-gay marches by secular people who started embracing their lapsed Catholicism when it came to us.
Eastern Europe, Africa and the Muslim world are far worse. As we all know from Iran’s Ahmadinejad, there is no homosexuality there — though young gay men have been publicly hanged for it. The Russian Duma just voted 436-to-0 to pass a new law that effectively bans any public discussion of homosexuality. The Nigerian parliament just passed a set of anti-gay laws that include sentences of more than a decade in prison for showing same-sex affection in public.
Our State Department is trying to make LGBT rights an international human rights issue. The European parliament is trying to stand up to the Russians on their anti-gay excesses. But the Winter Olympics are still in Sochi, Russia next year, despite the enactment of this viciously anti-gay law.
So despite all our gains, our fast-shrinking world has a long way to go on LGBT issues. But as much as we have to celebrate in terms of advances here in New York, particularly in Chelsea, let’s not pretend we are done with our work — especially when a lot of unhealed homophobia lurks right around the corner.
Longtime Chelsea resident Andy Humm has been a gay activist since 1974. He was a leader of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights that passed the City’s lesbian and gay rights bill in 1986. He is a former City Human Rights Commissioner. He was director of education of the Hetrick-Martin Institute for LGBT youth for nine years. He is a regular contributor to our sister publication, Gay City News. And he has been co-host of the weekly national “Gay USA” cable show since 1985, founded by the late Lou Maletta of Chelsea and co-hosted with Chelsea’s Ann Northrop since 1996. This article is the basis of a talk he will give to the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club (on June 20, 7pm, at the Hudson Guild).